By Kevin McDonough
OUR RETURN to the 1980s continues with the eight-part drama Stranger Things, now streaming in its entirety on Netflix.
From its title card to its setting, Things pays homage to the world of Stephen King as well as the Steven Spielberg-influenced fantasies of that decade.
Set in a remote town where nothing ever happens, a super-secret government facility unleashes a fearsome entity during a systems breakdown that allows a mysterious young girl, known only as “Eleven” (Millie Brown), to escape. Against this backdrop, four endearing, geeky boys (Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin and Noah Schnapp) play Dungeons & Dragons and ride their bikes with carefree abandon. Until one of the boys simply vanishes.
Winona Ryder stars as the boy’s frantic mother, Joyce, and David Harbour plays the town’s overmatched and alcoholic chief of police, Jim Hopper.
Things offers a few nods to Freaks & Geeks, the 1999 series set in 1980. In addition to the geeky tween boys, there’s a subplot about a grade-grubbing good girl (Natalia Dyer) throwing caution to the wind and making out with the school’s popular bad boy lothario.
Things is one of those rare shows about middle and high school where most of the kids look and act their age. It’s a refreshing tonic to see kids so vulnerable and imperfect, so human and un-Disneyfied.
The series strikes the right balance between terror and whimsy, between fantasy hokum and emotional manipulation. And it’s fun to see Ryder — cast as a youth in such satires as Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and Heathers — chew up the scenery as an emotionally distraught divorced single mother.
But like many fantasy features of the Atari era, Things is at its best when the awkward kids take center stage.
Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black and House of Cards may resonate more with critics and Emmy voters. Stranger Things offers pure comfort food. It’s as familiar as Hamburger Helper and simply hard to resist.
Arrogance and comedy are a bad match. There’s suffocating smugness surrounding the new HBO comedy Vice Principals.
The show’s star and co-creator Danny McBride plays high school vice-principal Neal Gamby, a socially awkward and delusional disciplinarian who’s also a cuckolded, divorced dad and a bit of a bully. He is written and portrayed with all the subtlety of shooting a fish in a barrel with an AR-15. Every shot is a cheap shot.
In addition to its stick-figure characters, Vice Principals suffers from a wildly uneven tone. It wavers between the deeply silly, slaphappy, obscene banter between the lonely loser Gamby and his obsequious rival, Vice-Principal Lee Russell (Walton Goggins), and such dark, dreadful threats as sending a frightened bullying victim to a reform school and promising to make sure he is brutalized and raped.
Arguably the best thing about this series is its against-type casting. Goggins, so brooding and scheming in Justified, is a bow-tie-wearing suck-up here. Look for Shea Whigham (Boardwalk Empire) as the surprisingly mellow man who stole Neal’s wife (Busy Philipps, Freaks and Geeks), a woman far too self-assured to have ever dated — never mind married — a creature like Gamby. But a lack of realism is the least of the problems here.
The assembling of so much talent for a series this meager also screams of the insider, celeb-bros culture that surrounded McBride-James Franco collaborations like This Is the End — Hollywood home movies made by people contemptuously indifferent to their audience.
It has been reported that Vice Principals will run “only” two seasons. Why bother with a second episode?
Sometimes shows with “can’t-miss” stars and stellar casts just don’t work out. See Jane Lynch’s Angel From Hell. The notion that this show has already been picked up for a sophomore run reflects everything that’s wrong with HBO. How about waiting to see if anybody liked the first? Vinyl was similarly renewed before airing, and had to be canceled in an embarrassing retreat for HBO.
As if sensing weakness in its premium rival, Starz has moved Power — the mob, music industry and nightclub melodrama produced by 50 Cent — to Sunday nights.
For the record, Starz is run by Chris Albrecht, who used to be the head of HBO. If Netflix has become the “new” HBO, Starz is happy to stake out a place as the “old” HBO.
Right now the real HBO is home to the hugely popular Game of Thrones and the brilliant and critically adored Veep. But there are months of programming to fill when those shows aren’t airing. And that includes Vice Principals, a show that’s neither smart nor funny, and deeply unlikable to boot. — United Feature Syndicate/Universal UClick