Netflix

My Next Guest Needs No Introduction

After saying goodbye to late-night TV in 2015, David Letterman returns to the interview chair in the new Netflix original series My Next Guest Needs No Introduction . . . with David Letterman. Gone are the Top Ten lists, stupid pet tricks, and cast of cohorts. The new show is just Dave and a guest, sitting on a stage in front of a live audience.

 

Maybe I shouldn’t have used the word “series” in that introduction because, for Netflix regulars, it might set up the expectation that there’s an entire season’s worth of episodes to binge on right now. After all, that is Netflix’ modus operandi with most of its original shows. Here, though, a new episode drops roughly once a month. The first one arrived on January 12 and featured a fellow by the name of Barak Obama. Since then, they’ve added interviews with George Clooney in February and Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai in March. Up next on April 13: Jay-Z.

 

Each episode is pre-recorded and runs about an hour. The format is an interesting hybrid. On the one hand, you’ve got the Charlie Rose/Tom Snyder approach of sitting with just one guest and getting a nice, meaty interview. Yet the decision to add a live audience gives it a warmer, livelier vibe that’s obviously better suited to Dave’s interview style.

 

Spliced in between the interview segments are video vignettes—called “curiosity-fueled excursions” in the show description—in which Dave visits various locations to explore something related to the interview. In the first episode, he takes a walk with Congressman John Lewis across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, and they discuss the Bloody Sunday march in 1965. You may recall the powerful images of President Obama and Lewis crossing that bridge together during the 50-year anniversary march in 2015.

 

In Episode Two, we meet Clooney’s parents and are introduced to an Iraqi refugee named Hazim Avdal, whom the family sponsors. He tells the story of his flight from persecution by ISIS.

My Next Guest

In Episode Three, Dave takes a tour of Oxford with Yousafzai and several of her fellow female students—who don’t necessarily “get” Dave and his sense of humor. (“They hate me,” he quips to the camera at one point, and he may be right.) If you don’t know Yousafzai’s story (and I did not), she is from Pakistan and has been an outspoken advocate for women’s rights, especially the right for girls to be educated. At the age of 15, she was shot in the head by the Taliban yet survived. Now, at the ripe old age of 20, she continues her activism while living and going to school in England.

 

I think you can tell from the above descriptions that, regardless of the guest, the show aims to dig deeper into important subjects of the day. I’ve found all the interviews to be really compelling, but one unexpected highlight is how much better we’re getting to know David Letterman as a human being with each passing episode.

 

Letterman has always been extremely private, and both Obama and Clooney try to turn the tables on him during their interviews, with limited success. But, just through the choice of guests, the extended conversations, and the vignettes, you start to see a fuller picture of this man who lived to entertain others for over 30 years and now, in his “retirement,” is free to explore some the issues that matter to his heart.

Adrienne Maxwell

Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer than she’s
willing to admit. She is currently the 
AV editor at WirecutterAdrienne lives in Colorado,
where  she spends far too much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough time
being in them.

REVIEWS

Wonder Woman review
Blade Runner: The Final Cut review
Lawrence of Arabia review

Ugly Delicious

Ugly Delicious is not food porn. I don’t say that to diminish the appeal of food porn, mind you. If I flip past the Food Network and catch a glimpse of The Taste, or At My Table—or really just anything with Nigella Lawson in it—I’m so totally onboard. I’m in. And with Chef’s Table, Netflix has proven itself more than capable of producing some of the best food porn known to man.

 

So, when the first episode of Ugly Delicious popped up in my recommended watchlist, I nearly dislocated my thumb scrambling for the select button. And five minutes into the first episode, I thought I had the show pretty well figured out. It comes off, at least at first, as something like a more erudite Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, with a much more likable host (chef, author, and restaurateur Dave Chang, who you may remember from PBS’ The Mind of a Chef) and much less emphasis on unabashed gluttony.

 

By the end of its first 54-minute episode, I found myself drifting away from that comparison, because if anything, the tone and spirit of Ugly Delicious reminds me less of any food show I’ve ever seen, and more of some of my favorite food podcasts. A dash of The Sporkful. A sprinkling of Gastropod. A heaping helping of The Splendid Table. But even those comparisons fall short, because the truly delightful thing about Ugly Delicious is that it manages to carve out its own unique space in the landscape of culinary media.

 

And that might be because it’s really less about food and more about our relationship with food. The first episode, which focuses on pizza, really establishes the thematic undercurrent of the series brilliantly, especially in the way it grapples with the notion of authenticity versus honesty. We meet quite a few people during the course of the episode who have strong opinions on the right or wrong way to make a pizza. (In fact, after taking us to a pizzeria in Connecticut that makes a delicious-looking clam pizza, we immediately meet another pizza chef who scoffs, “You want clams? Have spaghetti and clams! That’s where clams belong—on spaghetti!”) But if there’s one message that comes through loud and clear, it’s that nothing is sacred. And yet, in a weird way, when it comes to food, everything is sacred. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such irreverential reverence.

Ugly Delicious

Ugly Delicious manages to get away with such contradictions because, as I said above, it’s really about humanity—and humans are nothing if not contradictory. The show also manages to work in conversations about food as culture. Food as politics. Food as identity. Food as rebellion. It grapples with issues of race and ethnicity, of geographic bigotry, of tradition, and it does it all while fueling one’s desire to eat in so many of the deliciously delightful locales spotlighted in its eight criminally brief episodes.

 

Honestly, if Ugly Delicious had even a whiff of pretention about it, it might be a little too heavy-handed to enjoy. But if anything, it’s a backlash against the pretentiousness that permeates shows of its sort. True, the delightful cast rips hard into Taco Bell in the episode on tacos (while trying to come to some consensus on what even is a taco). But Dominos and KFC aren’t anywhere near as reviled in the episodes on pizza and fried chicken.

 

Perhaps the most curious thing about Ugly Delicious is that despite its use of food as a lens through which to view ourselves, it probably captures the essence of eating better than any food show I’ve ever watched. Each episode truly feels like a meal, and I don’t mean just the eating part. I mean the conversations. The camaraderie. Indeed, the arguments.

 

So, if you’re looking for some truly delicious food erotica, give it a try. And even if you’re not into watching people eat and travel and talk about food, give it a try anyway. Because Ugly Delicious isn’t merely the best slice of gastronomic programming since 2011’s Jiro Dreams of Sushi. It’s probably one of the best new shows of any genre to drop in the past year. 

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including
high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of
Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound
American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

REVIEWS

Wonder Woman review
Blade Runner: The Final Cut review
Lawrence of Arabia review

Everything Sucks!

Twenty years or so ago, enamored with movies and armed with a little bit of dangerous knowledge thanks to the burgeoning trend of audio commentaries and behind-the-scenes documentaries on DVD, I felt inspired to start writing my own movie. It was, without question, the most pop-culture referential thing that had ever existed in any form—at least until Ready Player One was published some decades later.

 

I realized something, though, after a few weeks of diligent work: These sorts of pop culture references only really work with the added benefit of nostalgia. And so, I let it die.

 

I rediscovered that forgotten screenplay a few years ago, and for a brief moment entertained the notion of starting work on it again. This time around, it died on the vine even quicker, mostly because I realized that nostalgia was the only thing it had going for it. It was all hook and no crane. A skyhook, in the parlance of philosopher Daniel Dennett.

Everything Sucks

I bring this up only because that screenplay weighed heavily in my mind as I watched Netflix’ new original series Everything Sucks!, the first episode of which is so burdened by its need to cram as many mid-90s references into 22 minutes that there really isn’t much else to talk about.

 

Mind you, one can hardly blame its creators for leaning on the crutch of nostalgia, given how well it’s worked for recent efforts like Stranger Things, another Netflix original. There’s a striking difference between the way these two series approach the decades being celebrated, though.

 

Stranger Things is an homage to the 1980s from top to bottom. It’s set in that decade because it sets out to capture the spirit of the movies ‘80s kids grew up with—in style, in substance, in tone, in subject matter. The series isn’t merely set in the 1980s–it’s a passionate and masterfully crafted love letter to that decade, aesthetically, thematically, and narratively.

 

The first episode of Everything Sucks!, on the other hand, is a hastily scribbled note that reads: “Dear 1996, I like you do you like me? Check yes or no.” Musical hits of the decade are thrown at the screen as if pulled from a Best of the 1990s compilation CD at random, in ways that often contradict the onscreen action, lyrically and thematically.

 

And not in an ironic way, either. More in a completely haphazard and careless way. The only conclusion to be drawn is that if any care went into crafting the show’s soundtrack, it was purely to make the viewer sit up and say, “I remember that song!”

 

And so it goes with everything else about the show’s setting. Everything from its soundtrack to its costumes, its winky nods to beepers and dial-up internet, serves not to reinforce some overarching theme but rather to distract from the story being told. Honestly, if Everything Sucks! were broadcast on a traditional network, it would have been canceled before the second commercial break. And I’m honestly not sure why I watched past that point. Hate-binging, perhaps? Is that a thing?

Everything Sucks

Actually, I take that back. I know exactly why I kept watching. Because for all its faults early on, Everything Sucks! has something going for it no other show—on the airwaves or streaming—has right now: Peyton Kennedy, the show’s 13-year-old female lead. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, this child would elevate a pharmaceutical commercial to the level of fine art. She does more with the twitch of an eyebrow or a sidelong glance than most actors three times her age could ever do with a Shakespearean monologue. And had Everything Sucks! continued to plod along with its hollow, pointless ‘90s references for the duration of its 10-episode run, I would have continued my hate-binge just to revel in this little girl’s truly breathtaking talent.

 

A funny thing happens somewhere near the middle of Everything Sucks! brief first season, though. The show eventually starts to get good. Like, genuinely good. Rather than a cheeky vehicle for shallow nostalgia, it becomes an honest-to-goodness coming-of-age story. And it even manages at one point to truly capture the spirit of ‘90s entertainment by way of a montage that could have come straight out of a Deborah Kaplan movie. Oddly, though, the show is at its best when it forgets it’s set in the 1990s at all.

 

It strikes me as oh so very meta that a series about the awkward, gangly, fumbling search for self takes so long to find itself in such an awkward, gangly, fumbling way. That makes it sort of hard to recommend, no matter how much I liked it in the end.

 

If anything, Everything Sucks! has given me new inspiration to dust off that old screenplay again and give it another gobut this time with an eye toward capturing the real human story about what I was going through in life at the time, and what I was trying to escape by diving so heavily into cinema as I did.

 

I just wish Everything Sucks! had learned that same lesson a lot earlier in its development.

—Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including
high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of
Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound
American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

REVIEWS

Wonder Woman review
Blade Runner: The Final Cut review
Lawrence of Arabia review

Fred Armisen: Standup for Drummers

Standup for Drummers

I don’t want you to read this review.

 

Don’t get me wrong—there are some of you who would absolutely love Fred Armisen: Standup for Drummers, a new hourlong special that just dropped on Netflix. And I hope you watch it at your earliest convenience. But if a comedy special/history lesson/music-appreciation class/absurd performance-art piece written and performed exclusively for an audience of drummers sounds like the kind of thing you would dig, I want you to enjoy it without having a moment of this brilliant and ridiculous show spoiled.

 

If, on the other hand, you’re likely to nope out as soon as you see people being forced to prove their drumming skills before being allowed into the theater, Standup for Drummers is likely too esoteric for your tastes, so you might as well stop reading now. There’s nothing I could say to convince you to give this one a chance.

(Don’t watch this video.)

 

For the three of you who are still reading, though? Here’s a little amuse-bouche that hopefully prepares your palate for what’s to come: At one point during the special, Armisen leaves the stage and walks down to a series of drum kits spread throughout the audience, each of which is representative of the setup you would typically see in any given decade from the 1920s through the 2000s. At each, he stops and playfully riffs on the percussive tropes of the era, partly in homage to Karen Carpenter, partly as a cheeky sendup of those “Evolution of Dance” videos you’ve seen a hundred times on Facebook.

 

What makes it work is not only the SNL alum’s undeniable musical prowess, but also his quirky ambivalence. You’re never quite sure if Armisen is poking fun or having fun. You can never quite tell if the look on his face is awe or irreverence.

 

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Standup for Drummers is that despite its specific audience and purpose, the show is never a shibboleth-laden, exclusive affair. In fact, Armisen goes to great lengths to take the piss out of the sorts of inside jokes that musicians typically share. My wife is a drummer. I’m not. And yet I enjoyed—and more importantly, understood—the humor every bit as much as she did. At least I think I did. Who knows?

 

If I have one regret, it’s that Armisen’s “Complicated Drumming” alter ego, Jens Hannemann, never makes an appearance. The missus and I had the chance to see Fred-as-Jens open for Joanna Newsom once, and I can safely say that it was the most entertaining hour of satirical percussion either of us has ever witnessed.

Then again, that’s the sort of thing you might expect from a Fred Armisen comedy special aimed specifically at drummers. And, if anything, the real brilliance of Standup for Drummers is in the way it subverts expectations, even if you go in expecting the unexpected.

—Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including
high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of
Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound
American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

REVIEWS

Wonder Woman review
Blade Runner: The Final Cut review
Lawrence of Arabia review

Altered Carbon

Netflix Altered Carbon

I read Altered Carbon about five or ten years ago and was blown away by its brilliant combination of sci-fi novel and detective thriller, its post-cyberpunk future-world setting, its fast-paced hard-edged evocative writing, and its all-too-believable premise, given human nature. I thought it would make a fantastic movie, but would have to be 10 or 20 hours long, so, how?

 

Enter Netflix’ new Altered Carbon TV series.

 

Richard K. Morgan’s novel is about a world a few hundred years from now where people can store their personalities into “stacks” that can be fitted into “sleeves” (new bodies). The wealthy (the “Meths,” for Methuselah) can essentially achieve immortality while those of lesser means have to settle for whatever aging bodies and lifespans they can afford, and some people won’t re-sleeve on religious grounds. As a result, the chasm between rich and poor has never been greater, nor the rich more powerfuland decadent.

 

Takeshi Kovacs is a former Envoy, a military corps whose members have been trained to survive in multiple bodies and lives and through extreme combat, including real and virtual-reality torture. He’s hired by ultra-wealthy Laurens Bancroft to investigate Bancroft’s own death. Bancroft has been re-sleeved, thanks to a personality-upload backupbut has no memory of his last two days because of his 48-hour backup schedule. It looks like a suicide, but Bancroft wants to know if he was murdered and, if so, why. He hires Kovacs to find out.

Netflix Altered Carbon

Does the series live up to the book? Well, it’s an altered Altered Carbon.

 

Most of the book’s essentials are here, including the main characters: KovacsJoel Kinnaman and Will Yun Lee, both utterly convincing as Kovacs in different bodies; BancroftJames Purefoy in an understatedly chilling performance; his sensuous/heartless wife Miriam (Kristin Lehman); and detective/Kovacs-antagonist/ally Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda).

 

Altered Carbon’s visuals and cinematography are stunning, richly imaginative (although the dark, dystopian Bay City owes a lot to Blade Runner), and often hallucinatory, with the lines between actual reality, virtual reality, and flashbacks blurred. The sound is also excellent, with impeccable dialogue clarity and a superb audio mix.

 

Many of the settingsthe extraterrestrial Harlan’s World, the sleeving company Psychasec, Bancroft’s above-the-clouds residence Suntouchevoke the book’s descriptions and are spectacularly realized. (Head In the Clouds almost perfectly matched what I had pictured.) There’s a dazzling array of future drugs and tech: Combat-enhancing Neurachem, sex-enhancing artificial pheromones, intelligent weapons, “needlecasting” to remote locations, and much more. The series does a fantastic job of portraying it all. There was never a moment when I thought, nah, this could never be.

 

Conversely, there are entire storylines and characters that don’t appear in the book. Part of these alterations are beneficial, including a major subplot between Kovacs andwell, I don’t want to give it away, but it and other subplots really illuminate the characters’ motivations. Other aspects just seem like change for the sake of change.

 

Yet I know books need to be adapted to the very different medium of a TV series to play well on screen, which is why, for example, I can understand changing the nature of one of the key AI characters. And Morgan was a consultant to the series, and I doubt he was put into virtual-reality torture to agree to the final product. So I guess he’s OK with it.

 

So am I. Because the series gets the feel of the book right.

Netflix Altered Carbob

The tough, gritty, unrelenting feel. The dialogue. The tension. The fact that Kovacs has had huge swaths of human emotion bred out of himbut not all. The twists and turns. The violence. The nudity. (Since bodies are just sleeves, the nudity feels like part of the series’ texture, not gratuitous.) The flashes of humor. The sex. The scenes of brutal treatment of women-as-sex-objects, which has caused some online controversythough the men aren’t exactly immune from this objectification either. It’s not all bleak, thoughthere are moments of tenderness, caring, empathy, and love. And hope.

 

Most of all, what Altered Carbon gets right is its portrayal of the rich complexity of still-humanand indeed all-too-humanemotions and motivations in a world that’s much more complicated than the one we live in and where a basic tenet of humanityeveryone diesis no longer true.

—Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

REVIEWS

Wonder Woman review
Blade Runner: The Final Cut review
Lawrence of Arabia review

The Toys That Made Us

In the ongoing conversation about how streaming video is changing our media consumption habits, I think one thing is getting overlooked—the ways in which streaming video is changing the very nature of our media.

 

I bring that up because one of my favorite recent showsa documentary series on Netflix called The Toys That Made Us—strikes me as the sort of thing that wouldn’t have existed a decade ago. Sure, we’ve seen documentaries about toys before, almost all of which focused on one particular slice of nostalgia. But a multi-episode series that isn’t aimed at any particular fandom? One with a decidedly adult bent and a propensity for F-bombs? One that takes off the gloves and uncovers the oftentimes dirty politics that went into creating some of our favorite little pieces of plastic?

 

If I were an executive for any cable network, I would look at the pitch for The Toys That Made Us and insist its creators either narrow their focus or broaden their appeal, or at the very least avoid some of the controversy. Thank goodness I’m not a network executive, then, because having seen the first four episodes of this incredible series, I wouldn’t change a thing.

 

The series kicks off with the granddaddy of all toy lines: Star Wars. Aside from a bit of predictable and unnecessary Episode I bashing that comes off as seriously hipstery, it’s an amazing exploration of the legal deals, design decisions, bickering, and fun that went into creating the toy line that changed everything.

The Toys That Made Us

Here’s the problem, though: Make a show about Star Wars toys and you’re automatically pushing all my buttons. Does that necessarily mean it’s objectively good? Ehhh, I had my doubtsespecially given that the next episode is about Barbie, a franchise I couldn’t have less interest in if I tried. The missus was vaguely interested, though (given that one of her favorite childhood pastimes was staging elaborate Barbie-vs-He-Man battles). So, we gave it a try. What followed was one of the most engrossing 44 minutes’ worth of television I’ve seen in ages. It’s bawdy. It’s tantalizing. There’s forgery and perjury and mail fraud, oh my!

 

Lest you think the entire series comes off as an E! True Hollywood Story, it doesn’t. The tales told here reflect the real history of each toy line explored, with no real agenda beyond getting to the truth. The entire Masters of the Universe toy line, for example, is portrayed as a tail-wagging-the-dog example of pure desperation and marketing hubris. G.I. Joe? While there is some history of the original 12-inch toy line (and the very origins of the phrase “action figure”), the real meat here is on the toys of the ‘80s, which were introduced mostly to capitalize on the new wave of patriotic fervor sweeping the nation.

 

Hopefully the next four episodes, which are due to drop sometime in the early part of 2018, can maintain this level of intrigue and brutal (often profane) honesty. There is the question, of course, about how much more material there is to mine going forward. We know an episode about Transformers is coming in the next batch. There are, no doubt, stories to be told at some point about Cabbage Patch dolls and LEGO.

 

I think what these first four episodes have proven, though, is that nostalgia for certain brands is just the hook. The real appeal of The Toys That Made Us is the very human stories about the people behind the scenes who made the toys that made us.

—Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including
high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of
Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound
American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

REVIEWS

Judd Apatow: The Return

Judd Apatow

Reviewing this is almost too easy. It’s like being lobbed the biggest, slowest softball ever. Apatow’s a genius. With so much comedy devoted to dragging you nose first through freshly plowed fields of shit, he always tries to bring at least a dollop of humanity to his work. He doesn’t always succeed, but that effort alone still makes him leagues better than all the schmucks who don’t even try.

 

But you have to allow for a lot before you can even start to be objective about his Netflix comedy special. Both the audience at the venue and the one at home are giving him a pretty generous free pass because they love his movies. And let’s be honest—while he’s pretty good here, he’s not polished. No other comedian could be given this big a platform and get away with so many missed beats, or lean on so much cutting to cover up that this was cobbled together from more than one show.

 

That said, it’s more than worth a viewing because, even though he fumbles his way toward most of what he wants to say, almost all of it is worth saying. It’s hard enough just being funny. Trying to add depth to it is almost impossible. Just witness all the comics—from Chaplin to Allen—who’ve been dashed against the rocks of meaning.

Apatow’s career almost foundered after Funny People, and This is 40 was a hard-won victory. This special steers well clear of the former while hugging the shores of the latter—which is both its virtue and its vice.

 

Apatow is, at the end of the day, a crowd-pleaser. But he’s not entirely comfortable in that role, so he sometimes veers toward edgy. But he’s too skittish to actually peer over the edge, so the best you’ll get is a convincing simulation. And, at a time when there are way too many people willing to tell us what we already know, and when “edgy” almost always boils down to the equivalent of somebody hitting themselves in the face with a hammer, it would be good to hear from somebody who’s got a pretty good bead on what we don’t know.

 

So, this is a pretty nice diversion, and probably a better use of your time than almost anything else recent that you could stream. But it would have been nice if it had a little more meat on its bones.

 

Big kudos, by the way, for closing with Randy Newman’s “I’m Different.” Falling on the heels of M. Ward’s close to Patton Oswalt’s Annihilation, it at least shows that comedians—or anonymous others at the production company or back at Netflix headquarters—have pretty good taste in music.

—Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and
now this.

REVIEWS

Stranger Things 2

It’s pretty safe to say that on the list of the most talked-about shows of the past two years, the Netflix-original Stranger Things ranks pretty near the top. On the off chance you haven’t seen it yet, this delightful supernatural mystery is a veritable love letter to 1970s and ‘80s pop culture. It’s a pastiche of Alien and E.T., Firestarter and The Goonies, Poltergeist and Stand By Me, with a heaping helping of Dungeons & Dragons and A Nightmare on Elm Street thrown in the mix for good measure. And it makes no apologies for any of the above. It has all the makings of a cheap rip-off, but avoids being such by wearing its influences proudly on its sleeve and using them as a hook rather than a crutch.

 

Indeed, during the course of Stranger Things 2the latest run of nine episodes, which dropped just in time for Halloween this year—a new character being brought up on the events of the previous year flirts with the fourth wall just long enough to wink at the audience and let us know that, yes, we’re aware the story is derivative. But that’s kind of the point. In its music, its cinematography, its writing, its acting—every element of Stranger Things is an unabashed throwback to the childhood of Gen Xers, who, let’s face it, had the greatest childhood of all.

 

If that’s all it was, Stranger Things and Stranger Things 2 (seriously, don’t call it a second seasonit’s a sequel) would be an absolute treat. Thankfully, it’s so much more. This brilliant series doesn’t just evoke those classic films listed above. And it doesn’t merely measure up to them. It somehow manages to live up to the nostalgia that my generation has for the genre films of our youth, which is a much taller order. In other words, it’s not merely as good as they areit’s as good as we’ve built them up to be.

Netflix Stranger Things 2

And Stranger Things 2 ups the ante with a bigger budget, better effects, and a beastlier baddie. But at the same time, it also manages to tell a more human story. It’s the rarest of all sequels, one that progresses the plot organically, raises the stakes intriguingly, and captures the spirit of what made the original so popular without rehashing it.

 

I won’t get any more specific than that, because every element of Stranger Things and its sequel deserves to be discovered in real time. But I do want to point out one thing some fans may have missed: Stranger Things 2 is one of the very few original streaming series to be accompanied by bonus features.

 

This, for me, is particularly huge because I’m a bonus-features junkie. It’s one of the main reasons I cling to my collection of five-inch discs, in outright defiance of our obvious streaming future. For me, a good making-of documentary is as essential to the home theater experience as popcorn and comfy seating. And while Beyond Stranger Things doesn’t quite count as a behind-the-scenes doc, it does adopt the sort of after-show format popularized by fan favorites like Talking Dead, and it does so quite well.

 

In its seven episodes, which range from 15 to 25 minutes in length, we get some pretty good insights into the making of the series and the thoughts that went into shaping it, and also get a peek at the bonds between its adorable adolescent cast members. Does it live up to the running audio commentary the series deserves? No. Would I still punch a baby for a full-length documentary about the making of Stranger Things 2? Indeed, I would.

 

But I’m really just thrilled to be getting any sort of bonus features at all for a series made exclusively for streaming. Aside from a 25-minute featurette for Sense8, I’m struggling to think of any other similar features. And that’s a shame. Because I’ve accepted the fact that discs are dying, but I just can’t come to terms with the fact that enriching behind-the-scenes materials could possibly die with them. 

—Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including
high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of
Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound
American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

REVIEWS

The Office: “Classy Christmas”

The Office Classy Christmas

I realize it might seem like I’ve got a major fixation on The Office (the same way it probably seemed like I had Woody Allen on the brain about a month ago), but making a blanket recommendation for a series isn’t really useful for people who’ve never waded into those waters before. So I wanted to recommend a specific episode to check out, and landed on the Season 7 two-parter “Classy Christmas.”

 

This is really more of a best-of and less something for first-timers, but it showcases all the serie’s various strengths so well that it will still give you a good idea of why The Office is worth the commitment. You’ve got the company Christmas photo, Toby’s jury duty, trashing Woody (see below), the return of Michael’s true love, the outing of Angela’s boyfriend, The Adventures of Jimmy Halpert, a surprisingly nuanced portrayal of Darryl’s custody situation, and some of the best lines in the whole series.

The Office Classy Christmas

But most importantly, you’ve got Office-veteran writer Mindy Kaling and director Rainn Wilson (who plays Dwight) turning the whole Jim/Dwight relationshipwhich was central to the showon its head.

 

I don’t want to give too much away, but Jim’s charms were always lost on mehe struck me as exactly as smug and self-centered as he struck office-temp-turned-corporate-criminal Ryan, who once advised him to give “the whole Jim thing” a rest. So it’s interesting to see dorky Dwight get the upper hand for onceand that’s where most series, eager to hit audience hot buttons and reinforce their prejudices, would have left it.

 

But not Kaling, Wilson, or the other creative forces behind The Officeand while it’s initially funny to see Jim flinching at his comeuppance, by the time the show’s reached its resolution, you actually find yourself feeling sorry for the guy. And who would have thought that was possible? Plus they were able to push Dwight past his usual cartoon darkness to someplace truly scary.

 

A lot of the episode is implausible, but enough of it’s emotionally true that you’re willing to give all the cheats and shortcomings a pass. There’s no one best entry point to The Office, but “Classy Christmas” will definitely do.

—Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and
now this.

REVIEWS

The Office

It could be argued that nobody needs to sing the praises of The Office. But it depends on what you’re praising it for.

 

Mass perception says that more than a decade of “quality” series has led to a TV renaissance, with a lot of the shows being more sophisticated and satisfying than movies. There’s nothing to that.

 

Almost every “quality” series is a fetid gumbo of convoluted, smartass plots, affected stylistic ticks, and a giggly fascination with perversity and nastiness amplified by a masochistic eagerness to wallow in the muck, handled with all the tact and subtlety of Gilligan’s Island. The only reason these shows seem cinematic is because movie cliches have become so deeply embedded in our DNA that any film-school nerd can ape them, and the culture has become so fundamentally adolescent that the bar for sophistication is so low it barely exists.

 

The Office tends to get lumped in with that renaissance. But as its reputation continues to grow, it becomes even clearer it has practically nothing in common with its “quality” brethren.

 

I’m not saying it was perfect—the Dwight stuff sometimes got so cartoony it threatened to rend the fabric of the series, there was way too much fawning product placement in the early seasons, the attempts to “flesh out” Pam ultimately just made her seem like a bitch, there was an unfortunate predilection for “message” episodes (remember “Gay Witch Hunt” and “Secret Santa”?), the camerawork got so mannered over time it started to telegraph the jokes, and the writers sometimes succumbed to obvious sitcom “wackiness.”

Netflix The Office

And it was obvious to everyone on the planet that the series should have ended with Steve Carell’s departure, and yet they decided to slog on through two and a half more pointless and embarrassing seasons.

 

But when it worked—which it did almost all the time—it was better than just about anything that’s ever been on TV. There was a fundamental generosity to the show it’s virtually impossible to find elsewhere—in its characterizations, ensemble play, vast bounty of jokes and gags, adventurousness, and general tone, which rarely talked down but instead pulled you up to a level where TV’s hardly ever bothered to go.

 

Given how much of this drained away after Carell left, it would be easy to attribute most of the show’s virtues to him. And it would be hard to adequately assess and praise everything he brought to The Office. But it’s more like they’d created an organism that needed every one of its major parts to thrive, and taking Carell out of the equation threw it so far out of whack it eventually wound down and succumbed to entropy.

 

So, to “see” The Office, you need to consider it separate from any so-called renaissance, or even what’s supposed to work on TV, and judge it on its own terms, which were so bold yet, somehow, modest, that it really was exceptionalas in, one of a kind.

—Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and
now this.

REVIEWS