By box office accounts and critical reviews, it’s been a disappointing summer for movies to say the least. Movies like Suicide Squad, Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn Of Justice and X Men: Apocalypse that were expected to be mega hits were only kind of hits, and on top of that were critically reviled. Every weekend seemed to bring with it the promise of a movie that could turn around the summer season- and every weekend brought with it another disappointing dud. To the point that people such as myself have decided to stay home mostly.
But this summer has had some incredible, self contained stories. It’s just that they happen to be disguised as television shows, and they’re about eight hours long each. Stranger Things and The Night Of have each garnered considerable fan and critical acclaim, while each offering the kind of stories that once upon a time graced the silver screen. Each are compelling, original narratives that still work in a specific genre and feel comfortably familiar.
Stranger Things follows a group of kids investigating the mysterious disappearance of their friend in early 80’s Indiana. It is a sci-fi horror mashup of that period’s genre cornerstones. It’s not a Wes Craven-like deconstruction of the genre, but a tribute to it, and a sandbox that creators The Duffer Brothers must have looked forward to playing in all their lives.
It plays like the kind of movie that Hollywood used to make in spades. And it clearly wants to be that- a movie. The narrative and visual references in it are all from movies. The glossary of classic film nods found in the series read like a list of my favorite movies: Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, The Goonies, Altered States, E.T., Halloween, Alien and more. Then there’s the soundtrack, which is half of the charm, beautifully alluding to the sounds of John Carpenter and Vangelis, while making a case for itself as an instant classic. The Duffers could have probably made a Netflix movie, but in the era of binge watching, a series gets more attention. Original Netflix movies are happening, but do you have any friends telling you how you must watch Tallulah or The Fundamentals Of Caring? Nope. They’re telling you to watch Stranger Things.
It’s the perfect summer sweet spot. A bingeable series that feels cinematic, and fills the hole created by disappointing summer blockbusters. Even though it leaves the door open for a second season, you can’t help but question whether that’s necessary.
The Night Of is a remake of the BBC show Criminal Justice, because us Americans can’t really understand what they’re talking about with those thick British accents. I digress. It’s an involving crime drama that seems tailor made for the cults of Serial and Making A Murderer. It follows a young Pakistani-American college student named Nasir (Riz Ahmed) who, after a night of bad decisions, wakes up to find the girl he slept with a few hours earlier stabbed to death in her bed. He is arrested, charged, imprisoned, and put on trial. At the time of this writing, there are still two episodes left. The series follows him through every step of the criminal justice system, exposing its flaws every step of the way. A second season is possible, but won’t be a continuation of this arc. With eight episodes in all, it’s planned as a “limited series event.”
Beyond the self contained nature of the story, it feels cinematic because big movie guys are behind it. Steven Zaillan, writer of films like Schindler’s List and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, is one half of the major force behind the series. He is working with Richard Price, a novelist/screenwriter who wrote films like Clockers and The Color Of Money. More so than Stranger Things, The Night Of speaks the language of television- in part because the writing is much stronger. Television is, they say, a writer’s medium, and cast members John Turturro, Riz Ahmed, Bill Camp and Michael K. Williams seem happy to be living and breathing these characters and the colorful language they use.
The pilot was especially film like, thanks in large part to the work of cinematographer Robert Elswit, who has shot all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films. Which is wonderful when you consider that those are some of the most beautiful looking films ever made. He set a bar so high that the rest of the series feels a little smaller in comparison. Breathtaking shots like Nasir and his doomed date Andrea (Sofia Black D’Elia) sitting on the rocks of the Hudson shore with the George Washington Bridge lit up and looming in the background are still implanted in my mind.
The Night Of‘s cinematic influences feel less on the nose, as it feels like a peer of the many detective dramas and legal thrillers that came before it, not merely an imitation of them. Classics such as Anatomy of a Murder or To Kill A Mockingbird come to mind. The way the series makes contemporary, post-9/11 New York City come to life evokes Spike Lee’s underrated 25th Hour.
Both series have been deeply engaging, schedule-clearing watches; The perfect excuse to stay inside in the cool air conditioning. Both series could also have probably been cut down significantly into a two to two and a half hour film (Lest we get even more scenes of John Turturro tending to his horrible feet issues, or feeding a cat whom he’s allergic to). However, in the end I am more than happy to have more hours of great television to watch. With Hollywood so dedicated to protecting its franchises, it seems more and more movie actors, writers and directors are being drawn to the small screen to find truly gratifying work. They will probably continue to bring the language of film with them…but in the end, as long as we the viewers have great stuff to watch, it all comes out in the wash.