The Homage is Not Enough: on the Limits of Nostalgia-First Narratives

In the summer of 2016 everyone started telling me that I had to watch a show called Stranger Things. I was reluctant. The reluctance came from the way it was sold: the entire series was one large nostalgia fest for ‘80s Spielberg, Stephen King novels, and Dungeons and Dragons.

It’s not that I don’t like Stephen King or Indiana Jones or battling bugbears. But I had just finished consuming two pieces of media that banked heavily on nostalgia and ham-fisted homages: the show Mr. Robot and the novel Ready Player One.

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A poster for the upcoming Ready Player One, which this is not a review of.

I had walked away from both Mr. Robot and Ready Player One with a general uneasiness, a queasiness, the stomach ache that comes from too much of any one sweet thing. In the case of both of these, that one thing was the overdose of both

  1. knowing that I had consumed something whose originality was constantly undermined by heavy doses of allusion and homage and
  2. knowing that I had consumed something for which I, a heterosexual white millennial male with an English degree and a penchant for science fiction and a job in digital marketing, was the target demographic.

When I finally did watch Stranger Things, it did not disappoint me in the way that Mr. Robot and Ready Player One both had. Sure, the entire thing has major IT and The Body vibes and there was even a moment where a character is reading Stephen King’s Cujo. The entire thing is, as Stephen King himself said, crowded with Stephen King easter eggs and nods:

But there’s something different about Stranger Things. Something deeper. More tactful, subdued, and thoughtful.

(Stranger Things is not the only nostalgic work that works. FX’s Fargo, crowded with references to O. Henry and Samuel Beckett and, naturally, the Coen Brothers, is a good example of another show that executes where others fail.)

What is it that made Stranger Things work while Ready Player One and Mr. Robot both, in this blogger’s opinion, come up short? It’s a very fine line, but also a bell that, once crossed, is hard to unring, regardless of whom it tolls for. Continue reading “The Homage is Not Enough: on the Limits of Nostalgia-First Narratives”

What References, Depictions, and Themes Should We Anticipate in Fargo’s Season 3?

While this blog’s last Fargo article gave you a list of ways to get hyped for the forthcoming third season, it didn’t go very deep into what we’ve seen in Fargo so far and what we can expect in the third season.

The following is some of what I expect to see in this upcoming third season. Of course, I do not know for certain what to expect. I have not seen it yet. But this is some of what I hope to see, based on what we’ve seen before.

Innovative and realistic depictions of Minnesotans

Minnesota is known for many things, but rarely is it known for being a setting for violence, tales of organized crime, and conspiracies of murder. This is arguably because of misunderstandings and stereotypes in the media. As noted in my previous blog post on the matter, there are plenty of violent moments in Minnesota’s history but Fargo seems to be one of the few mainstream fictional works interested in this ugly history.

Fargo‘s second season also contains one of my favorite descriptions of the typical Minnesotan male. It occurs when protagonist Lou Solverson first comes face-to-face with Mike Milligan, one of the many violent main characters in the story. Lou learns that Mike met Hank, his father-in-law, earlier that day, and refers to Lou (and Minnesotans in general) as friendly.

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Ted Danson as Hank Larsson in the second season. 

Milligan disagrees with this assessment, offering one of my favorite summations of so-called Minnesota nice:

“Pretty unfriendly actually. But it’s the way you’re unfriendly. You’re so polite about it. Like you’re doing me a favor.”

Perhaps the media will never really get Minnesota right, largely because it just isn’t depicted enough. But Fargo does so much better than most of its predecessors. Let’s anticipate more of such in its upcoming season.  Continue reading “What References, Depictions, and Themes Should We Anticipate in Fargo’s Season 3?”

Twelve Ways to Get Hyped for Fargo’s Third Season

The trailers are out for the third season of Fargo and there isn’t much more to say about them than “okay then.” As in, it looks good. Pretty darn good.

But it’s not here yet. The third season of the anthology will premier in late April, giving us time to either rewatch the first two seasons in anxious anticipation or get hyped for it by consuming some other media with similar themes and settings. The following list contains a number of films, shows, and books, all of which can be recommended to an enthusiastic Fargo fan. Many of these are either set in Minnesota, created by Minnesotans, or have some other Midwestern connection.

Many also share at least one of two other traits with Fargo: a sense of humor and a sense of violence.

Watch A Serious Man by the Coen Brothers and Starring Michael Stuhlbarg

Filmed in Minnesota’s Saint Louis Park, A Serious Man is arguably the most autobiographical film that Ethan and Joel Coen have made. But the setting and the creators aren’t the only reason to watch this film in anticipation of the upcoming Fargo season.

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A Serious Man

This 2009 film stars Michael Stuhlbarg as Larry Gopnik, a Minnesotan man who finds his life unraveling much in the style of Job. If you’re not immediately familiar with the name Michael Stuhlbag, you might know him better as Arnold Rothstein in Boardwalk Empire. Or, you might not be familiar with him at all… but you will be, assuming you watch the upcoming series of Fargo, in which he plays the character Sy Feltz. (It’s also worth noting that Stuhlbarg isn’t the only Boardwalk Empire alum in this season of Fargo; Shea Whigham will also be in this season.) Continue reading “Twelve Ways to Get Hyped for Fargo’s Third Season”

No More Gritty Reboots: Why Lego Batman and Legion Are the Future of Superheroes

Yes, this blog is dedicated to “an ongoing exploration of the dark and gritty reboot.” But, as written about in the previous post on this blog, The World Needs Bad Men, it’s time to admit that the dark-n-gritty reboot has run its course. The anti-heroes have ascended to the White House. It’s time for a new superhero narrative.

The last week has given us two new incarnations of the superhero show: Legion, a television show on FX, and The Lego Batman Movie, a family-friendly animated feature.

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Perhaps the first Batman promotional image to show a smiling Caped Crusadser.
The Lego Batman Movie is as meta as any superhero film has been, and that includes 2016’s Deadpool and 2015’s Ant-Man. The jokes are more family-friendly than those of Deadpool, but TLBM is arguably the more mature of the two films. TLBM, coming on the heels of The Lego Movie and followed soon by The Ninjago Movie, is the sign of much more to come.

Legion, meanwhile, is a serious and frightening television series about a man in a mental hospital who is either mentally ill, a mutant with superpowers, or both. It’s from Noah Hawley, the creator of the Fargo television series, and unravels in a non-linear manner.

But I’ve come here not to review these two works. Enough people are already reviewing these two works. The reviews are both positive and, in my opinion, accurate. What I’m here to say is that these works are two complementing examples of what we should start demanding from our screen adaptations of superhero tales.

The superhero is tired; these narratives give him hope. Let’s look at why they work, and how other narratives can learn from them.  Continue reading “No More Gritty Reboots: Why Lego Batman and Legion Are the Future of Superheroes”