Fatherhood and Stranger Things


As I finished the second season of Stranger Things on Netflix, I began processing the season as a whole. So many things set this season apart from the first season. There were more characters (probably too many more), more adversaries, more stakes and (for better or worse) more locations. As the show expanded its scope to keep the story moving, some of what made season 1 great was minimized slightly. Still, one thing that stood out to me as a man and as a father was the theme of fatherhood. It might not be the first theme that comes to mind when you think about Stranger Things, but it’s definitely a big one. The question of what makes a good father is all over the place and I started to realize that the juxtaposition of Biological Fathers vs. Father Figures was quite profound and it extended back to the first season as well. Let’s take a look at the characters and the idea of fatherhood throughout Stranger Things.

Spoilers for both seasons of Stranger Things follow!

Biological Fathers

When you start to take stock of the biological fathers in Stranger Things, you realize that almost all of them are very distant and uncaring if they are present at all.

Ted Wheeler

Ted is Mike and Nancy’s dad. He’s still married to their mom, Karen, but he’s portrayed an oblivious buffoon to all the drama and tragedy that’s affecting his family. The extent of his wading into the family affairs is to chide “Language!” when Nancy swears in frustration at the dinner table. As the family literally unravels around him, Karen sarcastically says she hopes he’s enjoying the chicken. Ted’s response?

Ted is an example of a man who’s disengaged from his family and the fact that cosmic horror is infiltrating his children and home doesn’t spur him to action. He’s only concerned with his work and his newspaper. In season two, both of his older children are gone for what seems like days and no care is given. Also in season two, there’s a scene in the final episode (that’s played for some laughs) where Karen is taking a romantic bath alone with a paperback romance novel when the doorbell rings. Ted is asleep in his easy chair and doesn’t hear it or Karen’s pleas for him to get it. She ends up coming down in a robe to find Billy with his shirt unbuttoned asking after his sister. He flirts with her and she demurely entertains it as her husband snoozes in the den. Though it’s a slightly goofy scene, it’s really another portrayal of how Ted’s laziness is a huge threat to their marriage and family.

Lonnie Byers

Lonnie is Will and Jonathan’s dad, Joyce’s ex-husband. Before the events of season 1, Joyce and Lonnie got divorced and Lonnie moved to Indianapolis. When Will goes missing, Joyce and Hopper figure he might be with Lonnie, but all their phone calls are ignored. Jonathan goes to Indianapolis to see if Will is there and Lonnie shows little care for his missing son. He eventually shows up in Hawkins when there is the possibility that money could be paid out for Will’s “death” by falling in the quarry. Lonnie is selfish, uncaring, cold and absent from his family’s life.

Neil Hargrove

Neil is Billy’s biological dad, seen in one episode of season 2. Neil is married to Max’s mom, creating a blended family that’s new to Hawkins. When we first meet Billy and Max, they are on their own with Billy in charge of Max. When the parents finally return from a trip, Neil and his wife realize that Max is not home and Billy doesn’t know or care where she is. Neil is furious with Billy and hits him, demanding he take responsibility for Max and locate her. It becomes clear that Billy’s violent and wild tendencies are a direct result of his father’s verbal and physical abuse. The few minutes that Neil is on the screen are intense and sad as we see a domineering and violent father who has created a toxic relationship with his son that is spilling out into the rest of their family and beyond.  When Billy is a “substitute father” for Max early in season 2, he reflects all these things to her and cultivates the same fear-based relationship that exists between him and his father.

So the biological fathers don’t have much screen time overall in the series. When they are part of the story, they’re depicting traits that a common flaws of fatherhood in the real world – laziness, self-absorption, neglect, abandonment and violence.

Father Figures

What about the non-biological father figures? In almost every case, the father figures of Stranger Things are much more positive characters, embodying good fatherhood traits and displaying great character.

But there’s one huge exception that we’ll look at first.

Dr. Martin Brenner

The main human villain of season 1 is Dr. Brenner. He’s the architect of the study that essentially kidnapped and abused Eleven for years. Over the course of her captivity and study, he encourages her to call him “Papa”, which she does throughout the series. He casts himself as a protector for her even as he spearheads her abuse. He doesn’t truly care about her, he cares about furthering his own agenda. He uses her. It’s another common complaint that parents in general often “use” their children for their own selfish motives in various ways. This is just a grossly exaggerated example of what that kind of perversion of fatherhood looks like.

Mr Clarke

Scott Clarke is a minor recurring character, but one who influences Mike, Will, Dustin and Lucas immensely. He’s the nerdy science teacher who is basically a hero to the boys when we first meet them. He’s funny and approachable. He clearly appeals to the more nerdy personalities of these boys and has encouraged them in their interests and learning. He sparks their imaginations with his science lessons and radio equipment. When the boys need help understanding “The Upside Down”, they go to Mr. Clarke, who illustrates the theories of other dimensions to them – patiently entertaining what he believes to be a flight of fancy. He’s intelligent, resourceful, caring and friendly – traits of a great father.

Steve Harrington

In season 1, Steve is a guy that most fans of the show didn’t want Nancy to date. She was supposed to be with Jonathan, right? Steve even smashed Jonathan’s camera. Still, he grew into a part of the team and someone we rooted for. In season two, Steve grew even more. After breaking up with Nancy and getting bullied by Billy, he was a sad sack until Dustin needed his help. None of his friends were around and Dustin needed someone to contain the creature with him. Soon, Steve and Dustin were a charming and unlikely pairing that had great chemistry. Dustin lives with his mom and his dad is out of the picture. Through their interactions, Dustin begins to look up to Steve and ask him for advice. Steve eventually opens up a bit and shares with Dustin, counseling him on the finer points of wooing girls and getting his hair to look cool. He helps the kids with their big plan and takes some literal punches defending them from Billy. In the end, it’s Steve dropping Dustin off at the dance with a final pep-talk and encouragement. Steve proves to be a worthy father figure to Dustin in a myriad of ways.

Bob Newby

Bob is a new character for season 2 and is dating Joyce Byers. He’s a clerk at Radio Shack and is a vanilla goofball with a heart of gold. It’s obvious right away that he adores Joyce and is really serious about being part of the Byers family (even though he doesn’t know all the details of their ordeal from the previous year). Jonathan and Will aren’t too sure about him at first, but Bob continually reaches out to them. Soon, Will is again oppressed by the Upside Down monsters and Bob is right there with Joyce trying to help deal with it. In the end, Bob is stuck in the Hawkins Lab building with them as the monsters run wild, killing dozens. To get out, someone with technical skill needs to reach the control room and unlock the doors. Hopper volunteers, but Bob is the one with the tech skills. He frees everyone from the building and almost escapes himself when the monsters catch him and devour him. Bob is tender, loving, selfless and ultimately sacrificial for those he loves. He does a great job of embodying the traits of a good father and husband though he was technically neither.

Chief Jim Hopper

Hopper is one of the central characters of the show. His back story tells us that he was once married and had a daughter. His daughter tragically died of cancer as a child, which led to a divorce with his wife. This broken man returns to his childhood town and lives an unhealthy life of drinking, smoking and one-night stands. That’s where we find him in season 1 as Will’s disappearance forces him to sober up. His paternal instincts clearly drive him here as he throws himself into the case and the lives of these children. He fights for them, protects them and sacrifices for them throughout the whole series. When season 2 rolls around, we find that Hopper and Eleven have formed a makeshift family. He’s caring for her as a father cares for a daughter. They laugh and play together, but also butt heads when he puts her safety as a top priority even when she is stronger than he is. In the end of the season, it’s the two of them against the evil monster and we conclude with Hopper holding a birth certificate for Jane Hopper. He is her legal father and also fills the father figure role to many of the boys in the cast.

The “Daddy Issues” trope can often be overplayed in Hollywood, yet the reason it’s used so often is that it is effective. We are hardwired, created to want to know our fathers. While the role of mothers is of utmost importance as well and shouldn’t be minimized, it’s clear that children need good male role models in their lives and often suffer greatly without them.

In Stranger Things, we’re presented with many examples and invited to parse out the character traits of these men and wrestle with their roles. There are many men who embody the traits of bad fathers and many who do the opposite. The reality is that all of us fathers are prone to all of these traits at different times and in different measures. There are no perfect fathers.

But there is a perfect Father. God the Father is the perfect embodiment of all these good fatherly traits. He’s patient, approachable, intelligent, caring, defending, helpful, gives good counsel, tender, fights for us, sacrifices for us and laughs with us. He’s also never selfish, abusive, absent, uncaring, disengaged, lazy or cruel. He created us, he loves us, he gave his only Son up to death for us and he pursues us when we’re lost.

When we’re confronted with good and bad examples of father archetypes and “daddy issues” in movies and TV shows, we can how those examples up against the Bible’s descriptions of our Heavenly Father. We can rejoice at the good examples and say “Our Father in heaven is like that with his children, only way more so!” And we can mourn at the bad examples, saying “I know there are fathers like that, sometimes it’s even me, but I’m so glad that God is never, ever like that with his children.”

Where else have you seen depictions of fathers that made you think about the nature of our heavenly Father? 


Top Television of 2016


I thought it was a great year for interesting TV shows this year. Many established shows had stand-out seasons and some new, compelling shows made their debut. As the medium evolves, limited/anthology/miniseries have become a new form that can really pull viewers in. I enjoyed quite a few of these types of series this year, so I’m splitting this list into my top 5 limited series and my top 1o-ish regular series! Here we go!

Top Five Limited / Anthology / Miniseries


5. The X-Files (Fox)

They decided to make more episodes of one of my favorites shows ever: The X-Files. Rather than order up another 22 episode season, they made this a limited run “event series”, which was probably a good call. This set of episodes was more “miss” than “hit”, though we did get a new classic with “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster”. Beyond that, it felt tired and didn’t satisfy as much as I hoped. They left the door wide open for more story later, so we’ll see what comes of it.

4. Channel Zero – Candle Cove (SyFy)

SyFy ordered a horror anthology series based on an internet genre called “creepypasta”. Their first choice was a story called “Candle Cove” about a kids TV show that causes some very scary and violet happenings in a small town. The vibe was very skin crawling and the mystery was compelling throughout. It’s hard to do suspense/horror well on TV, but they did a great job on this one.

3. The Night Manager (BBC/AMC)

John Le Carre’s spy novels have provided some rich source material for movies in the last few years. Why not a slow-burning TV miniseries? This story of a hotel manager who gets embroiled in an operation to take down a crime kingpin was intense. The fact that they got A-listers like Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie made it fantastic as both actors nailed their roles. Great, great series.

2. 11.22.63 (Hulu)

I read the Stephen King novel this year that the series was based on and I fell in love with it. I new the adaptation couldn’t live up to the greatness of the novel, so I tempered my expectations for watching it. And that was the right decision. Still, it’s a great story and they did a great job bringing it to the screen. James Franco did well with his character and Sarah Gadon was great as Sadie. If you’re interested in a story about a guy going back in time to stop the Kennedy assassination, read the book first and then check out the series.

1. American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson (FX)

This series got a LOT of press in the early part of the year and for good reason. Almost every cast member was amazing in their difficult roles (and they nabbed a bunch of Emmys to prove it). Culturally, the issues raised by this trial (and the writing on the series) became very relevant again this year. Race, gender roles, distrust of police, injustice in general, it’s all there. I loved this series, from the writing to the directing to the acting.

Top Ten  Eleven Television Series

11. Atlanta

Honestly, I haven’t watched all of the first season, but I’m tacking this show on here because it is pretty fantastic. It’s got a bit of a Louie vibe, which is great – meandering stories that focus on the characters as their experiences serve as social commentary. Donald Glover is just brilliant as the brains behind this show.

10. Preacher (AMC)

AMC needed another prestige drama on Sunday nights and decided to go back to the comic book well. With Preacher, they adapted a beloved book in a creative way. Basically, season one was a prequel of sorts to the book. Jesse Custer was perfectly cast and the supporting characters were a joy. You never know what this show is going to do next and that’s a very good thing.

9. Detectorists (Netflix/BBC)

I found this absolute gem of a show on Netflix this year. It’s like a melancholy Christopher Guest movie about a small town chapter treasure hunters and the people who love them. Mackenzie Crook is known for his role in the original UK version of The Office and he is the brains behind this delightful show. Gorgeously shot and scored, it’s a comfortable and enjoyable British comedy with a low cringe-factor.

8. Silicon Valley (HBO)

HBO’s lineup of Silicon Valley, Veep and Game of Thrones is one of the best in the business. I love Veep, but I loved Silicon Valley more this year. The guys keep trying to make it the biz and getting tangled up in the nitty gritty all the time. The frustration is so uncomfortable and real. And, of course, the supporting characters chemistry is amazing. More please.

7. Luke Cage (Netflix)

Marvels’ Netflix show to watch this year was Luke Cage (Daredevil S2 let me down a bit). With Luke Cage, a brand new vibe was so great to see. From the setting to the actors to the soundtrack, this show had an identity all its own. It did black culture in Harlem in a way that was organic and real. And once again, a strong supporting cast made it great.

6. Narcos (Netflix)

In season 2, Narcos upped the stakes significantly by depicting the years that Pablo Escobar was on the run, ending with his final downfall. It was violent, gritty and engrossing. The terror of his reign was on full display, but also the questionable tactics of those who wanted to stop him. It looks like the show is headed for a major reset in season 3, but I’ll be there.

5. Westworld (HBO)

HBO is trying to plan for a post-Game of Throne world. They thought Vinyl would be a net tentpole, but that show was terrible. Westworld had a long and winding road to the screen as production was stopped and started a couple of times. In the end, a challenging first season set the table for a fascinating world. With their Memento meets JJ Abrams Mystery Box approach, they gave their viewers the task of untangling the story and gained a following. Now that that’s over with, they’ll need to move the story forward. I’m in.

4. Last Man on Earth (Fox)

It’s kind of amazing to me that this show is now in it’s 3rd season! Usually Fox kills my favorite shows before they get this far! Last Man on Earth is amazing in how it uses the apocalypse to make a silly show instead of misery porn (The Walking Dead). This year, they incorporated a PTSD narrative to ground themselves a bit, but they still lean heavily on the quirks of their players and Will Forte’s juvenile foolishness. My wife and I both love this show.

3. Black Mirror (Netflix)

Black Mirror returned this year to a new home at Netflix. The new set of episodes was a little bit scatter shot, but it still had all the elements that make this show so amazing. In a year when it seemed like the real world was an episode of Black Mirror, these stories reminded us that things could be much worse. Also, with the episode “San Junipero”, they gave us a story that actually contained some hope (and great music). No other show makes you think quite like this one.

2. Game of Thrones (HBO)

This was the season that fans had been most interested in from the very beginning: the one where the show finally pushed past the books in terms of storylines. Everything from here is uncharted and unexpected. Clearly the showrunners were ready for this and the pace of the action ticked up. As they move the chess pieces into position for the final game over the next couple years, nothing is certain and that injects a new energy into a show that didn’t even need it.

1. Stranger Things (Netflix)

For me, the year belonged to Stranger Things. This completely original Netflix show from The Duffer Brothers was everything I love. Cool story, great visuals, amazing (completely amazing) cast and incredible music. It had heart, goosebumps, thrills and comedy. It had kids riding bikes at night through the woods. It was the show we didn’t know we needed until we got it. I watched the series twice I loved it so much. I can’t wait for season 2 and I have to believe that the Duffer Brothers will be in high demand for the big screen soon!

What did I miss? What was your favorite show of 2016? Any recommendations?

MOVIE REVIEW: Star Trek Beyond


star-trek-beyond-poster-usI wrote awhile back about my anticipation for the third film the re-booted Star Trek franchise.  At the time, the marketing of the movie was finally getting in gear after a somewhat disastrous teaser trailer that looked like it the marriage of Fast and Furious director Justin Lin and Star Trek meant shoehorning the former into the latter. As things normalized a bit with more press, it became clear that this film was, indeed, a Star Trek movie. But the question remained: was it a good Star Trek movie? And, perhaps more importantly, what makes a good Star Trek movie in 2016? Before we get into the details of this movie, we should address that question.

Star Trek was created as a TV series in the 1960’s by an optimistic futurist named Gene Roddenberry. His vision for humanity’s future was one of peace, cooperation, integration and adventure. It was idealistic. It was about spreading the best values of humanity to the infinite vastness of space. Sure, you had to punch some bad guys along the way, but the point was depicting a promising future, not a nihilistic one. Today, almost all depictions of the future are nihilistic. From our infatuation with the post-apocalyptic to the male anti-hero archetype to environmental disaster depictions, we don’t seem too hopeful about what the future holds. Even Superman, the superhero embodiment of “good and right”, is now depicted as a troubled and angst-ridden alien. So what place does Star Trek have in this cultural era anyway? The last film in the franchise, the maligned Star Trek Into Darkness, borrowed some of that dark iconography by putting forth a conspiracy story about evil war mongering within Starfleet. Oh, and they misguidedly put the biggest Kirk-era villain into the story and badly parodied the biggest cinematic moment in the franchise. The point I’m trying to make is that the powers that be seemed to think that Roddenberry’s Star Trek won’t work today. At least not in the cinema.

But there was a shift in thinking somewhere in 2014 during the pre-production work on Star Trek Beyond. The writers were fired and the script duties were assigned to Simon Pegg, the actor who plays Scotty in this series. Pegg and his writing partner Doug Jung worked hard to deliver a script that got back to the things that made Star Trek great to begin with: great characters, big ideas and good action and fun. I’m pleased to say that they actually did it.


You see, a big part of what made the Shatner/Nimoy/etc. ensemble work so well for 30 years was their chemistry. The ensemble was just so good together. In television, the mark of a good ensemble cast is the ability to mine good story and dialog from basically any pairing of characters. It’s a writing tool that can create stories for years. NBC’s Parks and Recreation is a great example. That show had one of the best ensemble casts of all time (in my opinion) and almost every episode involved pairing off cast members in interesting combinations and watching them interact with each other. Pegg and Jung realized that this cast is extremely good and decided to split them up for a large portion of the movie to see what would happen. So at the end of Act I, the Enterprise is viciously destroyed and the crew is strewn across a barren planet. It’s Kirk/Chekov, Sulu/Uhura, Scotty/Jaylah (a cool new character in the mold of Rey and Katniss) and Spock/McCoy. Each pair has great scenes and even greater dialog (especially between McCoy and Spock). So while the action scenes are pretty cool (with Lin’s direction), the character interactions make this movie great.

So the story goes that the Enterprise is in year 3 of her 5-year mission and the crew is getting pretty sick of it. Kirk is looking for other jobs and so is Spock. They arrive at a super cool looking starbase called Yorktown for a break. But soon they get word of a ship that crashed on a planet in the middle of a dangerous nebula. They’re called on to go out to rescue the crew. Of course, things go badly as the call is more of a trap. The Enterprise is shredded in orbit and the crew abandons ship, landing on the planet. Many are taken hostage by Krall, the leader of the swarm of drones. The crew has to break out their friends, get off the planet and stop Krall from killing everyone in Yorktown with a biological weapon.


The central ideological conflict here is about peace and unity. Krall, it turns out, was once the captain of a Starfleet ship called the Franklin. Before that, he was a very successful soldier. But the military was dismantled and spun into Starfleet, a peace-keeping organization. Krall found little fulfillment in peace-keeping, he was wired to be a soldier. When his ship crashed, he sent out distress signals, but the Federation never came to their aid. This was his proof that unity and peace are the wrong goal to strive for. Strength comes from conflict and struggle. It’s the equal and opposite view of the Federation, making this villain more compelling that many other recent Trek villians. Still, his motivation wasn’t completely unpacked and his story of conveniently finding alien tech to help him achieve his goals was thin.

Jaylah, on the other hand, was a pretty cool supporting character. She was lured to the planet and marooned there years ago and watched Krall and his thug kill her family. She’s looking for revenge, but also for belonging. She’s fighting and surviving on her own and finally finds success and redemption in the form of friends from the Enterprise. Again, the theme of “stronger together” shines through.


The same goes for Kirk and Spock. They begin the film with their eyes set on other pursuits that take them away from their crew and “family” and into other roles. In the end, they find that they belong together exploring space. There’s a very cool moment towards the end where Spock, still maybe considering departing, opens a gift from “Spock Prime” who has passed away. It’s a picture of the Prime Universe crew from around the time of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. They are all advanced in age, but all together on the bridge of the Enterprise and smiling. These characters are meant to be together, and Spock is struck by what could someday be true for him as it was for his older doppelganger.

Of course, this movie also features some cool callbacks to other Star Trek series and some nifty inside jokes too. Pegg and Jung have some humor chops, obviously, and they picked their moments extremely well. Karl Urban’s McCoy steals the show time and again throughout the movie, but each actor gets their screen time in good measure.

In the end, Lin and Pegg/Jung have crafted probably the best story of the “new Trek” universe (the Kelvin Timeline). It’s refreshing to see the themes of unity and a better tomorrow in a summer blockbuster, especially in a time when these ideas rarely find a voice. It’s exactly what a 2016 Star Trek movie should be.

JJ Abrams has (crazily) already voiced his hopes for a Star Trek 4 and said that they have a cool story that would bring back Chris Hemsworth as Kirk’s father (seen briefly in the absolutely brilliant opening sequence of 2009’s Star Trek). Nothing is set in stone, apparently, but I’d love to see another outing for this crew. However, I think they seriously need to consider giving Pegg/Jung writing duties again. Those two know what makes Star Trek great.

I’d love to see Hemsworth back in the fold, but I really don’t want a time travel storyline. In fact, the original script for Beyond (written by Roberto Orci) featured a time travel element and the studio ultimately scrapped it and fired Orci. Rumor has it the script included a cameo for William Shatner, who would have met Chris Pine’s Kirk. Maybe a re-tooling of this very script is what Abrams was referring to?

My pitch to get Hemsworth into the story? Kirk and company find their way to a planet with a (classic Trek staple) “god-like alien(s)” who tap(s) into their psyches for some weird torture. James Kirk is forced to encounter and perhaps fight his father George. Maybe we get Q into the Kelvin timeline or go for the original – Trelane?

Pitch #2: parallel storylines. We cut back and forth a bit between a mission of the Kelvin and a mission of the Enterprise that are related somehow.

Just no time travel, please. We’ve seen enough of that.

The one shadow hanging over all this speculation is the tragic death of Anton Yelchin who portrayed Chekov. Abrams has wisely said that he can’t see the role being recast, so there would be a hole in the cast that would be felt deeply. Still, there are options, the best of which would be to add a female crew member to the mix (Saavik has already been suggested, which could create some interesting tension for Spock and Uhura).

In any case, 2016 is turning into a pretty cool year for Trek. With a great movie in the theaters and the January return to television with Star Trek: Discovery, the future looks promising.


What do you think of Star Trek, 50 years into the franchise? Did you like Beyond? Are you interested in Discovery?

TV REVIEW: Stranger Things


Stranger Things (Netflix)



In recent years, the sprawling success of Netflix has forced them to change their company strategy. Where once they were just another upstart distribution service for older movies, they soon came to be viewed as a competitor by their suppliers (Hollywood). As movie studios gradually pulled their content out of the streaming catalog, Netflix pivoted to focusing on TV series (becoming the new syndication standard) and on original content. Like a new network, the early days were about first making a name for themselves with interesting and provocative series, but also about just getting enough programming to fill time. Netflix went to creative minds and basically gave them carte blanche to create their show how they wanted. With this model, Netflix has had some big hits (Orange is the New Black) and a few whiffs (Hemlock Grove). Still, they’ve had an impressive track record to this point with prestige-style dramas (House of Cards), pulpy comic book adaptations (Daredevil), quirky sitcoms (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), compelling docu-series (Making  a Murderer), kids shows (Voltron) and adult cartoons (Bojack Horseman). They’ve even started financing the releases of actual films too (Beasts of No Nation). In 2013, Netflix’s chief content officer famously said, “The goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us.” That quote became prophetic as HBO launched a cable-free streaming option for all their content last year.

Last year, I caught wind of a new Netflix project with the working title “Montauk”. Winona Ryder had just been cast, giving the series a headliner with a good resume and name recognition. The project was billed as a supernatural mystery series set in Montauk, NY, and was described as “a love letter to the ’80s classics that captivated a generation.” It was being helmed by The Duffer Brothers, who I’d never heard of. From there, not much was said about the project for a good long time. Only in the last couple of months were trailers released for “Stranger Things” and I realized that this was “Montauk”.

The series was released on Friday and I burned through the 8 episodes in 3 days, probably the fastest I’ve binge-watched a Netflix series. I was completely taken in by this amazing show.

Instead of taking place in Montauk, NY, the Duffer brothers reset the show in a sleepy small town in Indiana in 1983. The story revolves around the disappearance of a 12-year-old boy and the mysterious events that begin to happen after that.

What really sets this show apart is the clear influence of the films of the 80’s, specifically Spielberg and his peers. Familiar tropes from those films are joyously adapted into this fresh story. This is homage at its finest, but the Duffers don’t just copy and paste, they update the ideas of those films and view them through a 21st-century lens. Take Ryder’s character as an example. A frantic and grieving mother character may be familiar, but she dials her performance to 11 and doesn’t pull any punches. The same goes for David Harbour’s depiction of the small town sheriff. He’s a complicated and wounded man, struggling through depression with sex, drugs, and alcohol. Probably a little too real for the Amblin pillars of the 80’s.

And then there’s the central group of kids. They’re perfectly cast. Just perfect. Their chemistry is undeniable and it’s just a joy to be part of their world when it gets spun around by the scary events of the story.


All the familiarity of this genre plays so well in this series. As someone who grew up watching those movies all the time, it feels so warm and nostalgic to see those beats hit again with such precision and skill. I had a similar feeling about JJ Abrams’ film “Super 8” a couple years back. But the series format of “Stranger Things” allows the story to breathe more and for the characters to travel further on their journeys.

And the music. Oh my goodness, the music. The Duffers were apparently granted enough cash to buy the rights to some great music from the early 80’s, which lends a lot of authenticity to the show. However, it’s the John Carpenter-evoking score that really stands out to me. As soon as the iconic title sequence begins, I get goosebumps. The dark synths are incredible (courtesy of Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein of the Austin band SURVIVE). Couple that with the iconic fonts and the subtle film scratch effects, this is a gorgeous sequence that perfectly sets up the vibe of the show.

I’m not going to post any spoilers regarding the storyline of the series because I highly recommend you watch it for yourself. I’ve watched lots of Netflix’s series and this one is my favorite with a bullet. It’s thrilling, funny, scary and emotional. It’s 8 episodes long and has a beginning, a middle and an end. With that said, I’d love to hear Netflix announce a renewal of this series. Watching it is like watching an up and coming band at a small club and realizing that the next time they’re in town they’ll probably be playing an arena. Watch the Duffer brothers now before they’re making awesome summer blockbusters or Marvel movies.



A short list of awesome films that influence “Stranger Things”:

  • Explorers
  • The Goonies
  • E.T. – The Extraterrestrial
  • Flight of the Navigator
  • D.A.R.Y.L
  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind
  • The Last Starfighter
  • Stand By Me
  • Invaders from Mars
  • Jurassic Park


Anticipating Star Trek Beyond

trekbeyondcloudspossm_bigThere’s a new Star Trek movie coming in July! And, frankly, unless you read a lot of geeky film blogs, you may not have realized that the 3rd film in the series was even imminent. Indeed, the franchise underwent a creative turnover (or two) in the last few years. JJ Abrams departed the directors chair to helm Star Wars: The Force Awakens (you may have heard of it). After some uncertainty and a jettisoned first script, Justin Lin was brought in to direct a script written largely by Simon Pegg (who also plays Scotty in this series). News was only trickling out on this film for a long time, but it was assumed that Paramount had a vested interest in capitalizing on the 50 anniversary of the franchise this year. Was the film going to be rushed into production? Did the creative team learn their lessons from Star Trek Into Darkness? Would we finally get away from earth in this installment?

Then the first teaser trailer dropped back in December and… umm…. this is it:

Yikes. For the geeks who worried that Justin Lin would turn Star Trek into another entry in his other franchise (Fast and the Furious), this did little to calm them. Frenetic action, loud music, motorcycle stunts. Blah. It didn’t feel like a Trek movie. And from that point it, it was largely radio silence from the studio. Simon Pegg went on record asking fans to be patient and promising that teaser trailer was more about the marketing department than about the actual film. Patience paid off last week when the marketing blitz finally launched with a proper trailer.

Pegg was right, patience was a good idea. This trailer looks much better than the first.

We get some great, wide shots of space battles (and confirmation that the Enterprise is going down).


We get some great character moments.


We get a great look at our brand new (thankfully) villain played by the amazing Idris Elba.


And we get just enough of a hint as to the story to make us want to know more.


Plus, this amazingly cool warp shot that’s unlike any we’ve ever seen.


I’m totally excited for this.

Stray Observations: Super Bowl 50

Another Super Bowl has come and gone, but this one was brought to you with no roman numerals! Crazy. Here are a few random thoughts on this year’s big game.

The Game

I watched most of the game, but it was in a large house with a large number of small children making lots of noise. After a while, it just became a dull hum in the background. It’s fun watching the game with my sons though, even if they can only pay attention for about 5 minutes at a time. They both seemed to care very much about who won though. Our family decided early on that we were pulling for the Broncos and for Peyton Manning to go out on top. So every time the Broncos did something good or the boys noticed the score, they cheered loudly for “their” team.

Like many people going into the game, I thought the Panthers were the favorites to win. Their recent, lopsided playoff victories (in addition to their near-undefeated regular season) seemed to suggest they would overpower the Broncos and their small-scale offense. BUT, the same arguments were made two and a half weeks ago when the Broncos were getting set to play the Patriots. In that game, the Broncos came out with a surprisingly pass-centered offense to start the game and got on the scoreboard early. From there, their amazing defense went to work holding down their opponent and won the game. So I figured that if the Broncos could score first and get a 7-0 or 10-0 lead, the game was theirs. However, if the Panthers went up 10-0 or 14-0, Newton and company would hoist the trophy.

In the opening quarter, I saw the Broncos following their side of the script perfectly. The offense got a lead and the defense went to work making Cam Newton’s life miserable. It was a defensive struggle punctuated by fumbles, INTs and pass rushes. And, of course, in the end – Defense Wins Championships.

Peyton Manning morphed into the role of offensive caretaker quarterback and just kept the offense from making too many mistakes once they had the lead. Many, including Peter King of MMQB, thought that the most valuable offensive player was the Broncos punter! But Peyton won his 2nd Super Bowl, tying him with his brother Eli, who was so very happy about it.

When Peyton won, he was quickly interviewed and said that he wasn’t thinking about retirement yet, he just wanted to kiss his wife and kids and drink Budweiser. Two things about this. First, before he kissed his wife and kids he kissed… Papa John!?

And second, does Peyton have an endorsement deal with Budweiser? They say “no”, but the truth is that Peyton owns some Budweiser distribution business. Oh and also, NFL commish Roger Goodell has banned players from directly promoting alcohol. So maybe this was a parting shot at the much-maligned commish from a retiring player? Or maybe Peyton just really likes boring macrobrew.

Also, why did Peyton receive a defective SB cap?!

What about the losing QB Cam Newton? Cam had a fantastic season. An MVP season. But when it came to the big game, he got handled by a fired up defense. They were chasing him all game long and forcing him into making some major mistakes (including a strip sack TD early). By the end, Cam seemed to have given up, opting not to dive for his fumble that basically sealed the game when Denver recovered it instead.

And post-game, he sat down for the required press conference and had very little to say before walking out.

Part of the walk out was probably due to the fact that he could clearly hear Denver players being interviewed and talking about how they had beaten Cam and forced him to all sorts of errors. That’s tough to listen to, but it’s part of losing and losing is part of the game.

My LVP of the game was Denver’s Talib, who incurred a bunch of violent and dumb personal fouls. Goodell is pushing a new rule where 2 personal fouls would trigger an automatic ejection. Talib would have been sent off early in this one. Dumb. Also…

But as the Panther’s Greg Olson said, “We picked a really bad day to kind of have a meltdown.”

Good game overall, though. I like seeing the defense be the talk of the game for once!

The Halftime Show

First of all, I really don’t like Lady Gaga, but she did  a pretty good job with the National Anthem. She’s got a good voice, why does she need all the other trappings?

I do like Coldplay, just not their more recent work. My dream playlist was mostly ignored in favor of other tunes, which is fine. They opened with their biggest recent hit and went from there into the single from their latest album. Still, the performance wasn’t very arresting. Chris Martin’s most memorable lyrics these days are apparently “oh oh ooohhh oh ooohh”.

Then Coldplay had a halftime of their own while Bruno Mars and Beyonce came out and actually got some real energy going. I remember when Bruno Mars headlined the show a few years back and I was actually surprised at how good he was. Again, he was great here. And Beyonce is good, but being the father of two young boys it was hard to feel good about all the scantily clad women and the suggestive dancing.

Coldplay returned from their halftime to join B&B for a mashup thing before everyone got lovey dovey with a remix of sorts of “Fix You” that felt like “We Are The World” or something. And maybe a same-sex marriage statement at the end?

So it was a mostly forgettable halftime show for me.

The Commercials

Some decent ones. I think that SB commercials that get the most reaction are the ones that are so weird that we love/hate them. You had the Doritos baby.

You had the Mountian Dew PuppyMonkeyBaby. I mean, it hits all the Super Bowl Commercial requirements!

I didn’t like the Prius series at all. Blah. And we’re cheering for bank robbers / car thieves?!?

My favorites were the movie trailers.

Jason Bourne.

Captain America: Civil War.

And X-Men: Apocalypse.

But maybe my favorite of all was Ant-Man vs. The Hulk.

Your Thoughts?

Coldplay Super Bowl Halftime Dream Playlist

So Coldplay is handling the Super Bowl 50 halftime show. It’s almost amazing that they haven’t played it yet as they are one of the most popular bands in the world. Still, their pop sound in recent years has gotten blander and blander. That said, I’ve put together a small playlist of songs that I’d love to hear from the band on Sunday. How many of these do you think they’ll actually throw into the set?

As you can probably tell, I like my Coldplay sleepy and dreamy. But I still like some of their classic hits too, just not much from the last 3-4 years.

I’m still holding out hope for a Sigur Ros halftime show in a few years. Or at the very least, how about a Minnesota-flavored show when we host the big game in 2 years! A big team up of Cloud Cult, Low, Polica, Atmosphere, Doom Tree, Trampled by Turtles, The Replacements (!?!), with an appearance by Prince himself!?! C’mon, that would be amazing!!!

Top Television of 2015

top tv

Television is experiencing something of an arms race with good shows. Blame Netflix and AMC. Netflix realized a few years ago that their success will become a threat to the studios that license content to them and become a problem. So they made the decision to start making their own content to plan for the future. As some movies and shows were whittled off their library, they began replacing with original offerings – and many of those were very, very good. AMC gambled with Mad Men years ago and have built a reputation for great dramas like Breaking Bad and now their prize is The Walking Dead. Other cable networks have followed suit and started putting out good original shows too and now every network seems to have a prestige drama to its name. And competition means that the viewers have more options than ever. Here are some quick thoughts on television shows that I really enjoyed this year.

Established Shows


Season one of the FX Original was a very pleasant surprise. Another surprise was when a 2nd season was commissioned and word came out that it would be set in the 1970s and follow one of the characters from season 1 in his younger days. Showrunner Noah Hawley has done a masterful job with this show and season 2 was probably the best show of the season for me. Extremely well written, acted, paced and shot. It was edge of your seat tense and laugh out loud funny (sometimes in the same minute). And I thought the conclusion was a perfect one. A 3rd season is now confirmed. I’m ecstatic.


Homeland has had its share of troubles in the last couple of years. After a fantastic first season, the show fumbled around with figuring out what to do for the next few seasons. This year, they’ve finally found a real winning formula of action, social commentary, and spy intrigue. Carrie Mathison is still the focal point, but they’ve spent time sketching out supporting characters a bit more, which helps. Plus, they’ve opted for a more “ripped from the headlines” approach, which actually suits the show very well. If you gave up on the show a couple years ago, you’d probably like this season.

The Walking Dead // Fear the Walking Dead

The Walking Dead is the most popular show on cable. It’s been good for a while now and this season has been quite good as well, but has felt a lot like a long lead-in to a bigger arc beginning next year. Still, it’s a fun and brutal show. Now that Mad Men has concluded, AMC decided to double down on the zombie apocalypse and order a spinoff show to keep up appearances during TWD’s off season.  Fear the Walking Dead explores the very beginning of the zombie outbreak through the lens of a blended family. It’s an interesting concept that a short 6 episode first season couldn’t fully realize. Still, I think there’s some potential for new ground to be broken there so the show doesn’t just turn into The Walking Dead: LA.

Game of Thrones

Ah, Game of Thrones. Everyone’s favorite epic fantasy show. This season was a bit hit or miss, but it all built up to a cliffhanger of an ending that has had everyone talking all summer. What makes it that much more arresting is the fact that they’ve finished all the material from the published books. So even the book readers don’t really know what’s coming now. The characters are still mostly despicable and nothing good ever really happens, which is part of why it’s so hard to look away.  How many more seasons will they have? And is so-and-so really such-and-such?!

New Shows

Last Man on Earth

There are a few shows that my wife and I really enjoy watching together. And this is one of them. It’s so, so good. Will Forte and Kristen Schaal are delightful in their portrayal of very crazy characters in a very crazy world. What I like is that this show often trots out some sitcom tropes, but they’re all tilted to a post-apocalyptic world where a small group of survivors are all we have.  In a world… where post-apocalyptic settings are a dime a dozen, this show has a refreshingly funny and sometimes touching take on the genre. Plus, their mid-season cliffhanger was very well put together.


Daredevil  //  Jessica Jones

Netflix finally debuted their much-hyped Marvel shows this year! They kicked it off with a Daredevil show that establishes itself as the most brutal things Marvel has done. It’s violent, bloody, shocking, and compelling. They built a hero, sure, but it’s the time they spent building up the villain that made the show so good. And the opening credits and gorgeous! Then, they rolled out Jessica Jones, a show just as shocking, but not because of its bloody violence. No, this show relies on demented psychological drama. Again, the hero is interesting and flawed, but the villain is so twisted and evil that you are drawn in instantly to the storyline. These shows prove that Marvel knows what it’s doing in the TV world as much as they have a plan on the silver screen.


Netflix commissioned a show centered on the drug empire of Pablo Escobar. The famous kingpin ruled a portion of Colombia in the 80’s and raked in millions of dollars selling cocaine. I have read an account of his crimes in a book called “Killing Pablo” and was shocked by the reach he wielded. This show is perfectly crafted to depict the ruthless nature of his crimes and the tactics used to try to stop him. And it’s mostly presented in Spanish, something many other networks would shy away from, making it seem all the more real.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

So Netflix has done very well with dramas like House of Cards and Daredevil, but what about comedies? This year, they gave us Tina Fey’s project Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. The set-up is wild: a woman has been held captive by a cult leader for years and is finally liberated and starts an independent life in NYC. It’s got the feel of 30 Rock, but with more sweetness from the main character and the underlying darkness of the premise too. I love that the first season arcs back and tackles some of the fallout from her past captivity. I can’t wait to see more from this show next year.

Master of None

Since Louis CK broke out with his great FX show that took a melancholic, semi-autobiographical approach, other comedians have coveted a similar vehicle. Aziz Ansari put together this show for Netflix that hints at “Louie”-level self-depreciation. But Aziz is not Louie and has a very, very different outlook on life. These episodes shine because they lean into issues like race and singleness and mid-thirties ennui. In some ways, it’s less like “Louie” and more like a subdued “Seinfeld”. And he casts his own parents in the roles of his on-screen parents and it’s priceless.

Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp

Besides putting out some good originals, Netflix has pushed some chips the way of resurrecting existing shows or properties (with, albeit, mixed results). Here, they took an underground cult classic movie and made a prequel series. Somehow, they managed to get all the principle cast back in some capacity (though many are big, big stars now) and just sort of turned them loose together for a wild and random set of episodes. I loved that it was all a big inside joke, especially because the characters are supposed to be teenagers but are clearly in their 40’s. The guest stars are fantastic and the story is just so bonkers. I loved it.

The Jinx

Ho boy, The Jinx was super weird, super creepy and super good. Capitalizing on the phenomenon that was the “Serial” podcast, HBO released this true-crime documentary series and happened to hit gold when the case kind of blew up again just as they were concluding the show. Viewers were immersed in the twisted murder mysteries as they unspooled and, eventually, tightened around the subject of the show’s neck. It was really incredible to see. Expect more true-crime docu-series from other networks after the success of this one (Netflix dropped one this month already).

Better Call Saul

Breaking Bad is gone and is greatly missed. But, as I mentioned before, AMC needed to backfill some of these heavy hitters fast. So in addition to a Walking Dead spinoff, they put together a Breaking Bad prequel centered on scumbag-with-a-heart-of-gold attorney Saul Goodman. And, somewhat surprisingly, it’s really good! Bob Odenkirk is great at his character and the supporting cast is also stellar. Plus, we actually care about seeing how Saul got from rock bottom to where he is in Breaking Bad.


Mad Men

Mad Men sort of defined the era of the anti-hero for awhile. Don Draper became a case study in how to write that new standard for flawed leading men. At its core, Mad Men was kind of a workplace comedy, but with a lot of drama and an exploration of the tectonic cultural shifts of the 1960’s. As the show came to a close, viewers were gifted resolution for many of the characters they’ve followed for 7 seasons, but some characters were left a little more open ended. Show running Matthew Weiner worked on The Sopranos, so you know he’s willing to let the viewers fill in the blanks. And that’s what he did here perfectly. I thought the final season and the final episode were the perfect way to send off one of the best shows of all time.

Parks and Recreation

It was another almost perfect send off for Parks and Rec. The last show standing from the Must See TV quartet of The Office/30 Rock/Community/Parks and Rec from a few years back. This show started as a shambling spinoff of The Office, but quickly settled itself and built its characters and its world into something truly special. For their final season, they time-shifted ahead and spent time in the future, which gave them a chance to do some more social and political commentary. By the time the finale rolled around, everything just felt right. And the way that they gave us a few things outright and kept others more veiled was perfect. Plus, they gave a number of bonafide movie stars their big breaks! I miss Pawney already.

Signs of Life – The State of the Minnesota Sports Union


Almost a year ago, I wrote up my first State of the Sports Union post and called it “Sports Scars”. Yes, Minnesota is one of the more tortured sports markets in the country due to a prolonged championship drought and a number of huge disappointments over the years. But I contended that things were finally starting to look up for all FOUR of our major sports franchises. Now that we’re almost a year removed from that outlook, how are we faring? Does my over-the-top prediction that Minnesota would have a championship parade before the end of 2018 still sound pie-in-the-sky? Let’s take a quick look around.

I’ll be honest, the wild are fourth on my interest scale for Minnesota sports teams. I’m just not a big hockey fan. However, this past season was a fun one to follow from a distance. The roster was looking very talented and poised to make a push into the postseason and win a series or two. The one area that was giving the team trouble was the goal tender position – it was just too spotty and unsettled. To their credit, the Wild didn’t sit idly by. They recognized that they may be one player away from a contender, so they went out and acquired someone they believed could be that player: Devan Dubnyk. Dubnyk sparked a really great run for the squad and they made the postseason and won a series. But then they hit the Blackhawks train and were summarily crushed.

What now? Well, it most think that re-signing Dubnyk should be a priority. Get the band back together and try again, right? The hated Blackhawks won the Cup and may need to re-tool, so the window is not shut for the Wild. But Dubnyk and his agent seem to be playing hardball a little on the money side of things. If they can get it worked out, this squad should be right back in it next season. They are definitely Minnesota’s most likely championship team right now.


Since last we spoke, the Twins actually showed that they are no longer satisfied with the status quo and didn’t want to wait too long to turn things around. They fired manager Ron Gardenhire and installed Paul Molitor as the new manager. Most still believed that this roster still had to spend a few years building before getting back into the postseason discussion. But, to the surprise of almost everyone, the team has been quite decent so far this season. They had a fantastic month of May, putting together one of the best in the majors that month. Their offense was potent and their pitching was surprisingly not terrible. They are doing so well, they were willing to go ahead and call up Byron Buxton this month and start getting him into big league shape! The nostalgic pick-up of Torii Hunter is actually looking like a great one as he’s contributed mightily on and off the field. The club looks like they’re having fun together again – playing pranks and organizing laser-lighted and smoke machine-enhanced dance parties after home wins.

Things have cooled a bit in June and the Twins aren’t holding down first place the division anymore. Still, if they can start swinging the bats again like they did in May, this team may just put themselves in the Wild Card discussion in August, something that sounded preposterous a year ago.



After a rough early season last year and a promising late-season surge, my beloved Vikings had a very, very weird offseason. The Adrian Peterson charges, the confusion, the reinstatement, the contract fiasco, the welcoming back, etc. I’m sick of talking about it. But all that seems to (finally) be in the rearview mirror. Adrian is back with the team and starting to say the right things about moving forward. Beyond AP, Teddy Bridgewater showed last year that he can be the real deal. He was poised and, more importantly, he learned from his mistakes without letting them get inside his head. Mike Zimmer has proved to be a great coach on and off the field, setting expectations for his players and also having their backs. GM Rick Spielman grabbed some great players in the draft including a play-making cornerback in the 1st round (Trae Waynes) and essentially traded old and slowed Greg Jennings for the flashy Mike Wallace. The table is set, the pieces are in place (copyright Brett Favre).

Now that the drama of last year is behind the team, they are calmly looking to the bright future. While last season should have just been a lost year considering all the distractions and injuries, there was a lot to like about how the young guns performed. Now, with the roster at full strength and roles more clearly defined, this team is on everyone’s list for a much-improved record and maybe even a Wild Card in the playoffs. The future is bright!



And finally, my Timberwolves. Last season was supposed to be about starting over. We had a raw and talented roster peppered with veterans to help them grow. This squad was supposed to finish close to the 8 spot in the Western Conference based on the talent they had. Well, the injury bug bit and bit hard on this team. Ricky Rubio missed significant time, as did many others. So while rookies Wiggins and Lavine got lots of playing time under their belts, the team sunk deeper and deeper in the standings (maybe by design?). In the middle of the season, coach and GM Flip Saunders borrowed a page from Twins GM Terry Ryan and brought back old fan favorite Kevin Garnett via trade. KG’s first game brought an electric sell-out crowd to the Target Center. It was awesome. They Kevin wore down quickly and didn’t contribute much at all to the team the rest of the way. Wiggins won Rookie of the Year, Zach Lavine won the Slam Dunk Contest, and that’s about it. The Wolves finished the season with the worst record in the league and the best odds to win the draft lottery. But that never happens to the Wolves, right?

WRONG! Through some kind of combination of quantum entanglement, dimensional transference, and magic, the Wolves won the #1 pick in the draft. Last night, they cashed that chip in on the highly touted Karl-Anthony Towns. Towns is an immensely talented player with defensive chops and will fit perfectly with Wiggins and Rubio. It’s a dream come true for this team. And Flip wasn’t done! Now, stealing a page from Rick Spielman, he traded two second round picks to Cleveland (we have an in with them after the Love for Wiggins and parts deal) for the rights to their first round pick – which became Minnesota native PG Tyus Jones! The Wolves were coveting Jones and trying to move up to get him, Flip even said as much when announcing the Towns pick. Jones is very young and will be a fantastic backup to Rubio (who gets injured every year it seems) and a change of pace guard who can shoot.

People are calling last night the best night in the history of the Wolves franchise. Industry analysts see the Wolves as a team on the rise, worth watching even! With a very young core like this, the Wolves can build into something very special over the next 5 or even 10 years if they can keep them together. I’m so, so excited about this team right now.



Yes, yes I do. I think the Wild are the top prospect since they’re already a playoff team.

Our next best hope has to be the Vikings, with the coaching and talent to contend in the next two years I believe.

Third best hope is the Wolves, who look like they’re built to win closer to 2020 thank ’18. But in the NBA, a young roster can gel and get to the promised land fairly quickly (see the Warriors).

And I still believe the Twins are the farthest off just because baseball is hard to judge and the pitching still seems like it’s a tenuous situation. But who knows? I’ve been very surprised by their season thus far this year!

All in all, it’s a great time to be a Minnesota sports fan! It’s looking more and more like 2015 may be the year that the tide finally turns!


The Sitcom is Dead – Long Live the Sitcom

Over the course of the last 25 or so years, NBC was the place to go for sitcoms. They were the ones willing to let a talented cast gel together while a team of writers and show runners found their footing to create a classic. It happened every few years, creating a long string of comedies that just passed the torch on to the next generation. The Cosby Show and Cheers to Seinfeld and Frasier to Friends to The Office to Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock to Community. It was quite a run for “Must See TV”. Now, it seems, NBC has turned its back on sitcoms. Parks and Rec may have been the last in a long line of comedy royalty for the network which is now focused on talent shows and action spy shows.

The defining comedies of this current era are housed at other broadcast networks. ABC has Modern Family which is probably the current gold standard even though it’s wearing its premise a bit thin these days and relying more and more on gimmicks. CBS has some of the top-rated comedies, but they are all critically hated and simplistic romps full of out-dated laugh tracks and broad, easy jokes. FOX has had some good success lately with shows like New Girl and Brooklyn Nine Nine, ensemble comedies that leverage their talented casts to create very good “situational comedy”.

Even so, it seems that the sitcom landscape is more barren these days than it has been in a long time. NBC, for sure, has opted to minimize their comedy lineup. If the historical kings of the medium are jettisoning it, what does it say for the future of the medium itself?

It seems like the future of comedy is about talented casts, creative writing teams and interesting concepts. Seinfeld was revolutionary for being a “show about nothing”, but it seems like today’s audiences aren’t wired that way anymore. Shows about 6 young people living silly lives together feels boring now. Plus the fact that Modern Family showed us that having a soft heart beneath the cutting jibes felt really good. For all the bumbling goofiness of Phil Dunphy, when he earnestly expresses his love of his family at the end of it all it’s endearing without being too cheesy like Full House. So the question becomes “how do you best combine these elements into new, interesting and funny sitcoms?”

This year, we got two amazingly good examples that have already become my two favorites comedies on TV right now.

Fox has given us Will Forte’s insane show The Last Man on Earth.  You talk about high concept, this show riffs on the current trend of post-apocalyptic settings by making Forte the (apparently) last surviving human on Earth after a virus destroys the rest of mankind. The pilot episode finds him wandering around Tuscan and basically treating the world like a college dropout treats his cheap apartment. He drinks, he goofs around, he gets creative with his hygiene needs and he grabs rare artifacts and scatters them around his home. Forte plays this role perfectly and we find the slob to be charming in spite of himself.

Of course, the concept would run itself ragged in about two episodes, so the show pivots and reveals its true conceit to a mostly unsurprised audience: he’s the last MAN on Earth, but not the last human. Forte’s character has been putting up signs that say “Alive in Tucson” all over the place and a female survivor finds him. Kristin Schaal’s character, Carol, is as quirky as they come and Forte, who has been absolutely yearning for companionship, finds her incredibly annoying immediately. Still, they are stuck together and watching them navigate their forced relationship is amazingly funny. Carol insists they get “married” before getting started on re-population, so they do. Just as they are settling in with each other, another twist is revealed. Another female survivor arrives – a beautiful blonde woman played by Mad Men’s January Jones. Forte’s character, Phil, is drawn to her immediately, but now he’s “married” to Carol. Watching his incredibly awkward attempts to seduce Jones while on the hook with Carol is so very funny.

And the whole thing is a brand new spin on old “relationship sitcom” tropes that breathes fresh life into those tired story lines. A fantastic cast, very talented writers and an interesting concept set this show apart. It might be the best comedy on broadcast TV right now.

Then you have Netflix’s new show produced by Tina Fey – Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. This show was originally intended for NBC, but the peacock passed on it after seeing the pilot. In stepped Netflix, jumping at the chance to work with Tina Fey. The result is amazing.  The charming and talented Ellie Kemper stars as a girl who was kidnapped by a cult leader and held in a bunker for years before being rescued and set free. Now she’s in New York City trying to catch up on her stolen life and become her own person. Again, a pretty unique concept for a sitcom.

What sets this show apart is the supernatural optimism that Kemper’s character has in the face of a difficult transition. As the title suggests, Kimmy is unbreakable – unwilling to live her life in the shadow of the horror she endured as a prisoner. Instead she’s trying to find her place and move forward. Early in the show she tells her NYC friends that you can withstand anything for 10 seconds, so when things are hard she counts to 10 and then starts on another 10 seconds after that. This infectious spunk and determination spreads to her acquaintances and everyone finds themselves stepping out a bit more and being less passive.

The show has many other threads running below the surface as well – racial stereotypes, gender issues, class warfare and politics, but these are all handled well and not turned into the focus. The focus is Kimmy and her journey and how she will interact with this new world she’s found herself in. Again, a riff on the “fish out of water” trope that puts a completely new spin on it. It’s not just “country mouse in the city”, it’s bigger than that. And there’s heart behind it too. We feel for Kimmy, we wonder what exactly the circumstances were behind her abduction and cult brainwashing. Yes, we get a flamboyantly gay black character, but there’s more depth to him than you may typically find in many such characters. And of course, with Tina Fey in the writer’s room you’ll get more great jokes per minute (jpm?) than almost any other sitcom.

So the sitcom is not dead, but it’s changing. As long as networks are willing to get creative writers with unique concepts and talented casts a chance, we’ll keep laughing.

The Last Man on Earth airs Sunday nights on FOX.

The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is available for streaming on Netflix.