Stranger Things

Only A Number

{First Published In The Hindu Metroplus}

Indian cinema has long been notorious for its ridiculous gender gap. That fifty plus heroes are paired with heroines who are half their age (or less) even in this day and age is not something that is surprising anymore – in fact, it’s convention. The situation is just as bleak in the west, with Hollywood also afflicted by similar gender parity in both casting and in pay. It’s as if every female actress in the world comes with some kind of expiry date, after which they’re exiled to smaller, less significant roles. While films still have a long way to go, it’s heartening to note that television, or at least recent television has created a space for older female actors. More and more shows with strong women leads who don’t necessarily fit into the cookie-cutter versions of female TV characters (young, beautiful and full of first world problems) have been cropping up the past year.

Take the case of Sarah Jessica Parker. I’ll admit that despite being a huge fan, I was relieved to see the end of Sex And The City. It was painful to watch her as Carrie in the last few seasons, for she had obviously aged but was still being written like a twenty-year-old. In her newest show Divorce, however, she takes on the role of a woman struggling through a dysfunctional, middle-aged marriage. The show works because of its painful honesty, an honesty that wouldn’t have been possible without the caliber of an actress like Sarah Jessica Parker, who doesn’t just play Frances, but becomes her.

Winona Ryder, one of the eighties’ most iconic actresses, made a splash on the smaller screen by wresting all attention in Stranger Things. Her performance as the distraught small town who must make sense of the bizarre happenings that shroud her son’s disappearance made the show for me. Interestingly enough, the other character who stands apart among the varied and diverse cast of the show, is twelve-year-old Millie Bobby Brown. Brown blew me away as ‘Eleven’, a child on whom unspeakable experiments have been conducted on, and is additional proof that when it comes to being a lead, age and gender are mere constructs.

Grace and Frankie rounds off the list of my favourite shows with unconventional and (much) older female leads. This heartwarming comedy about two seventy-year-olds trying to reclaim whatever is left of their lives after their husbands declare their love for each other, resonated with me in ways I never expected it to. Given how sixty plus actresses are usually relegated to two minute roles of crazy grandmother, it’s brilliant to see 78-year-old Jane Fonda and 77-year-old Lily Tomlin light up the screen the way that they do, and have always done.

There are a few more shows that I can list with older and nuanced female leads. There’s How To Get Away With Murder, starring Viola Davis as a powerful lawyer with a turbulent life, and although I’ve stopped watching Empire, there’s really no doubt in my (or anyone else’s) mind that the life of the show is Taraji P Henson in her role as Cookie Lyon. Veep is another example of a series whose success has hinged entirely on Julia Louis-Dreyfuss’ comic talent and timing.

Shows which are brave enough to go all out on a female lead are few, but it is heartening to note that there is a palpable change taking place across the film and television fraternity. One can only hope that more shows with older female leads make it to screen, after all, actresses, like fine wine, only get better as they age.

The Great Escape

{First Published In The Hindu Metroplus}

The American elections are on Monday, and from what I read in the newspapers, it seems like Donald Trump has a legitimate chance at becoming President of the United States of America, and perhaps the most important leader in the free world. As if that’s not depressing enough, NASA has just released a video which shows how the Arctic ice-caps are on the verge of disappearing altogether, putting a greater question mark over life as we know it. During times like these, you can’t help but wish you were in a different planet altogether. While that’s an impossible task (at least at the moment), I can give you the next best thing: Immersive, critically acclaimed television shows that will pull you into another world, even if it is only for a weekend.

Game of Thrones – The most obvious choice if you’re looking to spend the weekend doing nothing but staying glued to your screen. Game of Thrones, apart from being one of the most talked about shows in the world, is an engrossing fantasy series that takes place in the medieval world of Westeros. If you like the ideas of becoming familiar with evil queens, men who rise from the dead, and giant fire breathing CGI dragons, this is the show for you. {Game of Thrones is available to stream on HotStar, and the sixth season is presently telecast on Star World Premiere HD}

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Westworld – If you’re more of a forward looking person, then you should try Westworld, which is based in the future. Westworld is about a futuristic theme park that is inhabited by very realistic robots. Inspired by the novel written by Michael Crichton and directed by Jonathan Nolan, Westworld’s premise lies in the very uncomfortable thought of artificial intelligence becoming so human-like, that they begin threatening our very existence. The visuals are stunning, and the show is technically brilliant, but the real success of the show are the questions of morality that form its core.
{Westworld is available to stream on HotStar, and the sixth season is presently telecast on Star World Premiere HD}

Stranger Things – Stranger Things, technically, doesn’t take place in another world – the story is based in a sleepy, small American town in the ‘80s. The story revolves around four children whose friend suddenly goes missing after a night of board games. The more they try to investigate into the disappearance, the more they realize that something mysterious and terrifying is taking place in their town. Stranger Things is a must watch if you enjoy Stephen King novels or are generally nostalgic about the good old days when kids had to ride their cycles everywhere and played board games instead of playstations.
{Stranger Things is presently streaming on Netflix}

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The Americans – The Americans is another show that takes on the 80s, albeit in a completely different light, for its focus is on the Cold War between Russia and America. The show traces the life and times of Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings who are a wholesome suburban couple by day, but Russian KGB agents by night. It’s incredibly fascinating to watch, and that isn’t just because of the wigs, elaborate disguises and 80s spy equipment. The Americans is one of those rare shows which will twist perspectives, make you root for the apparent bad guys, and question your own moral compass.
{The Americans is presently telecast on Star World HD}

Out of This World

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

Netflix’s most recent production, Stranger Things, released to great reviews and ratings the previous month, with critics calling it the show of the year thus far. I watched the trailer the day it released as well, and it looked very much like a horror series, a genre that I grew to loathe ever since I saw The Ring on television one evening and lost sleep for a week. I avoided watching it, but after seeing everyone rave about the show, and after getting confirmation that it wasn’t of the horror genre, I sat down with the series, and what a great decision that turned out to be.

Stranger Things is set during the early eighties, in the sleepy American town of Hawkins, where the worst thing that has ever happened is an owl mistaking someone’s hair for a nest. Things change, however, when a 12 year old boy, Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) disappears on his way back home one night. His anxious mother, Joyce (Winona Ryder) and his three best friends, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) set out to investigate his disappearance, only to unravel terrifying secrets that have been buried in the town, including a hungry alien monster, a gateway to a parallel universe, and a little girl with extraordinary abilities.

Stranger Things, I insist, does not belong to the horror genre, but there is a great deal of homage that is paid to Stephen King as well as Steven Spielberg – which means that the show does have more than just a few moments of eerie silence followed by jolts of revelation and visuals of reptilian aliens who squelch around. However, it manages to remain tame enough for the rest of us who are still getting accustomed to the dark.

Winona Ryder, who’s probably the biggest, and most recognisable star in the cast, is flawless as Joyce, the agitated and overworked single mother who falls apart while looking for her lost son. She doesn’t know how or why, but she’s convinced that her son is alive and is trying to communicate with her from another world through phone calls and light bulbs – a conviction, that only begets sympathy from everyone she talks to about this, as opposed to an inspection, or even curiosity. Her only hope of finding Will lies with Chief Hopper (David Harbour), who, after initially rubbishing everything that Joyce says begins to encounter mysterious happenings during the investigation himself, and takes it upon himself to get to the bottom of whatever is going on.

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The real show stealers, however, are the (very) young actors who play Will’s friends. Normally, I find most television children to be annoying, but Mike, Lucas and Dustin will want you wanting to be part of their little gang. The boys encounter a young girl (Mille Brown, who delivers an extraordinary performance) during their first search for Will, and bring her home, only to discover that she has telekinetic powers, and holds the key for finding Will.

There is even a little high school romantic triangle that is played out in the show, involving Mike’s sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer), Will’s brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), and the most popular guy in their high school, Steve (Joe Keery). This angsty hormonal teenager trope seems trite in a show like Stranger Things, but it is towards the end of the show that the writers turn this unnecessary romance on its head and give this otherwise grating storyline a gratifying conclusion.

Given Stranger Things’ storyline with the eighties setting, the curious children and the aliens, there was a great chance that the show could’ve felt overdone, if not mundane. It is to the credit of the Duffer brothers, who developed the series, imbibed a great deal of originality into the mostly nostalgic plot line, that Stranger Things is not a visually superior and edgier mishmash of every alien film which came out in the eighties, but a show that is well and truly out of this world.

{Season 1 of Stranger Things is currently streaming on Netflix}