Netflix

The Toys That Made Us

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

The Toys That Made Us

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

—Dennis Burger

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

Judd Apatow: The Return

Judd Apatow

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

—Michael Gaughn

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

Stranger Things 2

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

 

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

 

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

Netflix Stranger Things 2

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

—Dennis Burger

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

The Office: “Classy Christmas”

The Office Classy Christmas

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

 

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

The Office Classy Christmas

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

—Michael Gaughn

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

The Office

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Netflix The Office

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

—Michael Gaughn

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