Category: TV shows

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Over the course of Halloween, we treated ourselves to a binge viewing of the Netflix miniseries “Stranger Things”. If you haven’t seen it, I’ll offer that it was entertaining–an endearing homage to the nineteen-eighties, Steven King stories, and Sci-FI movies like “ET” and “Close Encounters”. And–full disclosure here–this is largely being lauded as a “period piece”, and the “period” in question is my own, particularly the time of my own childhood. Stepping back into a warm cocoon of memory is part of the enjoyment. Wall mounted rotary phones, old “Coke is it” commercials, Atari, 80s cars, shag carpeting, and brown upholstered furniture are evident everywhere.

I enjoyed also the assembly of 80’s science fiction and horror motifs: You have a group of nerdy middle school friends from broken or dysfunctional families bicycling all around town with little adult supervision or intervention. You have disappearances and other creepy events occurring to people in a small Midwestern town surrounded by a terrifying forest. You have a secret government lab performing mysterious experiments. You have strong (though flawed) characters trying to rise heroically despite their circumstances (the mildly psychopathic yet truth-seeking Sheriff Hopper is a prime example).

In sum, you could find worse ways to spend 7 hours.

Also, stop reading now, because I want to discuss the ending.

But do come back at some point.

Ok, this is the last warning before I plow into details you might not want to know yet…

One of the standout performances for me is the grimly determined orphan “Eleven”, played by 12 year old actress Millie Bobby Brown. Her young eyes radiate despair and terror and hope so hauntingly that it reminded me a bit of Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense”. She surfaces mysteriously into the lives of three friends, who soon learn that she has extraordinary gifts. They also soon find themselves on the run from shadowy government agents, while also hoping to figure out a way to find their missing friend Will.

Since this is a religion-focused blog, I would be remiss to avoid discussing how Eleven (“El” to her friends) is almost a Christ figure. She is of mysterious birth. She possesses an almost unimaginable power–she can levitate objects, kill with a thought, and create portals between parallel worlds. Her life is one of near constant suffering. She reaches out in friendship to the youngsters and loves them. In the end, she sacrifices herself to save the others. Her story is a picture of sacrifice and salvation–one innocent sufferer giving her all so that the others may live. As Jesus stated ages ago, “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

The story involving the missing boy Will Byers, can also be seen as a parable of redemption. Early in the series, he disappears into the grim, toxic, and deadly “Upside Down”–a kind of hell existing in parallel to our universe. His mother, portrayed by Winona Ryder as a petite nervous wreck who never gives up hope, is a spot of emotional warmth. She believes she can communicate with her son and will go to any and all crazy lengths in order to do so; for example, when the now invisible young Will somehow makes some lights blink, she responds and by the end of that day she has every inch of her little house plastered with Christmas lights. When she figures out that he is trapped in a parallel universe, she finds a way to the portal in the basement of the heavily guarded government lab, braving the risk of arrest or murder at the hands of the government men. She enters the “upside down”, braving the toxins and monsters, in a quest to retrieve her lost son. Against all odds, she finds him and takes him out of there. He is redeemed, taken back from the shadow of death, retrieved from the grip of Hell and its monster.

The “Upside Down” is also thought provoking in a theological way. In this story, the “upside down” is a parallel universe, one of many possible alternate realities, like ours but inverted. It has the same geography and even the same buildings–houses, schools, and tree forts–but everything is dark, gloomy, and cold. The air is toxic. A terrifying monster inhabits this land. It is hellish.

What if the Christian “Heaven” and “Hell” are in fact alternate dimensions, peopled by versions of ourselves that are better or worse. Hell might be the “upside down”, and Heaven is an alternate reality that is better.

Along these lines, what if our world is actually the “upside down”, a sick and perverted alternate universe to some other better one. That would fit our appalling history of mass murder and other atrocities, both horrific and banal, that are etched upon history. What if we are the demonic versions of our better selves? By no means am I going to claim this as the real truth, or ignore that it wouldn’t quite fit the biblical narratives, but it can be fun to speculate.

I caught the finale of the Fox Miniseries “Wayward Pines”, another entry in the interesting genre of the dystopian future.  The series began with solid characters and an air of mystery–FBI agent Ethan Burke wakes up after a car accident, to find himself in the hospital of a small Idaho town.  He wanders around this sleepy locale which has the veneer of a lovely community, but something sinister lurks just beneath the surface.  He quickly finds that he can’t seem to leave–all roads circle back toward town.  A heavily fortified fence surrounds the valley, beyond which are heard unearthly howls, and we see glimpses of menacing creatures.  What is going on with this creepy town and its fearful residents?

Spoilers here: Stop reading now if you plan to watch the series!

Flash forward 10 episodes, and we have our answers.  We have learned that the town is really the brain child of a visionary scientist, who foresaw the end of humanity and created the town as a fortress and humanity’s last refuge.  The town’s residents were all cryo-frozen in 2015 and then reawakened 2000 years into the future.  The rest of humanity has meanwhile evolved into cannibalistic monsters (referred to as “aberrants” or “abbies”) that hunt and kill anything on feet.

In the final episode, the scientist, David Pilcher, reveals that he isn’t done playing God.  He doesn’t like it that Ethan Burke has “outed” him and his operation to the rest of the townspeople.  He has decided that it is time to pull the plug on this “batch” of humans by turning off the power to the protective fence.  Like many a screen villain before him, he listens to opera music in his opulent mountain lair and watches the progress of the cleansings.  His own henchmen turn on him and he is killed, but not soon enough to end the destruction he has unleashed. The mutants swarm in and kill most of the town fairly quickly in a set of fast paced scenes that seem reminiscent of zombie apocalypse movies like “World War Z”.  Ethan Burke rescues some of the townspeople, who make it into the fortified complex that overlooks the city.  Ethan blows himself up in an elevator shaft to kill many of the “Abbies” and saves the others.  His son is conked on the head by debris, and awakens from a coma three years later.

Ethan’s son finds that things have come full circle to where they were at the beginning of the series.  The town seems to be back to normal, but this is illusory. In fact, a cadre of cold-blooded fanatical youth have also survived, and managed to overpower the adults.  Everyone who survived the mutant apocalypse has been put back into cryo-freeze and a new batch of humans is living in terror under the malignant reign of these fanatical youth.  A statue to David Pilcher stands in a park where the bodies of three people dangle, hanged for trying to leave Wayward Pines.

I have to admit that I was left a bit crestfallen by the final twist at the end.  Did Ethan really sacrifice himself only to have the “Hitler Youth” take over?  If this is the fate of humanity, is it worth saving?  These are the interesting questions that have theological implications as well.  Even as we humans show brilliance in the face of hostile natural forces, using all of our cleverness and ingenuity to survive and thrive, we nonetheless remain our own worst enemies.  Despite the spark of divinity–that “image of God”–that is imprinted upon us, we are fallen creatures.  “Wayward Pines”, like Holy Scripture, doesn’t give an optimistic appraisal of our fortunes, when we are left to our own devices.   The final questions for humanity remain open: Will we destroy ourselves? Will we play God, or rather seek the real one?

image“Sleepy Hollow” is a show that trades on a formula: This or that cursed object or ritual is about to usher in the apocalypse, or visit some doom or tragedy upon an innocent girl, or both. It reminds me a bit of an old show called “Friday the 13th” in which a curio shop owner collected occult objects that the heroes were trying to get out of public circulation.

The first episode of “Sleepy Hollow” has a headless axe-wielding British horseman emerging from a barn to terrorize a sleepy upstate New York community. In what seems a mashup of Irving’s Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle, Ichabod Crane also mysteriously awakens 200+ years after facing the horseman in the 1700’s. In this telling, Crane is no wimpy schoolteacher, but rather a revolutionary war hero, played enthusiastically by Tom Mison, who is resurrected to take on this hideous beast. He teams up with a street wise female cop (Nicole Beharie), who becomes his partner of sorts. Some of the enjoyment in the early episodes is watching him cope with modernity, even as she must come to grips with the realization that there may be supernatural forces at work.

Fairly quickly, things take a turn for the apocalyptic. The headless horseman is none other than one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, who is about to usher in the End of Days.

The Bible is treated in typical media fashion as a book of arcana that contains a recipe and doomsday calendar for the earth’s end. (Of course, to be fair, there are some Christians out there that view parts of it this way, too). The Bible is discarded for the most part except to offer up a frightening passage here and there from Revelations or Ezekiel. I haven’t watched enough to see if they are even using real verses or just making stuff up. In any case, even if the verses are real, there is no context or theological framework to make sense of them. The show basically puts the scripture in a blender and hits “frappe”.

True believers will be saddened to note that although demons abound, there is very little of God to be found anywhere. The forces in play are demons, not angels. The wrath of Molech is substituted for the wrath of God. And of course, the End of Days can be averted if humans can just stop that next portal from opening, or disrupt a profane ritual involving dribbling blood on some tied up female victim, or just get get that [insert occult object here] off the streets.

Perhaps they should have stopped with the pilot. The proverbial “jumping the shark” occurred somewhere fairly early on. Two seasons now have seen a proliferation of creatures and occult entities to rival even what the old 1960s “Dark Shadows” soap opera could envision at its campiest. (A Barnabas Collins vampire would fit right in; Alas, but Jonathan Frid was born too early). At least “Dark Shadows”–and “Ghostbusters”, to name another that pops to mind–didn’t take themselves too seriously. In “Sleepy Hollow”, that sickening sound you hear isn’t the rolling of heads onscreen, but of eyes offscreen, as the show chugs along, introducing pied pipers, cursed Judas coins, good witches fighting evil ones, a demon named Molech snarling at his human servants, a Frankenstein monster created by Benjamin Franklin, and so on.

So consider watching this for the atmosphere (though this seems to get less creepy as the silliness mounts), and perhaps for some unintentionally campy fun. But don’t expect to learn anything of eschatological or biblical importance. You won’t find much similarity with Washington Irving’s tales, either, aside from some names.