Culture Crash 18-43: Netflix’s Binge-worthy Horror Drama, The Haunting of Hill House

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Welcome to Culture Crash, where we examine American culture. What’s new and old in entertainment.

It’s the week of Halloween, which means it’s the time of year to get a little spooked. Luckily, Netflix has your back.

Earlier this month, Netflix released The Haunting of Hill House, a 10-episode horror series loosely based on the novel of the same name by Shirley Jackson. The series follows the Crain family; two parents and five children, over the course of multiple timelines. We watch their time spent decades earlier in the Hill House, a creepy old mansion they moved into in an effort to flip the house, and we watch them in the present day. We know from the onset that whatever happened back in that mansion, it wasn’t good, and it still haunts them even now. 

It’s a scary show, and there are moments of pure horror, but mostly, it builds a lot of suspense. It’s also a well-done family drama. It features sibling rivalry, mental illness, drug addiction- it’s like This Is Us crossed with…The Shining.

Where many horror shows can feel like they exist just to gross us out with gore, this show feels created with a purpose. It will suck you in, thrill you, and haunt you. Perfect for a Halloween-week binge-watch.

The Haunting of Hill House is available to stream on Netflix now.

I’m Evan Rook. 

Culture Crash 18-41: Better Call Saul’s unique pacing and why it works so well

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Welcome to Culture Crash, where we examine American culture. What’s new and old in entertainment.

Television is a medium that heavily relies on shock. Over the years, cliffhangers have come to define TV. A season, or even an episode, almost always ends on a twist or a reveal designed to set up anticipation for the future.

One of the traditional ways that TV shows have kept these shock-and-awe moments coming is by moving things along quickly. As soon as some incredible act of deceit takes place, the show starts speeding toward that next signpost.

That’s where Better Call Saul, AMC’s Breaking Bad spin-off, differentiates itself. That show often moves at a glacial pace. It’s a law show with no case of the week format. It’s a show about drug cartels that focuses on the politics of the cartels much more than actual drug deals.

The nature of Better Call Saul is that it’s a prequel series to doom. We don’t want the flawed but lovable protagonist Jimmy McGill to become the scumbag we know we will become, Saul Goodman. As a result, Better Call Saul has a fanbase that revels in the slow, meticulous pace that sounds to outsiders like it would be boring. The faster the show moves, the quicker we’ll lose the characters to the madness that is Breaking Bad.

Most shows have no interest in slowing down, and for good reason. Audiences generally want to see the big moments, and don’t care much for the mundane ones. Better Call Saul has found a way to flip that dynamic on its head and still keep audiences totally engaged. It’s a daring experiment gone completely right.

The first three seasons of Better Call Saul are available to stream on Netflix. Season four is available on-demand through AMC.

I’m Evan Rook. 

Culture Crash 18-38: The funny and philosophical TV comedy, The Good Place

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Welcome to Culture Crash, where we examine American culture. What’s new and old in books, film, and entertainment.

Two years ago, NBC debuted a strange new comedy show called The Good Place. It was written by Michael Schur, a writer on The Office and the creator of Parks & Recreation, so people were willing to get it a change… but it’s logline was pretty out-there. It’s a half-hour comedy about people who died in the afterlife and, specifically, about Eleanor Shellstrop, a bad person who made it to heaven the good place thanks to a clerical error.

Usually, sitcoms and comedies are much simpler: A group of friends living in New York. A workplace comedy about a paper company or a superstore. Simpler is better, because each episode can take on a whole new identity. What The Good Place did was different. It was a comedy telling one story instead of endless stories. It’s serialized, every episode needs to be seen in order and, by the way, it’s phenomenal.

Sure, it’s a very high concept show about the afterlife and philosophy and, poignantly, what we owe to each other as human beings. It dives into what thinkers like Soren Kierkegaard and Plato thought about the universe, but it also never loses sight of its mission to entertain. The show began as a vehicle for Ted Danson and Kristen Bell and has evolved into a true ensemble, and now truly allows castmembers William Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil, Darcy Carden and Manny Jacinto to shine.

I don’t want to say too much, because the show is a rollercoaster ride with surprises and fun world-building that will translate better on the screen. Seasons one and two of The Good Place are now streaming on Netflix. Season three premieres Thursday night, that’s September 27, on NBC.

You’ll have a blast, learn actual philosophy, and suddenly enter an inside joke with millions on the internet whenever you watch a Jacksonville Jaguars game. That will make sense, I promise.

I’m Evan Rook. 

Culture Crash 18-34: The Joys of ‘Junk Food TV’

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Welcome to Culture Crash, where we examine American culture. What’s new and old in books, film, and entertainment.

When people talk about television, there’s generally a skew toward prestige TV. We discuss the achievements of Breaking Bad, LOST and Orange is the New Black, we marveled at the talent of Sterling K. Brown and Elisabeth Moss… and deservedly so! Those shows and actors are incredible and they have entertained many of us for hours on end with their high concepts and thoughtfulness. But there’s another brand of TV that’s easy to overlook, what I call junk food TV. In this comparison, those prestige shows are your nice dinners out: they’re prepared with care by professionals. This junk food TV is what you reach for when you just need something easy and fast and delicious.

For me, it’s MTV’s The Challenge. I’ve watched it for years- I know the running resentments and simmering dramas. I enjoy the athletic challenges, the backstabbing of the votes. It’s pure entertainment. For others, this is the role that Riverdale, Keeping Up With The Kardashians, or heck, even Family Feud hold.

Lately, my wife has come home and decompressed from hectic days by watching Nailed It on Netflix. Nailed It is a show where home bakers try imitating complicated recipes made by professionals, who make decadent desserts look easy. They typically fail spectacularly, and everyone has fun laughing and commiserating with each other. It’s fun, it’s light, it’s enjoyable.

Not every day can be a day when I feel up to the emotional weight of watching an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale or The Leftovers. Sometimes, I need to relax by flipping on The Challenge and watching 30-somethings try to race across platforms 20 feet over water and then vote their friends into elimination challenges. That’s just the way it is.

Junk food TV rarely wins awards or gets celebrated, but sometimes it’s what allows us to relax on a Tuesday night, and that’s worth appreciating.

I’m Evan Rook. 

Culture Crash 18-17: Netflix’s Battle Against Film Traditionalists

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Welcome to Culture Crash, where we examine American culture.  What’s new and old in books, film, and entertainment.

In recent years, Netflix has become a major player in the film  industry. They have used festivals as the launching pad for their buzzier titles like the animal-rights movie Okja and Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerwitz Stories. Last year, Netflix also made a big splash by acquiring one of Sundance’s biggest hits, Mudbound, which was eventually nominated for four Oscars.

But now comes the pushback: This year, the Cannes film festival announced Netflix films wouldn’t be considered for the fest’s top prize. Director Steven Spielberg said he considers Netflix movies to be made-for-TV and nothing more.

And now, the battle is on. Shortly after the Cannes announcement, Netflix announced they wouldn’t bother to bring any movies to the festival if they aren’t in contention for the highest honors. Since that announcement, film lovers have been thrown in the middle of the Video-On-Demand vs. Theater debate.

Does a movie lose merit if it doesn’t run in theaters around the country? Is a Netflix-release good for consumers, since they can watch, say, Will Smith’s latest film, Bright, in the comfort of their own homes? Or is it bad, since it loses some of that essential community feeling that comes with seeing a smash hit movie like last year’s Get Out or this year’s A Quiet Place with a packed audience?

Right now, it seems opinion is split. Of course, seeing a movie in a theater can be a transformative experience. The screen is huge, the sound is turned all the way up, and that means more immersion in the spectacle. But as theaters have gotten more and more expensive, you can also understand why many people prefer catching the latest releases on their couch. Plus, Netflix’s model has opened the doors for filmmakers who wouldn’t have a place at the big-budget-mega-studios.

Ultimately, the battle has only really just begun. It’s Netflix vs. film traditionalists and as for which side will win out in the end? Well, only time will tell.

I’m Evan Rook.

Coming Up On Viewpoints 18-17

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Our Right to Privacy in the Social Media Age

After the Cambridge Analytica scandal rocked Facebook, many of us have been left questioning what our right to privacy looks like in an increasingly digital world. When it comes to social media, who owns what information, and how do we assert the rights we do have? We talk to a professor of law about the legal issues associated with all those online profiles.

Religion In America’s Prisons

Since the beginning of the US prison system, religion has been suggested as a way to help rehabilitate criminals. We talk to Tanya Erzen, a professor of religion, about why that is and what role prison ministries play in the lives on inmates.

Culture Crash: Netflix’s Battle Against Film Traditionalists

Netflix is becoming a bigger and bigger player in the film world, which is leaving a bad taste in some people’s mouths. We look at the arguments for and against Netflix as a film distributor.

Culture Crash 18-10: Hulu’s Big Push

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For years, Netflix has been the top destination for streaming TV. The service dominates conversation and the culture, thanks in large part to hit shows like Stranger Things and Narcos.

But lately Hulu has been making more and more noise in the streaming space, and has the results to back it up. While Netflix has popularity, Hulu has accolades. Netflix’s blockbusters have never made much noise at awards shows and while they may be well-reviewed, the hype always seems to fade.

Hulu, on the other hand, is the exclusive owner of The Handmaid’s Tale, the drama that has swept every awards show in the past year and picked up rave reviews along the way. Now, Hulu has launched the ambitious show The Looming Tower, based on the non-fiction Puiltizer Prize-winning book of the same name by Lawrence Wright about the rise of Al Qaeda and the events leading up to 9/11 . And soon, Hulu will premier Castle Rock, their answer to Stranger Things that takes an episodic look at the Stephen King universe.

But the appeal of Hulu goes far beyond just their original series. Over the course of a few years, Hulu has amassed by far the best catalogue of older shows. This used to be Netflix’s bread-and-butter but over time, Netflix has lost shows and Hulu has gained them. Hulu now offers the ability to binge-watch game-changers of yesteryear like Seinfeld, Buffy the Vampie Slayer, Lost, ER, and many other primetime classics. Plus, Hulu is still the only streamer that has the option to watch current seasons of TV shows-like This is Us-as they air week-to-week.

It used to be that Netflix was the premiere choice for streaming TV. Now, though, things aren’t so simple. If you’re looking for a way to watch your old favorites and critically lauded current shows, the numbers suggest that Hulu’s may actually be your best option. But, take it from me, pay the extra $4 for the commercial-free plan. While paying extra money is a pain, Hulu’s so-called “limited commercials” plan is an even bigger one.

I’m Evan Rook.