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 18-37: Fall Sports

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

Fall is upon on. September is underway and with it comes the apex of the sports calendar. Last weekend, the NFL season kicked off and all month, the MLB’s pennant races and Wild Card hunts are shaking out. Then will come the MLB playoffs and the dawn of new seasons in both the NBA and NHL. Plenty of sports intrigue abounds this time of year- Four divisions in baseball are coming down to the wire, Jimmy Garoppolo has taken over at quarterback in San Francisco for a massive contract with very little in the way of experience, and you may have heard LeBron James is taking his talents to LA.

Those who don’t love sports may roll their eyes, but sports are one of our most inexhaustible sources of drama. An MLB pennant race or Playoff series can grow close and players will make or break their destinies–an error can doom a player to eternal shame. Just ask Bill Buckner. Or a clutch home run can cement your place in history. Just ask Kirk Gibson.

On the football side, The NFL will dominate TV ratings into February, even if they are falling year-to-year. Sunday Night Football truly is an event people gather to watch and over the next few months, controversial calls, big-time catches, and game-ending interceptions will dominate headlines on a Monday morning.

An essential ingredient in the drama of sports is just how elusive victory can be. Every season, only one team ends up champion. As a sports fan, you realize that more often than not, your team will lose- even for the frontrunners. But that glimmer of hope that this year could be the year keeps us fans hooked.

Personally, I’m hoping Kris Bryant can return to form after an injury-plagued 2018 campaign and Khalil Mack can be a difference maker for my Bears. Across the country, many others have wishes of their own. Autumn means plenty of things- pumpkin spiced lattes, apple-picking, and trick-or-treating- but as the days grow shorter and our sweatshirts get more and more use, many of us will also pass our evenings and weekends watching sports. Here’s to hoping this fall provides sports-lovers with a worthwhile ride.

I’m Evan Rook. 

Culture Crash 17-26: TV Theme Songs

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TV theme songs: they’re the soundtrack to our childhoods, adolescence, and Sunday nights. But have you ever stopped to think about their evolution… or how many of them you know well?

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

Our senses can trigger all kinds of nostalgia. Maybe the smell of your mother’s cooking reminds you of childhood or the sight of your high school brings back memories of the awkward years. But most things pale in comparison to the sound of an old TV show’s opening credits song.

For you, it may be Full House. If you’re like my dad, it’s the whistling from The Andy Griffith Show, but all of us have some show’s song that got lodged in our heads and stayed there for life.

More recently, the Mad Men opening song had the strange ability to drop us into the 1950s world of Don Draper and HBO’s Game of Thrones takes audiences on an epic journey throughout Westeros at the start of each episode. But have you ever stopped to think about the evolution of opening credits?

They used to be set to cheesy made-for-TV music, feature silly yellow fonts and exist just to credit the cast. Each character would turn, face the camera and smile while their name appeared on the bottom of the screen. Then, shows went mainstream. Who could ever forget the iconic Friends sequence where the characters danced in a fountain to the tune of “I’ll Be There For You” by The Rembrandts? The Friends credits were such a hit that the song, which was written for the show, ended up on the top 20 on Billboard’s Hot 100.

As TV grew more serialized and darker, these sequences grew up with them. They became more artsy and cinematic in shows like Six Feet Under or The Wire. And now shows may not even include opening credits, opting instead for a simple title card. But many shows, especially on Netflix and HBO, have learned to set the tone for their show with beautiful opening credits.

The internet went crazy for Stranger Things‘ simple credits which featured spooky music and a closeup of the retro font coming together to spell out the show’s title. And who hasn’t sang along to Orange in the New Black‘s Regina Spektor opening as picture of inmates fly by?

Whether you fast-forward through them or find something new to enjoy every time, opening credits occupy a lot of time for any TV watcher. I particularly loved the 11-second opening to NBC’s short-lived The Black Donnellys and the various versions Boy Meets World ran through over its run.

TV credits are so simply but have somehow come to mean so much.

I’m Evan Rook.