television

The "Twilight Zone" Reboot Has One Major Problem: Its Runtime by Keith LaFountaine

I will preface this by saying that, while The Twilight Zone is one of my favorite television shows of all time, it was not a perfect show by any means. While it had game-changing episodes, biting social commentary, and a wild imagination driven by its incredibly talented writers and directors, it also had its fair share of duds - episodes that didn’t work for one reason or another, writing that would get overly preachy, or episodes that feel astonishingly antiquated upon rewatches.

The Twilight Zone reboot, developed by Jordan Peele and Marco Ramirez and hosted by Peele, will run into this issue as well. it’s the nature of creating an anthology series. However, it has one major issue that it is currently struggling with, even just two episodes in, and it’s one that hurt the original series during its initial run: an overly long runtime.

“Death Ship”, Season 4, Episode 6

“Death Ship”, Season 4, Episode 6

The Twilight Zone, for four out of its five seasons, was a 20 minute show (excluding commercials). It was lean, and that helped spur some of its storytelling. Writers didn’t have the opportunity to spin their wheels; they had 20 script pages to set up a beginning, a middle, a twist, and a resolution. And, as I mentioned before, this worked with varying success. Some episodes, like “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” greatly benefited from this truncated runtime, while others, like “The Big Tall Wish” suffered because of it.

On the verge of cancellation after season 3, The Twilight Zone was pushed into the time slot of a show that had been cancelled — a time slot that was an hour long. Therefore, the show was amended to deliver hour-long episodes. The result, save for a few exceptions (like “Death Ship”, pictured above), was a lot of slow, plodding episodes that felt padded to fill an arbitrary runtime.

Times have changed, and audiences in 2019 are much more accustomed to 1-hour long episodes than they were in 1963. However, the Twilight Zone formula — which Peele keeps largely intact from the original series — has not progressed with the times. “The Comedian”, available to watch above, feels especially long, clocking in at a whopping 55 minutes. And while there is some especially good stuff in there (including a great performance from Kumail Nanjiani), I started checking my phone at the 20 minute mark. The concept is good, but after it’s introduced we get 25 minutes of repetition, dragging down both the quality and my enjoyment of the episode.

The second episode that has been released — “Nightmare At 30,000 Feet” — struggles in the same way. With a runtime of 37 minutes, it’s not as long as the preceding episode, but it still feels like it could have been shortened in some way. Again, it starts off with promise (starting in a similar place as the original episode, but then taking an exciting, modern turn) but then spins its wheels over the same basic conflicts to the point of mundanity.

What is the result of these longer runtimes, besides languid pacing? The twist endings don’t feel as enjoyable and mind-boggling as they should. “Nightmare At 30,000 Feet” is the perfect example of this. By the time the twist is revealed the viewer has either already guessed it or is underwhelmed by it. The same can be said of “The Comedian”, though that episode doesn’t really operate with a “twist”, more with poeticism.

As I said, there are going to be some growing pains for this reboot. It’s natural — it was a part of the original show’s lifespan, and it will be a part of this one’s, too. However, I think if this reboot sticks with its 40-60 minute runtime it is going to suffer for it. There is a reason the original series switched back to a 20-minute time slot as soon as it could: as good as the writing, direction, and acting was these concepts were conceived with more vigor and passion when under the constraints of a shorter runtime.

I could be proven wrong — maybe these two episodes were just duds, and we will see many masterpieces in the future. I hope that Peele’s reimagining sticks around; nowadays, more than ever, we need a show like The Twilight Zone. However, if there is one major barrier that the show is going to face, in my opinion, it is its runtime.

Netflix's "Queer Eye" Is the Perfect Feel-Good Reality Show for Everyone by Keith LaFountaine

I am not someone who tends to enjoy reality shows. Except for the occasional Gordon Ramsay show or old re-runs of Ghost Hunters that I watched when I was a kid, I tend not to watch any reality television simply because I don’t tend to like it. The main reason I dislike reality television is because it feels fake. As a filmmaker, I can tell when emotion is being elicited or edited in, rather than organically integrated. American television is especially guilty of this.

Yet here I am, about to praise and laud a reality show for being both honest and realistic.

Queer Eye is not the kind of show I would seek out on my own. When I was introduced to it by my girlfriend and our friends I was initially skeptical. After all, I don’t like reality television and I really don’t like makeover shows — they’re just not my thing. Yet Queer Eye approaches these genres with a fresh eye and an exciting amount of energy that makes it infectious to watch and impossible to skip. While it adheres to a specific episodic formula (as most reality television does) every episode is imbued with its own personality, often based on the subject the Fab 5 are tasked with assisting.

Most importantly, what helps set Queer Eye apart from other reality shows, and other television currently airing, is its genuine heart and the five affable men who star in the show. Whether they’re helping an older guy who likes making redneck margaritas and going to car shows, or helping a trans man become more confident after his top surgery, they approach each person with honest endearment and affable joy, so much so that it is compelling and heartwarming.

That’s a core part of what helps make Queer Eye a great show for all kinds of people, no matter where on the sexuality spectrum you find yourself. Every member of the Fab 5 brings a unique perspective to each episode and to each person, elevating the show above the typical “reality show” feel and injecting heart and engaging humor in a genre that is often lacking both of those qualities. More importantly, each member of the Fab 5 is drastically different and unique — and did I mention they are all genuinely friendly and loving? I’m actually speaking from personal experience here: I had the opportunity to meet and chat with Antoni Porowski before an event at a local college, and he is one of the nicest, most down-to-earth people I have ever met.

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I think if I was going to come to a general thesis of this blog post, it would be simple: Queer Eye and its team uses the reality television formula and aesthetic to communicate the love, joy, and happiness they want to spread into the world. That’s part of what helps separate it from other shows in its genre; it’s not trying to use misleading editing to create drama, nor is it listless and devoid of meaning — far from it. Rather, Queer Eye (which only releases 8 episodes a season) approaches every person without judgment and with the sincere desire to help. In a time where cynicism seems to be around every corner, that kind of optimism is desperately needed.

In an early interview, after the first season dropped on Netflix, the Fab 5 did an interview (which I will link below) where they discussed both the show and their approach to it. Tan, the fashion perspective on the show, brought up an interesting point that gets at the heart of what I’m trying to say (it starts at 0:53 for those who are interested in watching).

The original show was fighting for tolerance, and it was different to our show because of this: the original show, it was at a time when the audience wasn’t ready to hear about the intimate lives. They wanted the glossy version of what gays are, and that’s all that America was ready for. That’s all the world was ready for. Times have changed. We don’t want you to just think that we’re a bunch of gay guys who can make something pretty - that’s not the case anymore...We want you to accept us as your kin. We want you to accept us as the people we are. We are just men who are out to help, and do the best we can to help everybody that we meet.
— Tan, FOX 5 DC Interview

No matter what your sexual identity or orientation is, I can confidently say you should give Queer Eye a shot.

More important than that, though, I can promise you that you will not find a more enjoyable, uplifting, wholesome, or optimistic show on television right now. The lengths that this team goes to to make both the heroes (as they affectionately dub the folks they help) and the fans they meet happy and feel loved is unlike anything I have seen on television before. It’s something everyone can connect to, whether you are straight, gay, bi, trans, asexual, or anywhere in-between on the sexuality spectrum.

Give it a shot. Watch an episode or two. I have a sneaking suspicion that you won’t be able to stop, just like I wasn’t able to.

"The Haunting of Hill House" Is More Than Just a Ghost Story by Keith LaFountaine

One of my favorite ghost stories is Oliver Assayas’s 2016 film, Personal Shopper. In it, a woman named Maureen (played by Kristen Stewart) searches for a way to contact her deceased twin brother while working as a personal shopper for a famous actress.

Why is it one of my favorite ghost stories? Because, at its core, it’s an intensely human story. It’s the kind of film that uses its supernatural elements to further elevate the core plot and character dynamics at its core.

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The best horror movies are the ones that understand humanity. I don’t mean just on a superficial level; I mean films that genuinely understand what fear is and why we feel it. These kinds of films help grasp the abstract concept that is “fear” and helps put a face to it; more importantly, it explores these feelings in unique, complex ways.

This is part of the reason why Mike Flanagan’s Netflix series, The Haunting of Hill House is so effective. Not only does it have some creepy moments (in fact, every episode of the show has at least one big horror set piece that is sure to make your skin crawl), its cast of characters, and the story of lingering trauma it is telling make this more than a simple ghost story. This series isn’t just about doors creaking and apparitions floating in the periphery of the camera lens; this is a difficult exploration of how trauma can affect children, even long after they have been removed from a toxic environment.

This is nothing new for Mike Flanagan’s work, either. While I have not been the biggest fan of his work, I have always respected his continuous effort to inject mature storytelling into the horror genre, which (thanks to franchises like The Conjuring) is becoming more juvenile every year. His stories are, as I put it earlier, intensely human.

You can notice this in the way he constructs every moment of this show (he directed all 10 episodes); the majority of his jump-scares are well crafted and representative of the childlike lens through which we are viewing them. The ghosts are grotesque and terrifying, but their design and their purpose are directly reflective of the struggles this family is going through. Ghosts are not used simply as antagonists in this show; they are visualizations of trauma.

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It’s this kind of maturity and precise storytelling that we need in horror. We are seeing it more often (The Witch, The Babadook, It Follows, It Comes At Night, etc.). However, I am hopeful that the success of Flanagan’s series gives other filmmakers the inspiration they need to tell different kinds of stories that have more tact, depth, and meaning.