Nostalgia may be based in the past, but it’s the future of entertainment. That’s how the media landscape has felt of late, with decades-old film franchises like “Star Wars” coming back to a very prosperous life, revivals like “Gilmore Girls” and “Will & Grace” dominating television, and everything from superhero movies to “Stranger Things” mining our childhoods for fresh material.
So as “When the Street Lights Go On” began and a familiar ’80s melody played over a montage of well-known events from 1983, wariness was the first feeling to set in: Here comes another attempt at manipulating our shared memories into “new” entertainment built on old ideas. But the deliberate and distinctive pacing combined with a uniquely mysterious presentation elevates the Paramount pilot above more overt nostalgia traps. And, more shocking still, its clever blend of on-the-nose songs from 1983 and lesser known numbers of the same year quickly and decisively help ground the pilot.
Told from the perspective of its 15-year-old star Charlie (“Parenthood’s” Max Burkholder), the pilot tells the story of a small town in Illinois overcome with unexpected violence. Chrissy (Nicola Peltz), a local high schooler, is murdered in the woods while making out with her teacher, and the locals don’t know how to respond. Suspects are few and far between, and rumors start to fly. Charlie, who lives across the street from Chrissy’s family, has a unique vantage point both literally and figuratively: He’s also a member of the school paper and wants to write about what happened.
Though that’s as far as the pilot gets, the show promises more mysteries are on the way, provides plenty of suspicious characters, and builds a world we’re not ready to leave so quickly. How the killer is captured hides their identity, creating a murder-mystery right off the bat, but what director Brett Morgen does show us begins to profile an anxiety-riddled and very angry person. Other characters are captured with similar teasing details: Chrissy’s boyfriend is violently angry after her funeral, but his motivations — be it for losing his girlfriend or finding out she was cheating on him — remain up in the air. A teacher (played by “Rectify’s” Luke Kirby) won’t let Charlie write about the murders. The prime suspect seems a little too obvious to be fit for the crime, even when it’s clear he is up to something.
Finally, Chrissy’s sister Becky (Odessa Young) is arguably the co-lead of the pilot. She’s the one found under the titular “Street Lights,” but there’s more to draw interest in the black sheep of the Monroe family than that. Though some details are passed along via unnecessary narration from Charlie, it’s the quiet scenes that build Becky’s allure. She’s thoughtful, emotional, and relatable, all conveyed while either grieving for her lost sister or fighting with her when Chrissy was still alive.
Morgen, along with freshman TV writers Chris Hutton and Eddie O’Keefe, sets these characters against the backdrop of a time period shifted just off its axis. Songs range from pop hits “Come Sail Away” by Styx and REO Speedwagon’s “Keep on Loving You” to “Sleep Walk” by Santo & Johnny and Robert Plant’s “I’m in the Mood” (released in 1983); the clothing and set dress are spot-on without distracting from the story; even era-appropriate lingo like Bill Murray’s famous line from “Caddyshack” (1980) — “So I got that going for me, which is nice.” — get dropped casually, with no expectation you’ll even catch the reference.
All of these subtle integrations do far more to create an eery feeling of Cold War unease than the far more blunt references in a show like “Stranger Things.” The 46-minute pilot doesn’t try to do too much, which works for it in terms of establishing a tone, if also a little against it in guaranteeing a fresh story throughout a season (or series). What this will become beyond a murder-mystery is unclear, but how it’s told should hook nostalgic audiences as well as anyone who’s jumped on the serialized true crime bandwagon (a la “The Night Of”).
So who should be buying “When the Street Lights Go On”? The pilot was originally made for Hulu, but they opted not to pick it up, leaving producers at Paramount TV and Anonymous Content looking for new distribution at Sundance. Given the distinct tone told with a strong perspective, Amazon and Netflix could certainly add this to their lineup. The series might seem a little too close to their existing ’80s content — “Red Oaks” at Amazon and “Stranger Things” at Netflix — but its adult tone (nudity and cursing are part of the package) should set this one apart.
That said, I think FX would be wise to snag this one. The network has a keen interest in horror shows, but more importantly it backs distinct visions and lacks a mystery series similar to this one. Less kitschy than “American Horror Story” and more refined than “The Strain,” “When the Street Lights Go On” could make an improved replacement for the latter when Guillermo del Toro’s horror show wraps this summer.
“When the Street Lights Go On” premiered as part of the Independent Pilot Showcase at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.