Stan and friends
Stan and friends

IFC’s Stan Against Evil is a slight and subversively funny show that is somehow, less than the sum of its parts. Stomping along in the wake of Ash vs Evil Dead’s success, Stan Against Evil is charmingly well-cast and cheerfully quirky, yet saddled with predictable plotting and a very thin mythology. But it still manages to throw some worthwhile curve-ball jokes into the mix, and it’s definitely worth a look.

The set-up is pretty simple. The small, rural town of Willard’s Mill, New Hampshire is cursed. It seems that back in 1693, the evil Constable Eccles burned 172 witches at the stake. Since then, every constable the town has ever had has died in office. Except one.

And that’s how we get our hero, Stanley Miller (played by the magnificently crusty John C. McGinley). He somehow survived long enough to resign his post after attacking a witch at his wife’s funeral.

Stan’s replacement is Evie (Janet Varney, veering wildly between competent and oblivious), a transplant from the city, divorced and with a daughter who functions more as a character trait than a character.

The small core cast rounds out with Leon (Nate Mooney) the Barney Fife-esque deputy who is friendly, loyal, and truly and deeply perverted, and Denise (Deborah Baker Jr.), Stan’s unlikely daughter played as a bizarre take on the manic pixie dream girl.

Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?
Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?

In many ways Stan Against Evil simply retools the basic premise of Ash with new characters and a new location, but it fails to aspire to anything more. It lacks (so far) a larger theme or a detectable sense of purpose. The characters generally just show up, kill some monsters, and go home in time for dinner. There is also a lack of skepticism from any of the characters that makes the show feel even more formulaic and one-note, since everyone is on the same page from the first ten minutes of episode one.

It’s hard to tell exactly when the show is set—the combination of flip phones, old cars, and references to Tinder make it hard to pin down, as do Stan’s perpetually 1970’s cultural reference points. There is also an unexpected Buffy library vibe, as our heroes must rely on hard copy books for the information they need to fight evil. The option of looking anything up online does not exist in this particular reality.

My impression is that Stan Against Evil plays more as a sketch comedy than as a series. The actors all inhabit their characters fully, and each is nicely fleshed out–but they don’t really mesh into a dynamic group. Over the course of eight episodes there is no character development, no learning curve, and no layers to be peeled back.

Contributing to the character stasis, this is very much a monster-of-the-week style of show, loaded with cheese-tastic special effects but with precious little continuity and even less common sense. The scripts are perfunctory and remarkably superficial, broadcasting their twists like a toddler with a secret. What you see is what you get, in half-hour increments.

But Stan Against Evil is still very funny. Created by comedian Dana Gould (The Simpsons), the show is full of background gags and oddball references that keep it lively. And McGinley as Stan delivers some of the best throw-away lines—when he goes off on something, the turns of phrase are remarkably, crudely, hilariously accurate.

All eight episodes are available on demand now from IFC, and despite its shortcomings I highly recommend binging it. Stan Against Evil is empty calories, but it is sharp enough, charming enough, and funny enough to make it worth the small investment of time.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

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The middle-school heroes of Stranger Things

Stranger Things, Netflix’s latest series, launched its first eight episode season on July 15. I had to drag myself away after the first three episodes to write this review, because it is simply that good. Created by Ross and Matt Duffer, Stranger Things uses pop culture familiarity as its hook, and then moves the story along rapidly while still paying a huge amount of attention to detail and character development. I’ll be watching the rest in one long gulp very soon.

Set in the small rural town of Hawkins, Indiana, Stranger Things begins its tale on November 6, 1983 with the mysterious disappearance of a young boy. From there things really do only get stranger.

Titled “Chapter One: The Vanishing of Will Byers”, the first episode plays like a mash-up of all the classic horror and fantasy films of the 1980s—there are elements that remind me of Aliens, The Shining, Silver Bullet, E.T., Firestarter, Halloween, Poltergeist, The Goonies…even the town center is reminiscent of Back to the Future, and the missing boy’s house looks an awful lot like the cabin from Evil Dead. In addition to tidy downtown Hawkins, the action ranges through woods, fields, a deep quarry, and a convenient government-run laboratory. It all looks familiar. We’ve been scared here before. But Stranger Things is not just a derivative of all these touchstones and references. It manages to be something original and disturbing in its own right.

Things are getting strange
Things are getting strange

Winona Ryder is back as Joyce Byers, the missing boy’s mother. She plays the character as worn thin and harried and histrionic, and she smokes with the same intensity she did in Heathers. Her attempts to find her son look a great deal like a descent into insanity.

Matthew Modine is cool and slick as the primary bad guy, Dr. Brenner. He works at Hawkins National Laboratory for the Department of Energy and is aligned with government agents and the CIA, among darker things.

David Harbour is the hard drinking local police chief, Hopper. In only three episodes he has already been given a colorful backstory and fascinating growth, and a deep well of personal tragedy to draw from.

Even with the adult star power, the juvenile characters are the main focus—especially since the missing boy was part of their group. With the exception of a couple of older siblings, the kids are in the 11 and 12 year old age range that Stephen King is so fond of. It ties neatly to the many King-like plot details.

The group of boys are introduced as Dungeons and Dragons players, then as now shorthand for a certain kind of nerd.  Finn Wolfhard is Mike, the leader of the gang and someone who looks quite a bit like the brother in Poltergeist. Gaten Matarazzo is Dustin, very much playing him as Chunk from The Goonies. Caleb McLaughlin rounds out the group as smart-mouthed, skeptical, and practical Lucas. To add to the mix there is the high school crowd, with Charlie Heaton as the missing boy’s older brother, Johnathan, and Natalia Dyer as Mike’s older sister Nancy. And there is also a mysterious, semi-verbal little girl named Eleven (played by Millie Brown), who is connected to both Brenner and the missing boy.

Teenage wasteland
Teenage wasteland

A theme of communication is dominant, so far. The initial episodes are heavy with ham radio, walkie talkies, wiretapping, ghostly phone calls, psychic powers, and weird electrical disturbances harnessed as a rough Ouija board. There is a lot going on, much of it messy, but it is just controlled enough to be engrossing. The only complaint I can make is that the periodic flashbacks are too blunt, and move things along with backstory info dumps.

Stranger Things is at once creepy, sentimental, realistic and action-driven. The Duffer brothers have a great eye for family dynamics and a clear affection for the cinematic 1980s. The combination of powerful storytelling, exceptional acting, and well-done nostalgia is totally worth the look back.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!