'When the Street Lights Go On': TV Review | Sundance 2017

Courtesy of Sundance
A murder mystery most foul.

This Hulu-ordered television pilot about a killing in a 1980s American town is all influences and little else.

Premiering as part of the Sundance Film Festival's "Independent Pilot Showcase," When the Street Lights Go On has been banging around, in script form, since it came in second on the 2011 Black List. For trivia buffs: No. 1 that year was the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game, soon after made into an atrocious Benedict Cumberbatch vehicle. Street Lights doesn't fare much better quality-wise, though its reworking by original scribes Chris Hutton and Eddie O'Keefe as a television pilot — ordered by Hulu, and helmed by The Kid Stays in the Picture and Cobain: Montage of Heck director Brett Morgen — at least means it’s a blessedly short 45 minutes.

This prospective series begins, as teenage protagonist Charlie Chambers (Max Burkholder) says, with "an event that would rob us of our youth and spread unshakeable anxiety like cyanide in the minds of those who remember." (Ay yi yi … writing.) Said event is the murder of Chrissy Monroe (Nicola Peltz), head cheerleader at an All-American high school in the All-American small town of Colfax. No surprise that she's not quite the model of resolute and resilient moral rectitude. (Writing!) Not only is Chrissy Queen B. to her cynical sister Becky (Odessa Young), cattily scolding her for stealing a beloved bottle of perfume, she's also been getting it on with her decade-older English teacher (who, cunning linguist that he is, will get around to her Crime and Punishment essay in good time, thank you very much!) Teen horniness, in this case, is a crime, punishable by death at the hands of a gun-toting masked madman who shoots Chrissy and her educator beau on a dark, misty night in the woods.

And so the small town reels: Charlie discovers the bodies and deals with the emotional fallout. Becky acts all stoic and blasé until she has a climactic freak-out scored to Arvo Pärt's "Spiegel im Spiegel" (one of the show's many thuddingly obvious, period-specific needle-drops — oh hi, "99 Luftballoons!"). A gruff, near-retirement police chief (Graham Beckel) takes on the case. A punk-loving high-schooler (Adam Long) with an attitude problem becomes the prime suspect. Only Kelli Mayo, as Charlie's best friend Berlice, does some genuinely original work. Though she seems to have been instructed to channel both Lea Thompson and Jennifer Jason Leigh in their Back to the Future/Ridgemont High heydays, her personality comes off as entirely unique, and doesn't sink under the weight of its influences.

The same can't be said of the rest of the production, which is not only slavishly indebted to '80s classics-of-their-kind like Stand by Me, but also to pie-eyed nostalgia trips like Netflix's recent, extremely popular sci-fi/teen drama pastiche Stranger Things. (The two series even share a performer in stalwart character actor Joe Chrest, who plays a father figure in both.) There's something that really rankles about such a backward-looking enterprise — not just the willful lack of originality (the impression that the creators believe viewers' fond memories of an earlier era is enough to hang a series on), but the sense that the project is ultimately guided more by metrics than it is by passion. This isn't art. It's content.  

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Independent Pilot Showcase)
Executive producers: Chad Hamilton, Steve Golin, Michael Sugar, Chris Hutton, Tariq Merhab, Brett Morgen, Eddie O'Keefe
Cast: Max Burkholder, Kelli Mayo, Odessa Young, Ben Winchell, Graham Beckel, Adam Long, Nicola Peltz, Joe Chrest
Director: Brett Morgen
Writers: Chris Hutton, Eddie O'Keefe
Director of photography: Ellen Kuras