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Our Dark Summertime Binge: Hulu’s “Light as a Feather”

Light as a Feather!

Once again McKenna (Liana Liberato) faces DEATH FROM ABOVE! OR AT LEAST SCARINESS!

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: with weeks to go till vacation and no pressing obligations, my wife Anne and I have been bingeing a few different shows together, while I’ve done some additional grim watching on the side. Certainly not through careful planning on our part, each of the shows has had their own depressing and/or tragic aspects. As I wrote at the time, Veronica Mars season 4 fit right in once we finished the finale. The Netflix documelodrama The Last Czars couldn’t help but depress with its take on Russia’s traumatic early-20th-century history, though it would prove the most unintentionally funny show we’ve seen in ages about war, revolution, murder, and gloomy orgies.

Meanwhile on Hulu, I caught a supernatural thriller in its second season that was easily the youngest-skewing show I watched this summer, possibly this year. But I had a pretty good reason.

I’d never heard of the party game “Light as a Feather” before this show existed, possibly because I’ve never been a party person. Then again, I’ve heard of “Spin the Bottle”, “Pin the Tail on the Donkey”, apple-bobbing, Apples to Apples, Cards Against Humanity, necking, and the one where you try guessing how big a string would fit around the pregnant mom-to-be’s waist. I’m not 100% clueless about happy human gatherings. Somehow “Light as a Feather” never came up in any of my small talk or Encyclopedia Brown books.

Thankfully Light as a Feather explains “Light as a Feather” for uncultured newcomers, even us middle-aged ones who’ll never be invited to play. When it’s nighttime and a suitably moody locale is available, one partygoer lays down between four others gathered in a circle. Whichever partygoer has read the most R.L. Stine sits near the chosen one’s head and makes up an oddly specific story about how the prone partyer will die someday. If the narrator cops out and says “natural causes” they’re banned from parties for life. After their little horrid tale is woven, the foursome chants in unison, “Light as a feather, stiff as a board” and other morbid, scripted phrases while trying to lift the chosen one aloft with just two fingers each. If their chanting is sincere enough, the body starts to rises via party-sized black magic like an upside-down Ouija planchette. Then everyone lets go and the victim is declared dead. Then they get up and everyone else takes turns learning their fake final fate.

A TV show of just teens playing that game would make adequate basic-cable reality-TV material, but this one has better goals in mind. In season one, four friends end up hanging out one night in a cemetery with an awkward new girl in school named Violet (Haley Ramm, Young Jean Grey from X-Men: The Last Stand). She introduces everyone to the game and reveals their causes of death, one by one, chant by chant. When one of the predictions later comes true and a friend dies in grisly fashion, supernatural thriller hi-jinks ensue. We learn naturally there’s more to Violet than meets the eye, such as her constant lying and the touch of decaying, spreading malevolence affixed to her lower back. The ten-episode first season, each under half an hour for convenient snacking or single-sitting binges, ended with some of the cast still alive and accounted for, but with the party-hosting tumor transferred to a new carrier, a few questions left unanswered, and things generally To Be Continued.

To an extent there was a Final Destination vibe, but a few differences set it apart. The chain-reaction deaths are smaller in scale, no elaborate Rube Goldberg contraptions. The TV-14 rating minimizes the damage points and mitigates the urge for indulgent “epic kills”. The original Final Destination‘s free-will-vs.-fate debate is subtracted, as it’s not merely Death Itself stalking Our Heroes, but a specific…thing. Creature. Force. Mini-Blob. Alien tumor. Whatever it might be, we’re not yet privy to its full backstory. At times I felt pretty sure I’m not among LaaF‘s target demographics, but I absolutely love being reminded of my favorite film of the year 2000 (yes, really), I appreciated being engrossed enough to be blindsided by a few surprise twists, and I like that the ensemble meshed rather nicely, with Violet winning their showiest moments as the resident “bad girl”. Their combined efforts got me curious to want to know what happens next.

(Also, some disclosure: I know someone who works on the show. I’m excited to see their creative efforts gaining a foothold in today’s rapidly proliferating pop culture landscape. That alone is cool to enjoy.)

A week after Veronica Mars season 4, Hulu dropped the first eight episodes of Feather season 2. The mystery of the Lumbar Leech that craves more dead teens deepened further, set up one or more clever excuses for anyone to play that wretched killer game ever again, and added potential new victims into the mix. The MVP among the new class is far and away Katelyn Nacon, a.k.a. Enid from The Walking Dead, as a garage rocker who gets looped into a relationship with poor timing. Once again demises are foretold, and once again looms the threat of casualties in accordance with the prophecies.

Unlike your average 90-minute horror movies where single-trait teens are mowed down in droves, the wider scope of a TV series allows characters to express multiple dimensions, delve into their childhood origins where applicable, and face their down-to-earth personal struggles in addition to the ongoing war on The Pretty Dangerous If Not The Most Dangerous Game. The episodic format, combined with the fact that several characters keep on surviving, allows the group dynamic to keep shifting as things get weirder and tenser, as enemies become friends and vice versa. Better still, more minutes means more opportunities for one of my favorite TV elements: special guest stars! Season 2 so far has given us Ajiona Alexus (Alex’s ex from Hulu’s Runaways) as, um, an old friend we haven’t seen in a while; and Julie Benz from Dexter and TV’s Angel as a helpful aunt who happens to be a hypnotherapist, a handy ally to have when mind games are afoot.

Occasionally nitpicks occurred to me during season 2. I was a little impatient with the first few episodes while time was allotted for introducing new potential victims — some more fully realized than others — and some multitasking may have occurred while I was watching. By episode 5 my concentration was definitely no longer a problem.

Those same early episodes happened to coincide with dark times for our main character McKenna (Liana Liberato). The first season ended poorly for her, trapping her in a terrible predicament that she feels she can’t share with any other human on Earth, and convincing her the only way to cope is to lie to anyone and everyone about every possible thing. For lack of organized charities to combat it, nonstop lying is a common affliction that affects more TV teens than acne. In my head I refer to this condition as “Smallville Syndrome”, named after the first show that really, really drove me batty with it. Thankfully (minor spoiler alert) McKenna gets over it with a little help from her friends, and she and I were each free to move on.

One more aspect bugged me, but I’ll stifle it for now since season 2 isn’t over yet and, fingers crossed, things could change depending on where things go next. I’ll be clearing my calendar when Hulu uploads the other eight episodes on October 4th — just in time for Halloween, the month when you’re supposed to be watching dark, ominous TV.

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