How many idyllic small towns in the 90s have had to deal with the murder of a teenage girl? David Lynch created a TV masterpiece off that basic logline with “Twin Peaks” from 1990 – 1991. Stephen King managed to craft an entire sub-genre with the novels he wrote of small towns with dark, mysterious underbellies. The natural next step in this TV trope was for it to help launch a new mobile app in the middle of a worldwide pandemic. Quibi’s new show, “When The Streetlights Go On” owes a great deal to King and Lynch. It directly rips its atmospheric mood, nostalgia-laden setting, and heavy use of voice-over from different works of those men. Still, if you’re gonna steal, steal from the best.
Our story begins in the summer of 1995. Our narrator, 15-year-old Charlie Chambers (Chosen Jacobs) points out it is the hottest summer on record for the small town of Colfax, Illinois. After a bevy of other “this was the year” tidbits (Jim Carrey was the number one movie star, Michael Jordan went back to basketball), the show sets the stage for a sordid love affair. Chrissy Monroe (Nicola Peltz), the most popular girl in school, leaves her suburban home to run away with Mr. Carpenter (Mark Duplass), the teacher that everyone loves. Before they can start their new life together, they’re held up by a masked man. He makes them drive into the woods where they are forced to strip before getting murdered.
Charlie discovers them the next day while riding his bike through the woods. The murders send shockwaves through the town at large. In particular, Charlie envisions Chrissy’s dead corpse wherever he goes. This includes during the light of day at the swimming pool. Chrissy’s grunge-y twin sister, Becky Monroe (Sophie Thatcher) begins to receive the same heavy breathing phone calls Chrissy got before her murder. Unsure of where to go, she and Charlie connect based on their fears and reservations about the whole situation.
Academy Award nominee Queen Latifah presides over the case as Detective Grasso. Latifah gives Grasso an understated confidence as she searches for the man behind the murders. As good as it is to see Latifah in a different role, she fades into the background.
Instead, the series primarily spotlights its younger performers. In particular, Chosen Jacobs makes Charlie an engaging and relatable protagonist. Viewing the horrors through his eyes allows us to question how confronting death at such a young age can shape a person’s outlook and priorities. Charlie feels a gulf separate him from his friends, as he can no longer just talk about girls, movies and nebulous summer plans.
More than other Quibi shows, “When the Street Lights Go On” manages to maintain its sharp visual style in both aspect ratios. Whether watching vertically or horizontally, the cinematography and coloring of the shots transports one to a hot summer day in the 90s. Director Rebecca Thomas never lets the technology upstage the story she looks to tell. No matter which way you flip your phone, the impact and mood of the piece doesn’t change. While the reality and doc series may feel more at home on a mobile first app, “When the Street Lights Go On” proves that there can be a way for more prestige television to translate to a similar viewing experience.
For such a quick bite, the story behind “When the Street Lights Go On” has quite a long history. Since 2011, the script has been developed as a $7 million feature, reached the top of the Black List, sold to Hulu and screened at Sundance. Even though the idea works well within bite-sized seven minute chunks, there seems to be many more details left on the cutting room floor. Still, writers Chris Hutton and Eddie O’Keefe know how to keep one watching. For being a murder mystery, the show never relies on excessive twists or dramatic turns to keep viewers invested. Instead, it focuses on the trauma of a small community. How does a collective cope when one of its own is murdered? It’s more of a portrait of small town life than a fast-paced hunt for a killer.