The characters in Quibi’s When the Streetlights Go On would have no idea what to make of the platform on which their show exists. The series, which is told in less than 10 minute segments over multiple “chapters,” is bathed in ‘90s nostalgia. The show is devoid of smartphones but heavy on the grunge aesthetic and Nirvana references. While Gen Z — the generation most likely to digest content via their iPhones — wasn’t around for the death of Kurt Cobain, When the Streetlights Go On’s status as a dark love letter to the decade may make it the most appealing to them.
“It's a strange time to be an adult because I see that all coming back in style. Kids are now wearing chokers and checkered Vans,” director Rebecca Thomas explains to Refinery29 over the phone. “It was fun to work with my costume designer and the production designer to recreate a '90s world.”
It’s more than just the aesthetic that feels familiar. In addition to a fun Scream reference in which a character receives an eerie phone call, When the Streetlights Go On borrows a page from the cult ‘90s “dead girl show” Twin Peaks, in that both center on the murder of a beautiful, popular girl with lots of secrets.
In the David Lynch series, it is homecoming queen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) who is found dead in a river. In Streetlights, it’s Chrissy Monroe (Kristine Froseth), who is found shot to death, sans clothes, alongside her teacher/secret boyfriend Mr. Carpenter (Mark Duplass). The teen who finds the couple, Charlie Chambers (Chosen Jacobs), narrates the series as he looks back on the moment his childhood died.
Thanks to future Charlie’s narration, we are aware that Chrissy’s sister Becky (Sophie Thatcher) — Charlie’s first kiss whom he still harbors a special connection with — will also die.
“I never want a boy to come of age because girls die,” muses Thomas. “That's not cool. The casting of Chosen [as Charlie] was important because Chosen can bring such depth to Charlie. And for Charlie, it wasn't just the deaths of these girls; it was his role, how he and these girls all grew up together in this cul-de-sac. You can feel the tragedy underneath it all for him, personally.”
For Thomas, who previously worked on Jessica Biel’s Facebook Watch series Limetown, shooting for Quibi was new terrain. Quibi is only available as a phone app; thus far, there is no desktop version available. These parameters came with some advantages for the specific character-driven coming-of-age tale Thomas crafted.
“Shooting for the iPhone allowed much greater intimacy than we might have if we didn't have to shoot it vertically. You need to block the actors in a certain way: everything needs to line up because they'll quickly disappear if they are on the far left or far right at the frame. It created this language that felt more fairytale-like, a very simplistic kind of storytelling,” says Thomas. “That may be why the show has a Twin Peaks vibe, because [like with that show,] everything is very centrally shot and closer. You definitely get closer to the characters.”
One of Quibi’s unique features is its “Turnstyle” format: Shows can be viewed on vertical and horizontal screens thanks to tech that combines the vertical and horizontal video of the same scenes. When you turn your phone to the horizontal version, you see more. For a mystery show like When the Streetlights Go On, were there any advantages to the dual format?
“We wanted to do that, but ultimately ran out of time. We storyboarded everything so that you do at least feel the vertical frame is different than the horizontal frame. I don't think you get the killer lurking at the bottom third of the vertical of anything,” she explains.
Thomas also incorporated some Easter eggs for keen-eyed members of the audience. Yes, there are clues to finding out who Chrissy’s killer is and Thomas teased just enough to keep fans guessing.
“We did some test screenings to see, if we add this moment, is it too much? Will people know who the killer is? If we take it away, will they not know at all and will the reveal not feel earned? There were like whole scenes featuring the killer that we ended up taking out because you just knew too soon,” she tells me. “There are clues in the production design. You know, the killer is there. If you rewatch it, you'll go 'Oh my God, he's there.' I like the way I framed things because the presence of [the killer] is in the show.”
New episodes of When the Streetlights Go On stream on Quibi every day, through April 15.