So, we have a massively popular sleeper hit Netflix original inspired by classic 1980s horror and kid’s films that are themselves beyond reproach to many people, airing at a time when both nostalgia and Netflix are basically golden. Is there some way for me to fit superheroes and Star Wars into this so I can get all the fans chasing after me with pitchforks for not giving it a glowing review?
This may have been a bad idea.
Series Breakdown Rating:
Audience Assumptions: No familiarity
Season One – ***
Part One: Did You Know This Series Was Set in the 1980s?
Okay, confessions first: it took me three tries to even get past the first episode, and after my first viewing of the series, I was pretty indifferent to it. Because Stranger Things has such a following and is widely touted as one of if not the single best television series currently on Netflix, and one of the best series of 2016, I felt I should consider why this might be.
The series is certainly one of Netflix’s higher-quality productions in its technical department, though a large part of that is related to it saving its graphic effects for the later episodes and structuring its story around dramatic visuals that have little need for intricate CGI. But even outside of the Demogorgon and the telekinesis, the series has a decent eye for pleasant cinematic shots that usually feel like they add to the story, characters, or both. The story and characters are decent, too, with the fictional children written like actual ones and the premise a delightfully dark mystery that remains the single best thing about the series (aside from Eleven, but we’ll get to her).
The story starts simply: a boy in a suburban neighborhood goes missing while riding home from a friend’s house, and his friends and family have to cope with his likely death while trying to determine whether he was kidnapped by a fantastical monster or a real one. The atmosphere established in the first five minutes of the series encapsulates its best qualities and sets the tone of the series through the setting, dialogue, cinematography, and especially the music. If I start up that opening, I will watch it right to the credits for that music alone. But herein lies my dilemma: the first five minutes are to me what I think a lot of other people see in the rest of the series, but it slides mostly downhill for me after.
The story is not about the monster or the secret lab that released it, and it isn’t even really about Will (the disappeared child). It’s about the people left behind after the tragedy and about the irrevocable alteration to their daily lives because of it. Losing Will sends the boy’s three friends, a pack of children who typify nerds of 1980s fiction, into a frenzy to figure out what happened to him. As kids, and especially as geeks, they begin to comprehend his disappearance in terms of the games and films they like, such as Star Wars and Dungeons & Dragons. To complicate matters, their discovery of a confused semi-mute girl in the woods where their friend disappeared starts to tear the group apart and distracts them from finding him. Meanwhile, the boy’s mother starts to go mad thinking her son is trapped in another dimension and tries to insist to her family that she can communicate with him through Christmas lights. More odd events begin to stack up, stretching these and the characters at their periphery to their extremes, eventually culminating in them all coming together in a final bid to stop the monster terrorizing the town and rescue Will.
From the outset, the show seems pretty impressive, and I’ll say that it is entertaining for the first few episodes. It took me a while to get into the story because despite the initial mystery in the premise, the concept is pretty rote. How many films or thriller series revolve around a missing child? The setting and the characters, while competent, aren’t especially original, 1980s nostalgia having been a driving factor for years prior to this series’ release. There isn’t much that’s especially unique to pull the story along after those first few episodes. The more time you spend with the characters, the more you learn that they are’t especially charismatic or compelling, the setting is about as mundane as you can get, and even the threat of the monster is nothing new.
Those who watch the series will quickly realize that the aesthetic theme is basically “1980s Kids and Horror Films,” and not much else. It takes almost directly from about half of all Stephen King novels, E.T., and other films involving children or families that came out at that time. The series incorporates a lot of the tropes associated with 1980s and 1990s popular media, such as the school bullies, the nerd versus jock dynamic, high school parties, expected family roles of the late 20th century, and stereotypes of introverted geeky kids that have been outdated for three decades. These elements embroil the series in a thick layer of nostalgia, but while it occasionally deems to present a more modern lens on some issues, like how it’s the shy chaste girl who dies instead of the partying extrovert and how Eleven has a nearly shaved head, the few subversions of 1980s elements are done mainly to serve the nostalgia filter. There is little acknowledgement of the serious socio-political issues of the era, the series instead favoring of teen drama tropes, and all of the characters have a modern dress and vernacular that only dips far enough into the classic ‘80s aesthetic to be comforting rather than alienating. The series is designed to prod its older audience’s nostalgia centers, while remaining palatable to millenials. This leads the series to feel somewhat fabricated to a more cynical viewer, as though a generic horror-drama from the Sci-fi Channel were dressed up in a 1980s skin.
The details are admirable in their own respect, and define the identity of the series perhaps more than anything else. However, some elements, especially the references to movies of the era, feel somewhat artificial. I have one friend who was told that the series had a big Dungeons & Dragons presence, and was disappointed when she first tried to watch it. It has about as much to do with Dungeons & Dragons as it does with bicycles; the characters use Dungeons & Dragons creatures and concepts as shorthand, and the game frames the start and end of the series, but anyone familiar with the game can take one look at how the show uses it and realize that the screenwriters were aiming toward an audience that only has a passing familiarity with the game itself. The play sessions and encounters are laughably short (yes, I realize they do mention the game lasting ten hours, but no one in real life gets anxious over a monster that takes all of one turn to defeat), the characters almost never use common D&D terms like “perception check,” “initiation,” “natural twenty,” or “critical fail,” the Demogorgon (the game monster or the literal one) could be replaced with any other monster and serve the same role, and a lot of the allusions to the game are oversimplified to the point of being almost meaningless. Anyone who’s seen The Lord of the Rings knows what a mage or a ranger is and can figure out how basic magic attacks work, so the audience doesn’t need to be familiar with D&D to follow what’s happening. In reality, the game can be needlessly complicated and has its own terminology that makes watching even a relatively simple encounter an almost impenetrable task for someone unfamiliar with it. I don’t have a problem with the show using its own interpretation of the game, but it feels like it’s wasting the opportunity to validate these kids as the awkward outcasts that the show wants the audience to accept them as, and feels like it’s pandering to the lowest common denominator. “Hey, that kid mentioned Lando Clarissian, a prominent character from literally the most well-known film franchise in the world! I understood that reference. That makes me special.”
The series starts its genuine dip when the monster is revealed and all of the fantasies of the children and Will’s mother are proven right. The monster is real, and it’s a flesh-and-blood alien creature, somehow, Will is communicating through the Christmas lights, somehow, and the body that washed up was a fake, SOMEHOW.
Eleven, whose character is something of a cross between E.T. and Carrie, from their respective films, is a protagonist almost exclusively despite killing a seemingly benign character in the first episode. The cinematogrpahy and score’s suggestion that she’s dangerous is never really reciprocated.
Only three named characters die out of the whole ordeal, one of which just sort of disappears and another of which is a minor character I was shocked to learn was a fan favorite. Beth? That’s the character people rally around? Okay… Honestly, the only thing I can remember her doing at all was dying, and that only stood out because she’s essentially the only dead character confirmed with a body.
Will, as it turns out, is very much alive (apparently he wasn’t as tasty as Beth or something), and while the ominous ending hints that maybe the person the characters brought back isn’t actually Will, or maybe he’s been damaged from the parallel world (which I refuse to call the Upside-Down on account of that being a stupid name), we don’t actually get to see much in the way of those consequences, at least not this season.
I don’t mind the very end, and I also probably wouldn’t have minded it if the series had been a single season as I understand the writers initially intended. But as soon as the conspiracies and monster are shown and verified to be real, the reading of these things as reflections of the characters’ desires and inability to contextualize their loss goes out the window. The ending validates the often dangerous or impulsive behaviors of the characters, and in doing so, diminishes their impact. Rather than seeming mad or unnecessary, the characters’ actions are presented as perfectly logical things that the surrounding people, and by extension the audience, are just too stupid to understand. That irks me on a personal level.
At one point, a body washes up and after cleaning it a bit, the police determine it to be Will’s. His family holds a funeral and everyone is devastated, but his mother refuses to accept that it’s actually Will. She thinks the police are mistaken, that it isn’t his body and that they’re trying to cover up what happened to him. Viewed from the perspective that the body is actually Will’s, which is the least convoluted solution, the episode depicts a harrowing scene of a distraught mother who has lost her child and will cling to any shred of hope that he’s still alive, even as it sends her remaining family into ruin and eats away at her sanity. But the show doesn’t let that image stick; instead, it opts to say that she was right to be suspicious and was in no way overreacting, and that any mother in a similar situation who tries to move on is giving up on her child. That’s about the worst fucking message I could imagine giving to a grieving parent.
There’s nothing wrong with a series indulging in a bit of wish fulfillment, but resolving a plot through conveniences and contrivances when a deeper, more thoughtful route is within reach leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Part Two: Wait, There Was a Love Triangle in This?
Or, at least, it would leave a bad taste in my mouth if it left a taste at all. One of the problems, or perhaps merits, in a series being this generic and having so many bland characters is that after I finish it, I tend to forget a lot of the less noteworthy parts. I do understand a lot of why people like this series; it’s better than most of what you might come across on television at random, and certainly one of the better Netflix originals. When I say the characters or story are bland, I’m setting them against my own elevated criteria for what constitutes “good,” and that tends to be more of a theoretical threshold rather than something I see shows or films cross on a regular basis. I might come across one or two new things, be them books, games, films, or shows, that I think are genuinely excellent. Stranger Things lies somewhere just below the “good” bar, and it’s the show’s nearness to it that makes me so critical of its low points. Well, that and how blown out of proportion it is by fans. If you haven’t noticed, I like to claim to dislike things that are popular.
There are several genuinely excellent moments in the show, most notably at the beginning for me. I love that opening sequence, I love the scenes where Will’s friends and family are trying to cope with his apparent death, I love almost any scene with Eleven, especially the moments when she uses her telekinesis to stop Mike from falling into the reservoir and flips the van. Critical as I am of its attempt to play on audiences’ nostalgia for the 1980s, I even appreciate the effort that went into making the show’s aesthetic identity. The music in the opening credits is underwhelming, but the simple melody the synth plays when Will is biking home and the one that accompanies Eleven during her action scenes are beautiful. It’s a pity, though, that the best moments of the series are filled out with so much padding.
With the exception of Eleven, almost all of the characters in the show are two-dimensional archetypes. The archetypes many of them embody are somewhat unexpected in their places, like how Mike’s sister is academically brilliant as well as being something of a minor party girl. However, none of them grows or changes, and most of them can be summed up almost in their totality with a single descriptor. Among the core group of kids, Mike is “the leader,” Dustin is “the funny one,” Lucas is “the serious one,” and Will is “the gay one.” One might notice similarities in the kids of the 2017 film IT, which shares a common ancestry with Stranger Things via Stephen King’s novel, and may have taken a few cues in post-production after the success of the Netflix series. The child actors are acceptable, and at the very least they sound more or less like children, annoying as children bickering over petty arguments can be.
The core group of kids is engaging when they’re given darker realities or mysteries to confront, but an unfortunately large amount of time is dedicated to school drama, and those parts of the series can be like rusty nails on a chalkboard. There’s a bully, naturally, who travels with a couple of lackeys and makes fun of the core group of kids because they’re nerds, as we know all bullies in real life do. On the side of the teenage characters, there’s a pointless love triangle that only exists to give the two teenage characters who have lost someone to the Demogorgon a reason to interact beyond just trying to find out where their friend/brother went.
The only adult character who plays a memorable role is Will’s mother, who can be grating for her own reasons, but the story spends time on her scumbag ex-husband and a weary but kind-hearted sheriff investigating the disappearances. I remembered the latter two characters existed, but before rewatching the show, I couldn’t recall a single thing they did outside of talk to each other once. They pass quickly from your mind because, like the other characters, they lack depth. The scumbag husband comes around and looks for about one nanosecond like he’s going to change, but, astonishingly, stays a scumbag. The weary sheriff’s character arc essentially consists of him not believing that there’s a monster running around, seeing evidence of the monster, and then believing that there’s a monster running around. That’s not a character arc, that’s common sense.
Don’t even mention the secret laboratory with child experiments. Can we just have one supernatural horror series where the bad guy isn’t some nondescript “science laboratory,” or demons, or ghosts of some sort? I would even be okay with aliens at this point.
Part Three: I Call Bullshit on the Wig
If there is one redeeming beacon of light in this series, and one thing I could understand the hype emanating from, it’s Eleven. She’s the one character with depth who undergoes a complete arc from a timid, almost animalistic child only out for herself to a martyr for her friends. The first season largely follows two plots: Will’s disappearance and the distantly related appearance of Eleven. While the missing child plot kicks off the story, Eleven appears at the end of the first episode and quickly becomes the focus of the story from the kids’ point of view. The initial episodes present the middle school characters as eager to solve the mystery of Will’s disappearance, but proven unequipped for the task. Eleven and her supernatural abilities offer them a way to investigate the mystery from a back door route, slowly piecing together that she came from a laboratory, that this laboratory opened a portal to another world, that the “Demogorgon” they think kidnapped Will came out of that portal, that the girl knows Will is trapped there, and that she can travel there using her powers. Gleaning this much information is a challenge itself because as well as being shocked from her ordeal at the lab and confused by her first foray into the real world, Eleven barely speaks. Through much of her story, the other kids are torn between trying to leech information out of her and fostering a genuine interest in teaching her about how to be a normal kid.
I’ll admit, I thought them dressing her up was silly, but not nearly as silly as taking her to school with them. It does make for a good scene when she takes the wig (if it really is a wig – admittedly my expertise lies more in hats) off and saves Mike’s life while simultaneously threatening the bully who attacked him. Eleven stands out as a character because she is simultaneously menacing and innocent. One of the first things she does in the show is kill someone — not even a particularly dangerous person — and she kills him for practically no reason. This establishes an atmosphere of uncertainty about whether she can control her powers or might unintentionally do something horrible with them. Her knowledge of and involvement in the parallel dimension, her willful (if good-intentioned) deceit, and her initial lack of basic human empathy draws suspicions from the audience that perhaps she and monster are more closely linked than they appear.
Her final act is to destroy the monster that kidnapped Will, which is not an especially well done scene, but it is a fitting end for her character. She destroys it by using her telekinesis in a way that doesn’t mesh with its established functionality, effectively gaining a convenient new power because the situation demands it, but while I normally despise this sort of plot twist, it makes sense for her character. Before she vanishes, there’s a look in her eyes like she knows exactly how to defeat it intuitively, and that she knows it will destroy her as well. She even says goodbye to Mike. Up until this point, the monster has been a real threat, but also a being that plays with representations of the characters’ psychic landscapes. It can become parts of the environment, appearing and disappearing at will, and only at home in a sort of vast, empty space that reminds me very much of how films and video games often represent a person’s mind. Eleven’s connection with the monster is established through her seemingly unique ability to traverse the dimensions, her peculiar nature, and her paranormal powers. I don’t think I ever really suspected Eleven of being the literal monster itself, but the show plays with the idea that they share something. My initial interpretation was that Eleven and the monster were two divergent entities sourced from similar beginnings – both created in the laboratory (provided you ignore the frankly incoherent subplot about Eleven’s birth mother), both capable of popping between worlds, both potentially dangerous, but one of them a thoughtless monster, and the other capable of learning how to be human.
I’m not overly fond of “what does it mean to be human” stories, but I do generally like the ending to Stranger Things. It works for a small, single-season Netflix show that went the direction it did. I still would have preferred the monster not be real at all, or at least not look like an evil video game plant-alien, but it’s demise was serviceable. The final minutes of the show establish a cliff-hanger that I would have enjoyed fine if the series had ended there. It is creepy enough to leave a lingering thought in the audience’s brain if they’re still engaged in the story, but it delivers a Goosebumps-style “the story isn’t over yet, but who are we kidding, yes it is” sort of finality to the series. Which of course makes the second season all the more perplexing.