Ben Watches Television : Stranger Things, Season One (2016)
* minor spoilers, best enjoyed if you've already seen the show *
Last month, I've watched the first season of Netflix's new summer hit Stranger Things, like every other sentient being on the planet who subscribes to the zeitgeist-defining streaming service. I hadn't finished a single series in 2016 for reasons I already explored on this blog, but the timing and the ongoing buzz seemed right for me to join the herd and enjoy the new "in" thing for once.
If you don't know what Stranger Things is, it's the coming of age story of three prepubescent Dungeons & Dragons dorks * investigating the disappearance of the fourth player in their ongoing campaign. Instead of finding him, they find a dysphasic young girl with telekinetic power named Eleven, who broke out from a secret government facility and who happens to know what happened to the disappearing dork in question. It bends horror, fantasy and drama into a genre so seamless and graceful it feels like it always existed.
Stranger Things is a nostalgia series that does things a little differently. I'm usually not a fan of the concept. I find it manipulative and gimmicky. It prioritizes an overbearing vintage aesthetic over a solid narrative. It's not the case here. Stranger Things is nostalgia television devoid of any nostalgic perspective. It looks exactly like a series you'd have watched circa 1992, save for an intricate CGI monster that it would've felt gimmicky to create through any other technology. This is the reason why I liked Stranger Things right away. It felt like a series I would've stumbled upon while channel surfing at 11:31 PM in 1997, something I used to love to do.
The nostalgia references were also keenly placed in the narrative, sometimes and always remained subtle however important they were in the narrative. Whether it was tabletop role playing, vintage Eggo waffles packaging or a monster stretching through a wall (clever reference to eighties classic and personal favorite Videodrome), it never overpowered the narrative. The Duffer brothers never laugh at their own jokes or find themselves too clever for their readers. If a reference didn't serve the story or got in the way of it, it just wasn't used. It reminded me of Italian neo-realism in many ways. Not sure where they filmed it, but it felt like a town congealed in 1987 or so. **
I liked Stranger Things. It was a good time and no matter how I twisted and turned it, the Duffer brothers writing was impeccable. Why couldn't I get transported by the series like other people? Why did I LIKE it and not LOVE it? I might get pelted with rocks here, but I think the moral angle of the story was a tiny bit telegraphed. We are literally proposed to choose between children (innocence) and dehumanized government workers that could very well be clones that live on the military base and do nothing but work (or, you know. Complete fucking corruption). So, you kind of have to stick with the kids if you're not an asshole. It made the story a bit predictable for me. Perhaps the only thing that bugged me about Stranger Things is that it tries WAY too hard to please.
My favorite characters were Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) and Mike's sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer). Their relationship felt goofy and melodramatic like teenage romance always are and their character arcs were more unpredictable. Although everyone that doesn't work for the government in Stranger Things is fundamentally good, if any of the characters could've turned heel it would've been one of these two or maybe Will's brother Jonathan (played by the equally goofy looking Charlie Heaton). The most interesting (and most human) choice was made by policeman Hopper (David Harbour), which ushered the only development in the series I couldn't have predicted by episode two.
Is Stranger Things worth watching? Absolutely. It's clever, fun and thoroughly well-written. It's a major crowd pleaser though, so it has a strong moral stance and doesn't leave you unsatisfied at the end of any episode, really and these choices drew a line between good and great for me. I take everything too seriously though. Stranger Things could very well become a new summer tradition for Josie and I. It just won't be an obsession.
* Before you call me -ist words for saying that, please know that I am one of these dorks myself.