Monday, November 14, 2016

Thoughts on 'Stranger Things'

Pop culture is changing rapidly, shifting more towards television and Netflix and focusing less on theatrical moviegoing and other traditional storytelling methods. With that new reality in mind, it feels appropriate that one of the biggest cultural phenomenons of 2016 came from Netflix, the streaming service that has become a massive media empire. Stranger Things, created by Matt and Ross Duffer, broke out in a big way after its July 15 release, growing a large following of rabid fans. A throwback to the 1980s movies that we all love, the show has been described as a cross between Steven Spielberg and Stephen King, and that's an apt comparison. I first heard about Stranger Things months ago, and I was immediately intrigued by the show's mysterious, nostalgic vibe. However, it took me forever to get around to it. I was caught up with several other movies, and Stranger Things just ended up sitting on the backburner. Two weeks ago, I finally watched all eight episodes in the series. After months of hype from friends and family, could the show even come close to living up to those lofty expectations?

This won't be a typical review for a multitude of reasons. For starters, the show has been out a while and for me to give it a grade and recommendation level feels pointless. This is more of a commentary on why I think this show works so extraordinarily well, and why it has found such a large audience. Because as much as the show uses a nostalgic sense of intrigue to suck viewers in, the show's magic charm lies in the characters. The show is thrilling, spooky, and intense, but most importantly, it's remarkably tender and likable. It's also a relatively compact piece of entertainment, longer than a movie, but shorter than your typical television season. It's sprawling, but digestible, able to be consumed easily in one binge sitting. To me, Stranger Things utilizes the Netflix format perfectly, and expertly finds the balance of originality and familiarity that audiences love. It's entertaining as hell, and I hope that Hollywood takes the right lessons from this show. 

For those unfamiliar with the show, I'll run down a brief synopsis and character list. The show centers around a group of friends in Hawkins, Indiana, in 1983. There's Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), and Will Byers (Noah Schnapp). One night, after a long day of playing their favorite role-playing game, everyone heads home from Mike's house. The next morning, Will is gone. His mother (Winona Ryder) is immediately sent into a frenzy, enlisting the help of Sheriff Jim Hopper (David Harbour) in the search for Will. Hopper ensures her that everything is fine and that there's no reason to panic, but soon enough, some pretty bizarre discoveries are made. While the boys are out looking for Will one night, they stumble upon Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), who seems to be part of some government experiment. Meanwhile, Mike's sister, Nancy (Natalia Dyer), and Will's brother, Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), form an unlikely bond over their search for Will. As the mysteries pile up, Hawkins will be turned upside down in a way that nobody ever expected. 

For a show that is just over 6 and a half hours long, Stranger Things is surprisingly free of fat. There are no subplots that feel totally extraneous or characters that you just wish would go away; everything serves the larger story, while also creating fully developed individuals that you care about. Even a show like Fargo, where the whole season is pretty much one incredibly long movie, often finds a way to shove in an extra plot or two just to fill time. Not Stranger Things. One of the great things about Netflix is that every episode (or Chapter, in the instance of this show) only has to be as long as it needs to be. Some episodes in this show are nearly an hour long, others fall closer to 40 minutes- the point is, they're not dictated by the typical constraints of television. In all honesty, while there are a few notable trademarks of episodic TV, you could probably remove all of the opening titles and breaks between episodes, watch this as a full movie, and not even know the difference.

Most TV shows have that one episode where its clear that the show-runners are just stalling and waiting for the action to pick up in a later episode. Stranger Things consistently avoids that by doling out information in small chunks during each episode, slowly establishing the characters, relationships, and conflicts of the show. The pacing is speedy and brisk, but also methodical, never bombarding the audience with action or exposition at any point. The first few episodes aren't content to give you many answers in regards to the central mystery of the show, which is actually a positive. In the early goings, Stranger Things establishes an important sense of intrigue and it maintains that until about Chapter 4. The show never toys with the audience, but the Duffer Brothers are extremely careful with the story arc. They have a fundamental understanding of how this show should play out, and it's very effective.

The first three episodes are firmly devoted to establishing the characters, the next three deal solely with the growth of the mystery, and the final two feature the big action setpieces. It's essentially a three act structure played out over an extended period of time, which very well could be the next step in American television. However, I can't over-emphasize how critical those first three episodes are. Directed by the Duffer Brothers and Shawn Levy, the first act of Stranger Things firmly establishes the most important aspects of the show: the characters and the story. Yes, this is a show that thrives on nostalgia, an enigmatic plot, and a classic retro vibe, but that's not the reason that the show has become a full-blown cultural phenomenon. Super 8 did all of that five years ago, and in most aspects, it was a more impressive recreation of the Spielberg films of the past. Of course, it did have the distinct advantage of having the man himself on as an executive producer, but it's still a nearly perfectly created of the films of that era. And yet, it didn't break out like Stranger Things did. It made a decent amount of money at the box office, was critically acclaimed, and then just sorta faded away into the abyss. Some (myself included) still hold it as a classic blockbuster, but for many, it was just an exercise in nostalgia.

This is why I don't think I can emphasize enough how critical the writing is to this show. Without such sympathetic characters, a boldly original universe, and a devotion to emotional storytelling, Stranger Things is not the sensation that it is today. Sure, it is arguable that the young protagonists aren't all that complex. They certainly aren't as layered as Joe (Joel Courtney) was in Super 8. But to label the three leads as one-dimensional diminishes the impact of their joyful performances, and the love that they display for their missing friend at every corner. Wolfhard, Matarazzo, and McLaughlin are all charismatic performers, and they breathe life into the solid material that the Duffer Brothers had on paper already. They're the pure center of the show- and that's exactly what they need to be. The complex emotion and intensity of the show comes from the rest of the cast.

The other young performers are often overshadowed by Millie Bobby Brown's incredible performance as Eleven, which displays a level of maturity and sensitivity unparalleled by most child actors in Hollywood history. There are multiple reasons that Eleven has already risen to icon status with fans, and with the Duffer Brothers committed to bringing her back for Season 2, I have a feeling that Brown's fame will only rise. Eleven is a total badass, but she's also a traumatized little kid. That's a really difficult balance to pull off, and the fact that Brown does it so convincingly is mighty impressive. She's the emotional crux of the mystery storyline, and I adore the way that the Duffers continually build her story throughout the show. If there's a weak link in the whole show, the villains and the central mystery certainly take the blame. Eleven's story is fascinating and layered, but don't expect a whole lot from Matthew Modine's Dr. Martin Brenner or anything involving the Department of Energy. Each character in Stranger Things is complex and compelling......except for Brenner. What lies behind the curtain is exciting, but the mystery itself is only made interesting by Brown's excellent turn.

The two best performances on the show come from David Harbour and Winona Ryder, as two parents dealing with extreme grief. Ryder will probably give some audiences an anxiety attack (she did for me), but it's a passionate, fiery, engaging performance. On the flip side, Harbour's turn is emotionally devastating, with some moments that feel pain-stakingly real. The fun romance angle of the show comes from the teenage group of characters, led by Natalia Dyer's Nancy, Joe Keery's Steve Harrington, Charlie Heaton's Jonathan Byers, and of course, Shannon Purser's Barb (I can't explain why this character has caught on, but she's one of the most popular on the show). The love triangle between the former three is surprisingly great, which is coming from someone who has always despised the idea of "picking sides" in the hopes of one character ending up with another (Will Katniss end up with Gale or Peeta? Who the hell actually cares?) I loved Nancy and Jonathan, absolutely hated Steve, and yet the Duffers still found a way to surprise me with the direction of the characters. For me, the magic of the show was always in these people and it's the magic that will drive this show for a long time to come.

Honestly, I'm excited about Season 2 not so much because I'm really intrigued by where this story will go, but because I'm fully invested in these characters. That's an honor reserved for the most important franchises in my pop culture lexicon- Star Wars, Harry Potter, etc. The Duffers have created classic, likable figures who will endure for a long time. This show has its heart and soul set for as long as it wishes to keep going, which gives the Duffer Brothers free reign to explore the excellent sci-fi aspects in new ways. From the first techno notes of the thundering opening credits that have become instantly iconic, the Duffers set the tone of the show and establish the slick terror that lurks around every corner. Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein's music is as awesome as you've heard, and it certainly deserves some of the credit for the massive success of the show.

Also, as much negative feedback as the Duffers have received for riding on the coattails of 1980s science fiction, they have truly created an original, innovative story with bold, fresh ideas. Yes, there are a few scenes and moments that are ripped straight out of classic films- the bike chase in Chapter 7 is certainly inspired by E.T., for example. But I don't think we've quite seen anything like the Upside Down or the Demogorgon before, and I love the show's blend of pure sci-fi and historical fact. We all like to trash modern audiences for avoiding original material, but that totally overlooks the fact that audiences have embraced fresh ideas like Stranger Things, a show based in originality while also being surrounded by familiar elements. To me, that's the primary reason for this show's success. Dynamic characters, spot-on tone, perfect blend of nostalgia and ingenuity- the Duffers hit all the right marks and then some.

This summer, the biggest pop culture phenomenon wasn't a mega-budget blockbuster- it was an 8-episode TV series, released on the largest streaming platform in the world. Stranger Things wasn't just another TV show to binge or another mysterious show that gained viral notoriety. It was a true event in every sense of the word, a show that spread like wildfire around America and captured the attention of everyone. To me, this is the future of entertainment. Stranger Things isn't saddled with a bunch of extra subplots nor does it feel episodic in any way. In its essence, it's a complete, 6 hour movie, told with a level of production quality that is top-notch in just about every way. The Duffer Brothers have created a quintessential piece of American entertainment with Stranger Things, a show that looks back at the past and blazes a trail for a new, bold future. It's gripping, fun stuff, and I can't wait to see where these characters go next.

Image Credits: IMDB, Netflix, Screen Rant

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