Let me begin by stating that I was once like you: After watching the first episode of the Netflix original series Stranger Things I was reduced to a deeply smitten 10-year-old who had just landed their first kiss. Honestly after just watching the Stephen King paperback style title sequence I was already writing Stranger Things’ name all over my trapper keeper and practicing introducing myself to people as Mrs. Stranger Things. How could I not fall for this show? It was an homage to everything I ever loved growing up. But, turns out, that’s all it was.
Simply Recreating What Inspires You Isn’t Actually All That Inspiring
At first it was really fun catching all the overt and subtle references to various 80s movies and books sprinkled throughout Stranger Things. But like that cool guy who you meet at a party that knows all the same film quotes as you…that shit gets old quick. Because after the fifth Big Lebowski quote in a row it hits you: That’s what he does. “That’s all that he does!” Christ, now you’re doing it too. He just keeps quoting movies and when you call him on it he responds with, “Well, that’s just like your opinion, man?”
So initially when the telekinetic Carrie/ Firestarter cocktail named Eleven wandered into frame I couldn’t have been happier. Ditto for her predilection toward Eggo waffles, a nod to another of her progenitors, E.T., an alcoholic from outer space who took to Reese’s Pieces and Coors Beer and once got a ten-year-old psychically drunk.
But pretty quickly this whole Chris Farley Show-esque “Remember when E.T. made those bikes levitate…that was AWESOME” shtick became tedious. Yes, I loved Nightmare on Elm Street, It, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Stand By Me and Altered States too but is constantly recreating various elements from these works all you’ve got going for your story?
Not Having Anything New To Say About What Came Before Just Reminds Me How Much Better Before Was
Even if you’re the world’s best imitation artist you’re still just going to be the world’s second best actual artist. Get me? Yes, the show’s creators the Duffer Brothers have a fine eye for the trappings of niche genre and for cinematic minutia. But they never really put their own spin on any of this raw material or reshape it into something that feels fresh or exciting. Yes, remixing old and disparate elements when done well can result in compelling and groundbreaking work; take what Tarantino does routinely or what most of hip hop is built on for positive examples. But there’s a huge difference between the inspired sampling of say The Bomb Squad or Dr. Dre and the unimaginative, just add a new drum machine behind it sampling of Puff Daddy. Stranger Things just regurgitates old tried and true Stephen King and Spielberg stuff and guess what, nobody can do old Stephen King and Spielberg stuff better than them and they already did it.
All the Stories that Stranger Things Emulates Are about Something, Stranger Things is just about those Movies and Books
Monsters, like the heroes they fight with, work best when they stand for something. Pennywise the clown sticks with us because he represents fear itself as well as fear of self; the change and uncertainty of adolescence. Likewise, the xenomorph from Alien will forever haunt us not just because of its pez dispenser from hell double mouth; but because it’s a rape metaphor tucked inside male fragility and pregnancy themed body horror. (Geez, Giger and the gang really covered a lot of ground didn’t they?) But the Demogorgon from Stranger Things what does it represent? Nothing, just a halfway cool looking design reject from Silent Hill or the crowd shot of a monster bar in a Del Toro film.
And it’s not just the monsters, E.T. according to Spielberg was actually about his own parents divorce.
Ditto for the crumbling family at the center of his companion piece Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Absent fathers and struggling, burnt out mothers are the hearts of many of these stories. We get tips of the hat to several of these notions in Stranger Things, we do, but they feel like only surface skims. The friendship expressed by the D and D playing foursome and their inclusion of Elle pale in comparison to the camaraderie and frankly the chemistry of the kids in The Goonies or Stand By Me.
It looks like the Duffers tried to emulate their heroes in a lot of ways but the results prove that they merely understand the bare bones of why these characters from old horror and science fiction still resonant or what motivates any of these characters. The one exception interestingly being Sheriff Hopper, a character who feels the least like a call back or composite of characters from other stories. Oh, and Douchebag Steve. Gotta admit, I kinda love Douchebag Stevie. He’s the anti-Ducky, the reverse Troy with the bucket from Goonies. His arc was one real effort of the Duffers to consciously buck genre trends and give us a curveball and instead of coming off contrived this change made the character seem much more real. Team Douchebag Steve all the way.
80s Movies Commented on 80s Concerns, does our Obsession with Nostalgia Comment on our Times?
The real monsters of Stephen and Steven’s mythic suburbia were allegorical. Whether it was fear of nuclear war, fear of small towns dying out or fear of the disintegration of the American family, these were stories of their times. Stranger Things is a period piece but it forgets that all period pieces can’t help but comment on the times in which they were actually made. Because they are, no matter how much they fight it by adding film grain to their digital shots, just that: stories of their times.
So why not embrace that a bit and use the past to comment on the present as well as the times you’re depicting? Unfortunately Stranger Things doesn’t really do either and inadvertently gives us a telling lesson on the nostalgia addicted times we’re currently living through:
We long for the past imagined, like we always have. Not the actual past, mind you, but our idea of the past. Currently we long for that simpler, pre-internet time where we believe that while we were less widely connected as a whole we were also much closer connected to one another. Friendships carried more weight and you didn’t have to wear dorky helmets when you rode your bike.
But the Duffers didn’t intend for any of this insight about our current times, there are no real references or metaphors to the intrusiveness of constant artificial connection. If their concept of upside down is meant to be one then it’s handled sloppily. Because there are no apparent juxtapositions in the show between how the world we imagined 1980 was against how it really was. And if the characters have already failed to be more than cardboard simulacrums of our favorites from the past then even if this subtle message was encoded in the 8 episodes of this show would we even care enough to sift through it to find it?
Failure to Engage the Intended Audience
Not everything is meant for me. Thank god. But I’m reasonably certain that when the Duffer Brothers created Stranger Things the core audience they were looking to attract with it might look a helluva lot like me. I’m a 34 year old white American guy who cut his geek teeth mainlining Stephen King books and Spielberg and John Carpenter movies. It’s a safe venture that I’m the target audience here. Because, not for anything else, Stranger Things, like a lot of art was made by its creators primarily for themselves and subsequently for people like them. People who came up in the 80s when this sort of storytelling was commonplace and whose lives, upbringing and fantasies were reflected in the middle class humdrum settings depicted therein.
80s movies and books featuring posses of misfit kids mounting their bicycles in a quest to destroy certain evil or maybe just help out a lovable Coors pounding, otherworldly good ol’ boy with glowing Twix candy bars for fingers; that is my shit. It’s a formula I can fall for every time. Even the knockoff stuff. Sure, there were some Mac and Mes, some Prehysterias in there that I’d waste some time on but there were also gleaming weird gems like Monster Squad (Goonies 2: Wolfnards) and Watchers (A Dean Koontz penned, Corey Haim arthouse movie about a dog with a telepathic link to a murder yeti.) And both these knockoffs were better than this show.
I’m fully aware that right now Stranger Things is enjoying great success. That’s great, a lot of work was put into it. And I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t be curious if Season 2 of the show might not improve on the problems with this season and at least have the creators forge ahead with more of their own voice and personality in the final product. But I don’t know if they will from what I’ve seen with this existing season. And if season 2 is more of the same I have the feeling that more will come around to my view of the show as an impressive but ultimately hollow imitation of better stories from the 80s. All that being said I will however watch the shit out of a spin-off revolving around the further adventures of Douchebag Steve and Winona Ryder in her adorably tiny hazmat suit as they contend with the issues which confront young douchebags and single moms alike.
Basically the show will be about teen pregnancy.