Netflix’s “Stranger Things” is a Flawed but Entertaining Pop Culture Love Letter

Posted on July 20, 2016

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The first thing we need to say here is that Stranger Things is enjoyable and entertaining. It has to be the first thing we say, so we can establish that this is largely a positive (and spoiler-light) review. You might forget that once we get into the nitpicking of what didn’t work for us, of which there is a considerable amount. Bottom line, before we get started: Stranger Things is a light summer diversion that pays homage to horror and sci-fi films of the early 1980s, with special slavish attention to the kings of nerdy pop culture of the period, The Two Steves (Spielberg and King). It never truly gets as scary as it should, nor does it string you along breathlessly, but it’s well-crafted and there are times that it makes you care a great deal about the characters. There’s a certain confidence and comfort in the way the story progresses – not to mention an undeniable affection for the stories that inspired it –  that it allows you to feel like you’re just going along for the ride in a very chillax, 1980s kind of way. At the end of each episode it’s not so much “OHMIGOD I HAVE TO FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENS NEXT” as it is “Let’s see where this goes…” It’s only after it’s all over that you realize this “mild diversion” had you binge-watching in a very 2016 kind of way.

So is Stranger Things fun and worth your time? A big “YES” to that. Does it have a whole range of flaws, some minor and some extremely glaring? Also a big “YES.” In fact, Stranger Things is the perfect example of a show that works despite its myriad flaws.

We sat down to watch the first episode cold, knowing almost nothing at all about the series. After it was over, Tom turned to Lorenzo and said somewhat dismissively, “This is a story of the 1980s told by people with no memories of the decade.” Turns out, he was right. The Duffer brothers, who created and wrote this series, are 32 years old – and very big fans of all the things this series pays homage to, from the aforementioned Spielberg (E.T., Jaws, Poltergeist, The Goonies, and Close Encounters of the Third kind – all films with a heavy Spielberg fingerprint if not direct involvement – are heavily referenced) and King (It, mostly, with a lot of Stand by Me and a bit of The Shining, The Mist, and Salem’s Lot), to early ’80s John Carpenter (Halloween, The Fog, The Thing) and a whole ton of other pop culture references, the youngest of which are approaching a quarter-century in age (the Exorcist, the Alien films, early X-Files). This is both the source of the series’ strength and its biggest drawback.

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It takes a while to calibrate your settings, but you’re not, in fact, watching a re-enactment of life in 1983, which is why it might seem a little too on point for anyone who remembers it. You’re watching a very deliberate pastiche of a very specific corner of 1983 pop culture. You are, in essence, watching a 2016 streaming series disguised as much as possible to look like a 1983 sci-fi horror film. It’s fun to play “spot the reference” (and we haven’t even scratched the surface with the ones mentioned above), but there are times when it’s a bit hard to remain engaged with the characters because they don’t particularly feel like real people. They feel like characters. In a cheesy old movie. You’re only taken out of this feeling that you stumbled across some 30-year-old Saturday afternoon FX offering when the references become a bit TOO on the nose (a group of boys walking along a train track in period clothes, a guy in a spacesuit examining something that looks like a giant egg, a mother insistent that her missing child is hidden within some unreachable supernatural pocket of her house) or the winking at the audience a bit too overt (None of these people had cell phones or the internet!).

That doesn’t mean people who didn’t live through a period aren’t allowed to tell stories of that period or that pop culture references and homages don’t have value. The problem with Stranger Things isn’t that the creators are too young to tell this story, but that they’re too focused on getting their homage right. Slavish devotion to recreating a style or aesthetic isn’t enough of a statement on its own. For such homages to work, you have to have something you want to say about whatever it is you’re referencing. Certainly, the argument could be made that a prestige period drama like Mad Men (created by Matthew Weiner, who had no first-hand memories of the decade in which it’s set) owed as much of its aesthetic to the films, advertisements and TV series of the period as it did to the idea of historical accuracy. But Mad Men actually played around with that imagery. The Marilyn-esque sexpot got raped and found feminism. The perfect nuclear family of the Drapers – who were straight out of a Coke commercial of the period – was loaded with rot and built on lies. The plucky working girl gave away her baby. Mad Men created a perfect rendition of a particular slice of the 1960s and then told you all the ways in which it was false or more nuanced than you knew. With Stranger Things, there’s no attempt to make a comment about the period, only a clearly considerable effort to accurately recreating one particular aspect of it. It looks just like 1983 (for the most part; the teenagers’ costumes were way off) but it doesn’t seem to have anything to say about it – except for maybe “There sure were some cool movies back then, right?”

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When Spielberg showed a frazzled single mother and her sometimes unruly and foul-mouthed children, he was trying, for good or for ill, to work through his own feelings about fatherhood and what that role meant to families. When teenagers have sex in an ’80s slasher film and then get impaled to death, for good or for ill, something is being said about the filmmaker’s feelings about sex in the age of AIDS or about his fear of women and their sexuality. Stranger Things makes reference to these exact things, but strips them of their underlying meanings in the retelling. Stephen King infamously explored the sexual awakening of kids entering puberty in It, but in Stranger Things, all effort is made to circumvent the concept, even when it’s staring the viewer in the face. A group of just barely pre-pubescent boys hiding a mute girl in one of their basements and dressing her up in wigs and makeup (when they’re not yelling at her and calling her a liar) – that’s an idea with implications that should probably be explored a bit more, rather than glossed over. But in 1983, filmmakers weren’t exploring those issues, so the series doesn’t either. Quite a bit is made of one teenage girl’s sexual awakening, which tends to go wrong in practically every way you could imagine, but virtually no attempt is made to get inside her head and have her react to the events around her in a way that makes sense. Without giving too much away, she’s given a very John Hughes-esque, 1980s kind of choice to make and it’s the kind of thing that practically begs for a bit of 2016 spin on it, given how it deals directly with issues of consent and slut-shaming. But no such introspection is offered. There is, to be blunt, not one thing new about the story and not one spin put on the tale to give it a modern point of view. It’s 1983 at the multiplex and that’s it.

But this does not take away from the fact that the pop culture references and homages are, at first, a lot of fun. And we’d be remiss if we didn’t point out that at about the halfway point, the story kicks into high gear and the number of homages per episode goes way down. While the story beats tend to play out with few surprises and the series goes exactly where you’d expect it to go after the first episode, it’s very well told from a technical perspective. It’s practically impossible not to get sucked in, given how much mood is injected into every shot.

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And the entire venture is helped considerably by a trio of excellent performances: Winona Ryder in a thankless role as a near-crazed mother whose best and most important scenes all take place with nothing else but inanimate objects, David Harbour as the sheriff with a personal tragedy that parallels the main story, giving him a heavy weight he visibly carries in every scene, and Millie Bobby Brown, who anchors the entire series with an astonishingly nuanced performance that manages to tease something delicate and interesting out of a very cliched character.

But take any of our criticisms with the following massive grain of salt: We finished the entire 8 hours in the space of one weekend – and Lorenzo binge-watched the entire series in only two sittings. Whatever complaints or criticisms we’ve expressed should at least be put in that context. Basically, we just spent 1500 words to say what’s expressed in the title of this post. Stranger Things is flawed but fun.

 

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[Picture Credit: Netflix]

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