I recently finished watched Netflix’s fantastic new show Stranger Things and even though I feel like it’s been talked to death online, I wanted to write about it. I feel like modern critical discussion comes in waves and right now the show is in the trough between the crests of extreme adulation and critical backlash. Maybe I’m being cynical, but that seems to be the new paradigm: build something up to impossible heights one week and then tear it to shreds the next. Stranger Things is far from perfect, but I really enjoyed the eight hours I spent watching the show. As such, I wanted to write about why I think it’s so great before the tides change and everyone can only talk about the show’s faults.
Naturally, this discussion requires a little spoiler talk so if you haven’t seen Stranger Things please stop reading and go watch it. You’ll be glad you did, it really is quite good.
When Stranger Things first premiered (and when it was first announced) much was made of how the show was set in the 1980’s. Pretty much every piece I’ve read online about the show focuses on two things: the amazing performance of the child actors (they’re really great) and the fact that the show revels in 80’s nostalgia. I’m a kid from the 80’s myself and watching Stranger Things really brought scratched an itch I didn’t even know I had for the 1980’s. It also brought forth a lot of feelings related to my early childhood. We should all expect to see more stuff from this era crop up in the zeitgeist as my generation ages into our extreme nostalgia phase (which by the way, seems to be arriving earlier and earlier, as any 90’s kid will tell you). A few critics online have even hinted at (or outright stated) that Stranger Things trades a little too heavily in nostalgia. I’m not sure that’s true as the show’s setting is less “OMFG Rubik’s Cubes!” and more “gee these were simpler times.” I don’t think the show doesn’t take place in an aging millennial fantasy , but rather a time when kids could roam the neighborhood on bicycles and missing kids were less of a worry.
I do recognize that Stranger Things is a pastiche of science fiction/horror and like many critics have pointed out borrows heavily from Spielberg and Stephen King. But rather than merely use this cultural appropriation as an easy shorthand, Stranger Things does something I think is rather neat: it takes popular genre tropes and changes them. Now I’m not talking about the monster stuff, that stuff is all pretty much by-the-books. Sadly, if you’ve seen a movie or read a book in the Science Fiction or Horror genres you’re going to have a pretty good understanding of where Stranger Things is headed almost right from the start. The show doesn’t do the whole Lost thing and make everything some big, unknowable mystery for the show’s entire run time.I’m not saying that the show’s central mystery isn’t interesting, but for me, it’s not the thing that I find myself thinking about now that I’ve finished the show. All I keep coming back to are the characters.
Now don’t get me wrong, Stranger Things isn’t The Wire, these aren’t fully fleshed out three-dimensional characters. But Stranger Things does some really interesting subversion of genre tropes that I feel many critics/people talking about it online aren’t talking about enough. In fact, a big part of why I like this show is how it unexpectedly plays it’s characters against types. The show is filled with characters that are genre-standbys such as: the group of misfit kids, their older/sexy siblings, a loser town police chief, a frantic mother, oblivious parents, malicious scientists meddling with things beyond their knowledge, and the awkward child with freak abilities. And while all of these stock characters are accounted for, not all of them follow the strict genre rule book. And that’s where Stranger Things stands out, in my opinion.
Case in point: when we’re first introduced to Police Chief Jim Hopper he’s hungover and not wanting to be bothered about the case of missing child Will Byers. He acts very cavalierly towards Byers’ mother, played by Winona Ryder. We get the impression that this is a character who, either due to his laziness or masculine ego, will not be very helpful in unraveling the supernatural mystery surrounding Byers disappearance. If anything, Hopper is set up as a possible secondary antagonist to Ryder’s hysterical mother. I imagined him taking her into custody and/or having her committed due to her erratic behavior has the show progressed. Instead, however, Hopper turns out to be more Mulder than Scully and is soon wearing a proverbial tinfoil hat and winds up in an alternate dimension battling both his own grief and a horrible monster. And I loved the very natural way in which Stranger Things slowly pulls Hopper’s character out from under the cliché of disbelieving authority figure.
Something similar and equally surprising happens with two of the teen characters. When good girl Nancy Wheeler starts dating rich jerk Steve Harrington it feels like we know where their relationship is headed. The kid playing Steve Harrington would have been played by a smarmy James Spader if this were 1984. He’s the kind of character we’re supposed to boo and hiss throughout the show. When a misunderstanding leaves Steve feeling spurned we see him turn his petty, vicious nature towards Nancy. Finally, we think, she seems him the way we the audience sees him, thus completing their relationship’s narrative cycle. But then something happens, something unexpected: Steve has a change of heart and decides to change his ways. When he shows up at near the end of the season the best I thought his character would get was a redemptive, heroic death. But instead, Steve not only save Nancy but he gets to live! And better still, he ends up with her despite the fact that a relationship with school outcast Johnathan Byers had been telegraphed almost from the beginning of the show.
Another fun, but really small, example of this sort of twisting of expectations comes late in series when we see the nerdy Science teacher sitting at home…with a really hot woman watching John Carpenter’s The Thing. Not only does this super-nerdy guy have such a good looking woman, he’s making her watch a sci-fi movie!
These little ways that the characters in Stranger Things color outside of the lines are what make it such a great show. Show creators The Duffer Brothers didn’t just take the aesthetics of 80’s Spielberg and Stephen King, they sat down and looked at what made those two creators so great. And in the end, both men are master manipulators for whom characters are their bread and butter. A movie like Jaws or a book like It don’t work on premise alone. Audiences treat stories like they’re real if the characters in them feel real. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s the monster or 80’s setting that elevate the show to greatness. The characters and how they interact and defy our expectations is Stranger Things‘s real secret ingredient.