The Good, The Bad & The Buggy: Stranger Things (2016- )
Stranger Things had a strong first season although the ending presents a dangerous possibility that the story will beat the premise to death sooner than later. It will take the threat expanding in scale to progress a plot based on the initial concept. That being said, the short opening season (8 episodes) packed a punch and the mystery of supernatural elements effectively whet the appetite. This list is the best, worst and oddest part of the series.
1. First Impressions - Title Sequence
After the intro of each episode comes the title sequence. The sequence is very clean, with eerie electronica music and a short animation sequence featuring the title of the show like a neon marquee. Like many elements of the show, this sequence recalls Stephen King and fonts from the covers of his paperback novels.
2. Reminisce Sometimes - Musical Soundtrack
Stranger Things is set in the 1980s. I don't recall an exact year ever being mentioned but there are a trail of breadcrumbs left for the amateur historian. One trail is left courtesy the extra-diegetic and diegetic music used in the episodes. Unfortunately, with a very poor cover of David Bowie's Heroes halfway through the season, I have my apprehensions on whether the music will stay strong or whether the producers will begin peppering in contemporary self-piteous noise in future seasons. Only time will tell.
3. WTF Moments - The Demogorgon Creature
There are two sources of supernatural happenings in the first season of the series: the young girl, "Eleven" and the Demogorgon monster and its realm. The Demogorgon is teased out effectively without a clear view of it or its world until the last couple of episodes. Eleven's androgynous appearance and reserved nature maintain her as an enigma and provide a suspenseful moment anytime she uses her telekinetic abilities. The Demogorgon was far less impressive when it came into full view and the creature would have been more frightening had it been rendered purely with traditional special effects instead of digital CGI. Hollywood seems to sorely overestimate the impact of simulacra - as the eye, senses and mind adapts to CGI, it also becomes more familiar with the patina of the rendering. Forgeries are more easily spotted despite the facilities provided through the assurances of Moore's Law.
4. With Great Power - Pop Culture References
I appreciate the nuances within the frame and through the script, and that is why I am very much against 3D in movie theaters. 3D forces the audience to view what is deemed of central importance in the frame. The effect is that the experience breeds monoculture and knowledge is curtailed in order to reduce open interpretations and curtail aberrant decoding. Hollywood desires this effect and as a propaganda machine it is able to condition audiences into believing that content is entertaining. This means that through particular systems content that is not inherent entertaining can be coded as such by Hollywood. This is the threat - that people will slowly become mouth-breather humonculi through being inundated with Hollywood content. It suits HW and has been a major part of the institution since the Great Depression. I prefer the nuances and being able to value small details in a text if they resonate with my specific personality, history and memory. In Stranger Things, there are many pop culture references that can attract an individual to the show. My favourite from the series was the Marvel X-men comic book references. The rogue freedom fighters of the X-Men become a source of inspiration for the school kids in the story who seek to find their missing friend.
5. Repressed Spaces - Demogorgon's Shadow Realm
In the final episodes of the season, a pair of traumatized parents enter the Demogorgon's realm - one in search of her son and the other looking to redeem the untimely death of his daughter. The Demogorgon's shadow realm is truly nightmarish and features the detritus of our world - decaying copies of edifices and natural phenomena familiar to humanity's experience of Earth. Objects are gooey and brittle while details have the oneiric blur effect applied. Orienting oneself in this realm seems impossible as objects almost appear to materialize only once you are upon them... or they are upon you.
6. Moment of Truth - Building Suspense
Stranger Things effectively builds suspense across its inaugural season. When Winona Ryder's mother character crafts a Ouija board on the wall of her house with string lights over each letter, it is showing brilliant initiative. She begins deciphering a message from the Demogorgon realm, however, it wasn't the message she was expecting. She is told to "run" and the spelling out of the message sends a shiver up your spine. The mother's quest to find her son is the central drama and presenting her with a personal threat is effective in order for the audience to root for her as a character instead of just rooting for the accomplishment of her task.
1. Inspiration; Imitation - Stephen King
Stranger Things is clearly heavily inspired by the work of Stephen King. In fact, King gets several overt references in the scripts of the first season of episodes. The show undoubtedly has the structure and feel of King, however, there was an opportunity to do something remarkable and original. I can't recall any element of the show that was a major departure from the King style. The threat was presented similarly to Dreamcatcher, the herald (Eleven) type is also present in many of King's works and the crew of kids can be found in Stand by Me and Dreamcatcher. In fact, Stranger Things is quite similar to Dreamcatcher in several ways. King is the master of haunting, but there was a chance to do something brand new within the tried and true formula.
2. Are You My Mother? - Winona Ryder
For younger audiences, Winona Ryder is mainly unknown and so she may come off as a great casting choice as the mother in Stranger Things. However, for someone in my generation and older, Winona Ryder is heavily coded with meaning - her daughter/gamine roles exemplify her Hollywood career (Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, Heathers), her notoriety as an adult shoplifter was embarrassing for everyone and her real life status as a non-mother is recognized. I think she did a decent job of being the mother in the show, but there were surely better choices because she just doesn't have a mom vibe for anyone except younger audiences who don't know better.
3. Loose Ends - The Unexplained
Teasing out the Demogorgon was effective, however, the season ended with far too many questions to the point of inducing the audience to ask ridiculous ones, such as "did any of this really happen or were they just playing out a Dungeons & Dragons fantasy?" Everyone forgets about Eleven despite having been devastated for the whole season by the other missing children. The shadowy military organization just disappears allowing the town to go back to blissful ignorance. The ending is far too pat despite the coughing up of a supernatural parasite by the abducted boy in the last moments of the drama. Wes Craven's Nightmare on Elm Street movies often ended similarly, but it was at least made clear that the serene conclusion was a ruse by Freddy who had dressed up the never ending nightmare as a peaceful dream. The end of Stranger Things doesn't even tease out a handful of options - it is all wide open. That level of blissful ignorance is too onerous for any spectator that is inclined toward critical engagement.
1. Oxymoron - Low Security Military
One of the major threats in the opening season of Stranger Things is the shadowy military organization that has quarantined the Demogorgon's tear into our reality and is experimenting with it. The facility where the gateway is located has minimal security and when the organization seeks out Eleven, there is a small number of soldiers and M.I.B. types on the offensive. It seems very unlikely that any organization protecting supernatural, alien phenomena would do such a lax job on security. In X-Files, FBI agents can almost never infiltrate military facilities and when they do it is an extremely short-lived jaunt that usually ends in torture and interrogation. That seems pretty realistic.