So, the hot Netflix show of the month is “Stranger Things”, a mystery show leaning heavily on Stephen King and Steven Spielberg tropes and plot mechanisms.
That in itself is not a bad thing. You could pick apart any work of art and prove kinship of characters, ideas, constellations etc. with the work of other creators. I, personally, love precocious kids against the world. I also love the period aspect of the show – it is set, I think, in the early 80s.
I liked many of the actors, mostly new faces. Wynona Rider, of course, is uniformly called the star and big thing to see in the show. I would disagree there. In my mind, she overplayed the anxiety part of her character a bit. She came across a little shrill. Leaving aside the kids, who are decent kid actors, I guess – it’s always hard to judge kids -, I really liked the actor playing the cop. His face seems kind of familiar. Maybe he’s played the main thug of a villain in a nondescript blockbuster; he seems to give off this vibe. Anyway, good for him to get this chance to reinvent himself.
But actors aside, let’s get to the nitty-gritty.
One thing I thought was a major weakness were the characters. They were at times interesting and deep, or promising of depth, and at other times pretty shallow and just representations of tropes. You know the roles each of them fulfills, all familiar stuff. Anyone who has read at least 3 Stephen King books will recognize the kids, will recognize the bullies, will recognize the dynamics between the youths. The problem is, I think, that we didn’t get to know them well enough. Hints of backstories are scattered throughout the show and flashbacks are given – which are, in their length, handled very effectively -, but in the end, none of their personal traits really affect the plot, is of any consequence. In the end, it doesn’t much matter who they are.
Which takes us to the plotting.
The show started out really, really strong. The first episode in particular was full of suspense, creepiness, dread, atmosphere and intrigue. The viewer gets hooked pretty much instantly. But somewhere between then and the moment scientific intelligence guys start unloading guns and rifles into a plant-like monster jumping through the corridors of a school, the atmosphere is diminished, the suspense flattens, the intrigue crumbles away. What started out innovative and promising has lost its edge and seems just a repetition of well-worn tropes:
The test-subject kid with powerful abilities that take a toll on its body.
The hardly-explained rituals needed to cross the gap between the metaphysical and reality.
The intelligence guys getting outsmarted / overwhelmed by their own creation fairly easily.
Especially the last two episodes were disappointing for me. While nothing really was explained, everything was resolved and there’s not much to look forward to in season two. Do I think El is dead? Should be. Possibly is not. Don’t care very much.
Am I intrigued about the nature of the different dimensions? Don’t know why it should be relevant now that the monster is dead.
Do I care about the development of the relationships? Kind of, but they’re not the selling point of the show, are they?
“Stranger Things” fails for me in that it loses the allure and dread and mystery of its central plot element – the shadowland – too quickly. There’s an incredibly chilling scene in one of the early episodes where El flips a boardgame around to demonstrate the two worlds right next to each other – and the other side is completely black. Now THAT is scary. If we were left with that, it would have intrigued and chilled me to no end. But no, of course, we have to go there and see that it’s a mirror image of this world, just all gloomy, and there’s a monster in it. The monster seems to have been killed in the end. So is the threat gone? It feels gone to me as a viewer. My investment in the show is weakened. There’s no reason to tune in again. I think “Stranger Things” has lots of promise and partially fulfills it, but where “Lost” failed in over-extending the mystery and muddling it, “Stranger Things” fails by trivializing it.