IMAGE: Stranger Things (Netflix)
SPOILERS: Dear Human Beings of The World,
Before you read this, watch ‘Stranger Things’. Watch it immediately.
Do not let anyone (like me) spoil anything about the story. Do not let anyone (like me) say cute lines from it that you will then be waiting to hear uttered by some character in some scene or other. Don’t read supplementary articles (like this very one) talking up its themes or hidden references or whatever. Avoid the AV Club. Don’t even ask anyone if it’s good (it is).
Go in fresh and unspoiled and have an experience.
I’ll see you on the other side.
* * *
The zeitgeist is funny. It can speed along so swiftly. What one moment was a cult delight, shared like a conspiratorial whisper, the next becomes a full blown sensation, awash with critical recommendations and twitter trending and unchecked, enthusiastic praise. But then, as predictable as it is petulant, comes the counterattack. And this has become particularly virulent in the age of the internet. Once one of these kinds of entertainment convergences appears it gathers speed so fast that it seems but a moment before a saturation point is reached, and people suddenly feel compelled to deride what was once considered great. They clamour to tear it apart in nit-picking autopsies that attempt to explain away the initial magic that others (not them, certainly) felt, and drag its makers low for their hubris, as if the whole experience was just a con job on us poor, rube viewers.
It’s strange. It’s a strange thing.
It’s Stranger Things.
Because in the mere two months since it was released into the wild with almost no fanfare (July 15th), Stranger Things has already lived out this absurd pop culture mayfly life cycle. From surprise critical darling, to over-rated hack job. And, what this lightning-in-a-bottle series shows – arguably more acutely than any other – is that these kinds of analytical roller coasters can reveal more about audiences than they ever do about the text under scruitiny. Because Stranger Things didn’t start strong and fade away like LOST. It didn’t get snarled up in its out increasingly dim-witted mythology like X-Files. The entire thing was released and disseminated in one day. It went from bewilderment, to behemoth, to backlash, without changing a single frame. It was the voices in the audience surrounding it that changed.
For my part, I loved it.
And for once – for perhaps the first time in living history – I was in on the ground floor. I happened to be in the United States when Stranger Things was released (fittingly, I was actually in Indiana), and happily got to enjoy an unbiased experience of the show. Before the memes and spoilers and think pieces started rolling out. Before people began quoting things in their facebook feeds, ‘Where’s Barb?’ became a catch-cry, and fan theories mapped out the shared universe theory with Parks and Recreation.
It popped up on the Netflix feed as a peculiar looking genre throwback. Some forgotten film from the eighties I might have watched at a drive-in theatre that had been randomly exhumed from the streaming library’s algorithm. I read the description, only half taking it in, and pressed play. Five minutes later I knew I was going to follow that show wherever it led.
It was sumptuous and lean and wry. It’s characters layered and fully fleshed. It was psychologically horrifying, poised and menacing without resorting to empty jump scares or gratuitous gore. And it deftly collided at least three separate genres into one, juggling its point of view so as to never sacrifice one for the sake of the others.
On one level it was a boy’s own adventure romp, part ET part Famous Five, in which the investigation of their friend’s disappearance leads a handful of friends to meet a young girl with impossible powers. It was a tale about being on the precipice of young adulthood; riding bikes through the neighbourhood; growing out of the innocence of childhood; tasting the burgeoning freedom of a relative autonomy, only to discover that adults can dangerous liars with malicious agendas. On the level of the teenager characters, it was a monster flick. Part Nightmare on Elm Street, part IT, it was about confronting the terrors of adolescence, like peer pressure, marginalisation, sexual shaming, and being treated like a figurative (and literal) piece of meat. For the adults, it was a conspiracy tale about fighting against the inexorability of loss and despair; where children die, and relationships erode, and you have to struggle to retain your sense of self against the dispassionate forces of mortality and corporate conspiracy.
And for eight episodes these three plotlines hummed along until colliding in a communal effort to reclaim the young boy who had been sacrificed to the conventions of genre in the season’s opener, setting all of these narratives in motion.
I thought it was splendid. Drawing upon a rich history of familiar influences, but presenting something audacious and unique.
Little did I realise that I was wrong. And the show was bad. And that my nostalgia had been exploited. Thankfully I had critics like Film Crit Hulk, who are sick and tired of the adulation that this show has received over the past few weeks, to set me straight.
Because didn’t you know it was riddled with nonsensical creative decisions? Like, didn’t you realise it was silly of the show to linger on the moment where the towns people think they have discovered the missing boy’s body and grieve his death? Well, it was. Film Crit Hulk made sure to point out that the show was dumb for doing that because, as viewers, we already suspect that he might not actually have died. …Even though what was actually being depicting was the characters feeling this despair, rather than some gauche effort to spoon feed a viewer response through the screen. Also, at this point in the narrative, in truth, we really don’t know what is going on with the boy – he might well be a dead, disembodied spirit. But never mind all that. Because didn’t you also know that a young woman seeing something mysterious, then crawling into it instead of scurrying away in fright is totally unrealistic? …Even though her progression from meek, objectified beauty, to fearless pursuer of truth is central to her character arc. Because never mind that either. And surely it doesn’t make sense for a young boy risk endangering himself because his friend’s life is being threatened. …Even though his character has been repeatedly established to have an overly-empathetic nature, even to his own detriment. Nope. Never mind that too. Despite all of these things arguably making sense, be assured that none of them make sense. Because reasons. Because shows have to behave in the predetermined ways that Film Crit Hulk has decided.
So bad show is bad.
(And yes, that’s Film Crit Hulk. The same guy who furiously defended the lazy, racist nihilism of the Mass Effect ending because he had head-cannoned over its garbled script with a pseudo-philosophy about the cyclical nature of existence. Who disliked The Dark Knight Rises because he was convinced a distraught Christopher Nolan, still mourning the death of Heath Ledger, had been dragged against his will through the writing and filming process. Suddenly now an audience projecting anything into its experience of a text – nostalgia; an awareness of hackneyed narrative conventions – is a sign of the text’s weakness, and the audience’s poor, sad foolishness for buying into all this malarkey.)
The show trades in nostalgia, he complains. It asks you to accept the characters’ logic about alternate dimensions and psychic links without always holding your hand through the justification of such leaps. It invites you to run with some plot points and ignore others. On occasion it leans into spectacle as narrative shorthand. And somehow all of this is outrageous – as if it has never happened in cinema before. …Except for all of the countless times it happens in the many films and books to which the series lovingly pays homage.
And that, to me, is exactly the point of Stranger Things, and why such criticism rings so hollow.
IMAGE: Stranger Things (Netflix)
Despite what I’m saying, I don’t mean to attack Film Crit Hulk specifically. His is by no means the only negative review. His scathing reaction against the validity of the show in particular just strikes me as representative of the critical double standards to which the series is now being subjected. Because while Film Crit Hulk has many skills as a critic (at this point I would strenuously argue that the all-caps affectation is decidedly not one of them), his strength has never seemingly been in separating out his personal bias from the interpretation of a text. Nor, I should add, should it be.
Criticism is an act of intimate engagement with a work of art, an interplay between audience and text. Just like every viewer sitting down to watch a summer blockbuster, or curling up on the couch with a favourite Austen novel, or firing up a beloved videogame in which the controller already hums with anticipation, one’s own predilections and preoccupations are an unavoidable factor in the experience. It is that very intimacy that many creators can utilise in their craft. It’s certainly such a familiarity that the Duffer Brothers – creators, writers and directors of Stranger Things – employ to simultaneously welcome and unsettle their audience.
Because despite what its detractors claim, the eighties aesthetic and storytelling Stranger Things repurposes do not merely operate as window dressing. It doesn’t use its period setting as a crutch to avoid dealing with the cell phones and internet coverage, nor as a cloying wistful wallpaper to cover holes in its plot. It’s an earnest throwback to an earlier time, both stylistically and narratively, and this period specificity proves to be key to its purpose. It’s a bower bird, meticulously fashioning a nest from the scraps of the past, operating as a near perfect union of theme and text.
To begin with, there’s a lovely superficially irony in the way that Stranger Things – a show that you can view alone on a streaming service that enables you to avoid speaking to anyone outside of your house – evokes the bygone experience of going to a video store and scrounging through the aisles for some under-loved cinematic curio. It calls to mind that communal experience of personally sharing physical media, of pressing a VHS copy of Ridley Scott’s Alien or John Carpenter’s The Thing (taped off television and labelled with black marker), into your friends hand and making them promise, just promise, to watch it. Just so someone you know can go on that journey with you.
More significantly, however, there is the way in which the series actively subverts expectation by playfully reconstituting the familiar. Because oddly, what many of the critics of the show miss (or perhaps haughtily dismiss) is the most abiding narrative analogy that Stranger Things repeatedly invokes in its storytelling. The entire show communicates itself through the lens of a game of Dungeons & Dragons. The first scene of the series presents four boys sitting around a card table playing a session of the game; the final scenes of the concluding episode returns to those same boys, now reunited, completing their campaign. In between, the parallel universe into which people are being sucked is spoken of in the language of the D&D shadow realm; the monster vomited up from the darkness is named after a creature from their fantasy journey, the Demogorgon; Will’s actions (‘He cast protection’), and the remaining boy’s friendships, are all rationalised though the rules of teamwork that govern the game; and the creators of the show even poke fun at their own unresolved story beats in the final scenes when the boys all chastise Dungeon Master Mike for leaving strands of his plot unexplained (‘What about the lost knight?’ / ‘And the proud princess?’ / ‘And those weird flowers in the cave?’) despite having ten hours to wrap up his campaign (two hours longer than the show itself).
Dungeons & Dragons is about taking familiar conventions and characters and situations – treasures, wizards, monsters, mysteries, magic powers, quests, etc. – and fluctuating them in unique ways, creating new situations in which to inhabit, and by doing so, exposing aspects of those disparate elements that you never perceived before, or that were never previously present. By inviting the audience into a remade fiction, riffing on the familiar, the whole campaign becomes something new. Done well, it creates an experience, in the process of upending these conventions, more than the sum of its parts.
And that it precisely what Stranger Things, by touching the conventions of the old but remaking them new, presents. The series itself operates as a Dungeons & Dragons game. The hysterical, possibly unhinged single mother of conventional genre narratives, here becomes an unflappable badass; the lazy county sheriff is revealed to be a dogged investigator willing to embrace surreality; the hackneyed douchebag boyfriend trope rebels against his cowardly, dickish nature; the iconic outcast boys on their Goonies bent are now hunted by killers, see necks snapped and brains crushed in front of their eyes, and learn that every moment of their lives, perpetually and for the rest of their days, exists on the precipice of a world of pitiless darkness that can swallow them whole in an instant. So, fun!
And in perhaps the best rebellion of type, the attractive young bookworm brushes up against her sexual awakening, but isn’t punished and killed for it; rather she goes all monster-hunter, and tells her parents, the cops, her boyfriend, and even the cute-but-sullen outcast to whom she is warming to all go screw off when they try to demean her or dictate her life. And even in her final scene, when narrative convention would suggest that she should have hooked up with the weirdo with the heart of gold, she zigs again to remain with the conventionally ‘bad’ boyfriend Steve, who has traded the Kevin Back in Footloose ensemble for a goofy Christmas sweater.
All these things – these rote, familiar things – are appropriated and made strange. And in so doing the show crafts something wholly individual out of the chrysalis of the past, turning the comfort of nostalgia against itself. In a way, the ‘upside down’ is the wellspring of genre that the Duffer Brothers have touched, and from which this show, misshapen inexplicable creature that it is, emerges. Stranger Things subsequently defies convention and allows characters traditionally marginalised in popular culture to assert themselves beyond the stereotypes of ‘crazy single mother’ and ‘un-virginal slasher film bait’. It reveals the past to be a dangerous place, shows youth to be more dangerous and psychologically devastating than it appears in Spielberg’s nostalgic Amblin glow. It doesn’t mean that you cannot enjoy the show if you have not been steeped in texts it evokes, but it does mean that if you have, it can potentially speak on multiple levels at once.
But above and beyond all that, on every level, the series is about letting your freak flag fly. About not apologising for what you love, as hokey or rough at the edges as it might be. It is a show that encourages you to identify with the self-possessed teen who no longer hesitates from asserting herself – in either the world or the narrative. With the mother who loves her kid enough to not give a good goddamn if the rest of the town thinks she’s nuts. The detective who doesn’t back down when he decides to give a crap. The lonely weirdo, more afraid and more powerful than people know, who just wants to find a place in the world. With the outcast boys young enough in spirit to still believe in the magic of collaborative imagination.
Consequentially, the fact that there are critics who look at Stranger Things and declare its period setting meaningless surprises me; but the thought that anyone could point at its invocation of overplayed tropes and not see the way in which they were being necessarily subverted, rewriting these tired conventions, astounds. But that’s just the thing: not everything is meant for everyone. That’s the beauty and the penalty of subjectivity. Critics like Film Crit Hulk clearly do not see what I see in the show. And that’s fine. Dungeons & Dragons is not a game the whole world can experience at one. Each round is uniquely tailored by its Dungeon Master to a specific audience. And as the audience, you have to know the rules and be prepared to test them.
Most of all, however, you have to be willing to play.
IMAGE: Stranger Things (Netflix)