August 1, 2016
There is a very thin line between paying homage to something and being simply derivative. Strip away all the nods to the movies and books that millennials and their older siblings grew up on and Stranger Things falls squarely in the latter category, failing to live as a supernatural mystery in its own right.
A small boy disappears after a night playing Dungeons and Dragons with his friends in early 80s, Indiana. His single mother is convinced he’s still alive, even when a body is produced, while his friends begin an investigation of their own, which leads them to discover a shaven headed girl with special powers who has escaped from a nearby military compound.
The local Sheriff, who drinks to numb the pain of his own daughter’s demise, becomes suspicious when his team are lied to and shut out of the autopsy, and quickly goes all Walker, Texas Ranger to get some answers.
While the teen and pre-teen characters at the centre of this story, sneak in and out of each other’s bedrooms and basements, discovering the true meaning of friendship, love and responsibility.
However, because the writer/director pairing, The Duffer Brothers, spend so much time nodding to the past, they add nothing of their own to the present, which means that while we recognise the world they’ve created, we fail to be absorbed into it.
Stranger Things faithfully sticks to the rules laid down by Stephen’s King and Spielberg, John’s Hughes and Carpenter, from the locations they use, the tropes they indulge, the general atmosphere they strive for.
But watching the show is like sitting down for a chat with somebody wearing a band tee of a group you admire, who you quickly realize has no understanding of what the artist is actually talking about in their songs. They like the aesthetic, but not the soul, and that’s what the series lacks.
While King and Spielberg were reflecting on the great fears of their childhood (The H Bomb, Commie spies living amongst us) and recalling their innocence and its loss, they still managed to relate it the time their films were set. AIDS, Vietnam, Regan and Nixon-era politics. There is no such underbelly to Stranger Things, which is like a suburban pub drag act trawling the 1980s for knickknacks but missing the satiric commentary or any trace of subversion.
The use of stereotype as a shorthand for characterization is smart. When our focus is pulled by one of hundreds of tributes to 80s pop culture, we can slip back into the narrative with little hassle, as there is no depth to the separate groups and their make up. But because the characters are never fleshed out in the writing, the very strong acting from all involved can’t make us care about them when they are placed in peril.
None of this is helped by the fact that the characters so often speak in plot, not piquing our interest and allowing a mystery surrounding a character to develop before revealing its meaning to us. And the town of Hawkins, where Stranger Things is set, both fails to exist as a character in its own right, nor reflects any of the political tension that would have existed at this time.
Even the music in Stranger Things, which has been much heralded, is problematic. Excellent as the synth heavy original score by S U R V I V E is, it’s dispersed with seeming no other purpose than to substitute for atmosphere. Compare it the Angelo Badalamenti’s score for Twin Peaks, which sent the way we viewed stock characters askew, or when placed over the image of a traffic light blowing back and forth at night, or a waterfall falling, sent a chill down your spine. Here, it’s reminiscent of Vangelis or Brad Fiedel, but underwhelms in the manner in which its used.
Much like the recent Ghostbusters remake, the question should not be why not, but why? Had the Duffer Brothers managed to answer that question when it came to their concept, it might have brought something to the table other than a lot of recycled set pieces and diluted characters. Instead, like House of Cards, its built on reflecting what they think we want from a series, rather than focusing on the deeper questions which make great shows become timeless shows, that resonates through the ages.