Binge or no? Netflix’s Stranger Things
Note: This article contains mild spoilers for the Netflix series Stranger Things!
On July 15, Netflix released Stranger Things, a supernatural/science-fiction/horror series set in a small town in 1980s Indiana that has, for a lack of a better term, a lot of weird shit going down.
What, did you expect me to say “stranger things”?
Written and directed by Mike and Ross Duffer, the little-known brothers behind 2015’s equally little-known Hidden, the series kicks off when an unseen monster escapes from a laboratory near Hawkins, Indiana. Meanwhile, 12-year-old Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) is hanging out with his fellow geeks Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin). On his way home, Will is kidnapped by the monster and his frazzled single mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) refuses to believe he’s dead, especially when he transmits messages to her through electricity. Joyce convinces police chief Jim Hooper (David Harbour) to help her investigate, and he quickly realizes something sinister is going on when federal agents swoop in to stop them. Separately, Will’s friends try to find him, but discover Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), an escapee from the laboratory with telekinetic abilities instead.
While the other characters deal with telekinetic children, flesh-eating monsters, and government agents trying to keep the whole thing hidden, teenage good girl Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) is living out a Molly Ringwald-esque plot of falling in love with popular jock Steve Harrington (Joe Kerry) that’s interrupted when her dorky best friend Barb (Shannon Purser) is also taken and murdered by the monster.
Nancy then teams up with Will’s older brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) to track down the monster and kill it, while Joyce and Chief Hopper uncover the government conspiracy behind the laboratory, and the kids try to understand Eleven’s powers and the dark, alternate dimension where Will is trapped and where the monster lives.
Now that we’re all done with Orange is the New Black and BoJack Horseman and in the mood to watch something else before the broadcast TV premieres start in September, is Stranger Things a binge or no?
Pacing Suited For a Mini-Series or a Movie?
In an interview with Variety, producer Sean Levy explained that the Duffer brothers envisioned Stranger Things as “an eight hour movie”, which sounds like the perfect format for a Netflix streaming show. If everyone’s going to watch your eight episodes all at once, might as well pace it as if it’s just one continuous movie, right?
Frustratingly, the pacing in Stranger Things, much like the ’80s films it references, is all over the place. I suspect that the main reason for the inconsistent pacing is due to the fact that the whole series is supposed to take place within one week. Episodes not only have to show the titular strange things happening in Hawkins each day, but also give backstory to the characters and settings that are relevant to the episode and then set up dramatic plot points for the next episode/day to follow up on.
Too much gets crammed into too little time in an attempt to justify why this show is a mini-series instead of a 90 minute horror film, and honestly, I think the Duffer brothers might have been better off making Stranger Things a film instead. Although it’s stretched out across several episodes, the plot is so simple that you can easily just read the Wiki episode descriptions and not miss out on anything. And if that’s the case, why bother watching at all?
So Many ’80s Homages, But Little Originality
Although they came of age in the ’90s, the Duffer brothers love the ’80s and it shows: the font of the title cards resembles the ’80s editions of Stephen King novels, they recruited the electronic band Survive to create a synth-based score for the show, and there have been articles cataloging every film reference and ’80s product seen in the show. The show is so ’80s that the only thing missing is Nancy Reagan and ALF popping in to tell viewers to say no to drugs.
However, once you’re done squeeeeing over all the homages, you realize that there’s very little originality to the story itself. The Duffer brothers don’t take enough chances to explore nuances in ’80s movie tropes and give them a 2016 spin, and instead simply recreate the best moments from their favorite films and coast on the audience’s nostalgia.
Tom and Lorenzo articulate this critique best in their review of Stranger Things:
“When Spielberg showed a frazzled single mother and her sometimes unruly and foul-mouthed children, he was trying, for good or for ill, to work through his own feelings about fatherhood and what that role meant to families. When teenagers have sex in an ’80s slasher film and then get impaled to death, for good or for ill, something is being said about the filmmaker’s feelings about sex in the age of AIDS or about his fear of women and their sexuality. Stranger Things makes reference to these exact things, but strips them of their underlying meanings in the retelling … There is, to be blunt, not one thing new about the story and not one spin put on the tale to give it a modern point of view. It’s 1983 at the multiplex and that’s it.”
Nancy’s storyline briefly offers a glimpse at the type of original twists the Duffer brothers could be injecting amongst the references. As mentioned earlier, Nancy starts out living a typical high school romance plot where she’s caught between Steve, the popular guy, and Jonathan, the misunderstood loner. If John Hughes was directing this storyline, Nancy would have dumped Steve and gotten together with Jonathan. In fact, the showrunners admit that was the original storyline, but after seeing how likable Joe Keery was, they changed it to Steve realizing he was wrong for bullying Jonathan and letting his friends call Nancy a slut after he mistakenly believed she was cheating on him. Then, Steve makes amends by joining Nancy and Jonathan in their fight against the monster, and by the end of the series, he and Nancy are back together while she and Jonathan remain good friends.
It’s a surprising subversion that’s more interesting than the recreations of E.T.: Extra Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind that the Duffer brothers are doing here.
Still, Stellar Acting Elevates the Weak Plot
Despite my complaints about the plot and pacing, the acting in the show is phenomenal. I don’t think there’s been a cast of kids with this much chemistry since Stand By Me. In fact, the child actors did read select scenes from Stand By Me for their auditions. Even with minimal lines, Millie Bobby Brown manages to capture the range of confusion, fear, and terror that Eleven experiences as she gets used to life outside the laboratory and reluctantly helps her new friends learn about the dark dimension known as “The Upside Down”.
Praise also has to be given to Winona Ryder’s portrayal of Joyce. It would have been very easy for her to turn Joyce into a hysterical, scenery chewing mess, but she kept Joyce’s scrappy determination at the forefront of her performance, so even when Joyce is viewed as crazy by the town for insisting that her son is alive, the audience never does.
The acting is the most impressive part about Stranger Things, despite all the adoration being lavished upon the ’80s references and boring plot. However, it’s debatable whether the stellar acting makes up for the other lackluster parts of Stranger Things.
The Verdict: No binge. Stranger Things isn’t amazing enough to consume in a single sitting, but the limited episodes and straightforward plot make it pretty easy to follow if you’re still interested in playing Spot the Reference or witnessing Winona Ryder’s potential comeback. If season 2 isn’t constrained by the one-week time frame, and the Duffer brothers take the time to step outside established tropes, it might be a binge.
What do you think? Is Stranger Things a binge or no?