Binge or no? Netflix’s Stranger Things

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.

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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.

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I bet this crap never happened to Duckie.

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.

The series is receiving high praise from critics and has already been renewed for season 2, with the Duffer brothers promising a continuation of where the previous season finale left off.

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?

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Seriously, is there a way to turn off that feature yet?

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.

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“There’s always season 2!”

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.

Apr 20, 2000; Hollywood, California, USA; Actress WINONA RYDER as Susanna Kaysen & actress ANGELINA JOLIE as Lisa Rowe in the movie 'Girl Interrupted' directed by James Mangold. Mandatory Credit: Photo by Columbia Tristar/ZUMA Press. (©) Copyright 2000 by Courtesy of Columbia Tristar

Unless she’s in Girl, Interrupted. (Note: This is a weak joke and I don’t like it either.)

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?

Susan Velazquez

Susan is a recent college grad and writer who enjoys all things from the 1980s, snarking on dumb television, and reveling in celebrity gossip. Oh, and she has serious interests like reading historical fiction, getting involved in social issues, and consuming French fries.

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  • Murry Chang

    I thought it was a great series that you should absolutely watch for 8 hours straight if you have that kind of time.

  • Alexa

    I guess I cut my binging in half, but it was very much engrossing enough to continue. Maybe it shouldn’t have less episodes so the pace would flow better…

  • moppet

    I can’t agree with the pacing issue you saw, nor can I agree that it should have been a movie. I can’t even agree with the issues you had with there not being enough that’s original. Yes, they did things like E.T.’s bike flying scene, but turned it on its head with the vehicle going flying instead – bits like this are exactly what your asking for, the nostalgia but with a spin – but you seem incapable of seeing beyond the nostalgia.

    Even your quote of other’s issues with the film is flawed in this way, it highlights the things it thinks are the same, says they are the same without change, and then neglects to mention how the veered off. It talks about a lack of meaning to, or that they’ve been stripped of their meaning, but let’s look at the sex scene the sister is involved in. She has underage sex. She isn’t killed for it, nor her boyfriend, 80s slasher style though. Her chaste friend pays the price instead. It says a lot, actually, about their view on underage sex and irresponsibility, rather than coming down on the person who was irresponsible, it came down on someone that they cared about, and it was up to them to partially help in setting things right.

    It’s a very different approach from the typical 80s trope because it says something different about the subject, rather than pointing out clearly int he case of the individuals involved, it points at the fallout, and those in the radius.

    The bully changing his ways, instead of straight up getting his comeuppance is also a shift from typical 80s story telling. You mention it as a highlight, while missing all the other subversion because you’re so focused on the nostalgia aspect.

    This is an opinion piece, of course, not a review, preview, overview, analysis or anything of the sort that an actual Journalist might write, I get that. An actual Journalist steps away and views a thing analytically, whereas your approach is purposefully to insert your opinion. I get that, and despite any disagreement I have with the opinion, I’m not saying you shouldn’t have it. I am saying, however, that maybe taking a step back might have been helpful for this one it. It “is” mired in nostalgia and recreations, but there are many twists on these things that you seem to have only very rarely been aware of.

    Perhaps you were somehow to close to this one to really see it for what it was, and I don’t mean that in terms of the series being good or bad, it’s not a perfect series – that’s readily true of anything created by Human beings. The story ‘is’ simplistic, though I’m not sure I agree with that being in any way a detriment. I especially don’t agree with the pacing issues, as pacing issues tend to drive me crazy, and this blatantly did not. While there is a major Steven King meets Spielberg feel to this, there are other influences obvious, and underlying themes. The structure of the cast, the underlying structure of the story – it’s a D&D campaign, not just in the references to it, but in that the boys and El make up a D&D party complete with El being the Wizard or Sorcerer, replacing their prior Wizard, and the party needing put back together [healed] by their Cleric.

    This show is a covered rabbit hole that is very easy to only scrape the surface of and view it as nothing more than surface level nostalgia with no underlying meaning, messages or intentions. That doesn’t mean everyone will like it, but it knows who its audience is, even if it isn’t internet article writers who have gotten too close to their subject matter, much like game critics that are mired in too many games they have to write about and start complaining about the games being too long in all their articles/videos/etc. Too many people forget, when writing about a subject, especially if they write a lot about a subject, that they cease to be the general audience. Articles like this one, result.

    It honestly reminds me of something I’d have written just out of College, my head filled with the things instructors and professors put there, but with no real long term experiences, from years or decades of life and work and further study, to even it all out.

    I liked it. It’s not for everyone. Nothing is. Moving on.

  • Betsy Murgatroyd

    We are going through this show a second time. My roommate hates most series, and yet he is totally engrossed in this. He’s loves it and that’s saying so much. It’s not a movie or a TV show. It’s like a British series and I think many North Americans are disused to the format. Which is unfortunate, because there’s a lot to be said for the way they present a story.
    That said. We didn’t binge it. He watched the first two and was like, meh and I had to encourage him to watch the third. And then he was hooked.
    I don’t think it’s the greatest thing available out there, but it’s a damn sight better than a lot of the shows available.
    I only hate that Barb wasn’t fleshed out more and I hope they address this in the second season because damn, she’s such an afterthought.

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  • consptheory77

    There seems to be two areas where there is a difference of opinion between people about this show: its originality and its pacing. As for its originality, I’d regard it as being inspired by the variously identified 80’s influences, but not merely content to (poorly) re-imagine them, as has been the case with the many remakes of 80’s properties. But I have to agree with the critics about the pacing. Something that would have been better as a movie, even if a longer than usual one, is stretched out among too many episodes and as a result, my attention wandered. The acting and direction are good, and Natalia Dyer looks like the love child of Rose Byrne and Emmy Rossum (if such a thing were possible), but the story needs to be cut by about half.