Minor spoilers involving tone and some general stuff…
I saw an article the other day that referenced Stranger Things, with the question ‘Has homage become a genre of its own?’ and it made me hesitate. Then I got defensive because, as will soon become apparent, I am madly in love with this single season of Netflix original television and I don’t want it to be disparaged at all if I can help it. It’s a valid question, though and I would love to hear the opinion of someone who somehow grew up without John Carpenter, Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, et al. who so clearly influenced the tone and atmosphere of this show. Would it still be as magical without the nostalgia and familiarity of that generations biggest fiction influences? If it can stand on its own, which I think it would, then it is possibly the best first season of television I’ve ever seen and without a doubt one of my favorite shows of all time.
Am I having a side of overstatement with my hyperbole? Also possible. If someone were to draw a big dartboard that described this shows targeted demographic my dumb face would be sitting squarely in the center of the bullseye just like this. I accept that. Stranger Things is E.T. and Stand By Me and The Explorers and The Goonies all crossed with It. And if it were just those things I would probably be less infatuated with the show. Impressed with the production value, charmed by the low-fi soundtrack, and pleased with the suspense, sure. Thanks for stopping by. But what Stranger Things also has is the best, most charming group of child actors that I have seen since Freaks and Geeks. It has a frantic, heartbreaking performance from Winona Ryder. And an absolute prodigy in the form of 12 year old Millie Bobby Brown, who kills it in every single scene she is in while having next to no dialogue to work with.
In Stephen King’s On Writing he mentions that the story itself is not always as important as the storyteller. And in good writing every character thinks and behaves like they are the hero of their own plot, everyone has their own pathos and it’s this fidelity to the characters that makes that homage to 80s pop culture a good familiar. Everyone feels like real people. And even though the ‘normal looking town with a dark secret’ is a trope that has been done to death in television since the early days of the medium, it works here because the town doesn’t know there’s a secret, it hasn’t been weird forever. There isn’t a vast conspiracy (or is there) that would turn the whole thing into a cliche, no conniving Big Bad wringing their hands at the end who would have gotten away with it, and, best of all, not a totally happy ending.
I don’t know who the hell the Duffer brothers are other than they are apparently twins and are around 34 years old but they have no right being this adept at filmmaking. Which is what it is, by the way. I know the medium is television and it’s serialized, but Stranger Things is an 8 hour film that is never boring. One of the things that makes Netflix’s other series feeling bogged down is the amount of filler content, from House of Cards to their Marvel series, that feel obligated to be around 12 or 13 episodes when they really have around 7 or 8 hours of content. And Stranger Things is exactly as long as it needs to be, no more no less. To be fair, if there is an arc that is too color by numbers to be enjoyable, it’s the older sister dating the rich kid while the sensitive loner pines away in the background but even that took an unusual turn I didn’t expect.
So if the opening and suspense is Stephen King-esque, the brothers Duffer do something unexpected and brilliant in the finale of the season. Where the horror and supernatural elements are expertly creepy and engrossing, in closing they pivot to Spielberg. I am a great admirer of King but if there is one glaring flaw in his writing it’s in his endings. Often the idea overwhelms the humanity in his characters and the suspense and his spontaneous writing method can sometimes fizzle or land with a thud, but Spielberg is a more mainstream storyteller, he has his audience in mind from start to finish. And here Stranger Things, as fantastic as it gets, reminds us that the whole ballgame is really about a mother trying to find her son, a man trying to save what he lost, and a group of friends trying to protect each other. It’s why another homage to Spielberg, Super 8, failed to be anything other than charming spectacle. For some reason JJ Abrams saw E.T. and thought the climax of the film was the spaceship flying away but it wasn’t. It was the love that had developed between two friends who couldn’t be together and the loss of that love.
It’s the most difficult thing to write about something I really care about. On one hand I want desperately to share it with people but on the other I don’t want to ruin the joy of discovery by rambling about it for a thousand words. Suffice it to say Stranger Things made me forget some of the more cynical approaches to… no, that’s not right. It reminded me of the fort I built in the hills behind the house I grew up in and the poison oak that I kept stumbling into back when it was still okay to tell kids ‘be home before dark’. It made me think about the time my uncle told the worst ghost story of all time while sitting around a campfire that I knew was completely nonsense and I believed every word of it. It made me remember what it was like to sit curled up in a closet with a flashlight and a dog-eared library book. And a show that brings all that back and reminded a bitter old man like me what it was like to be kid again is more than just homage. It’s inspired storytelling.