Stranger Things and the aesthetics of the familiar
August 31, 2016
I’m that one person who’s going to be a curmudgeon about Stranger Things.
I think the thing runs about three episodes too long. There’s maybe 7 pounds of story poured into a 10 pound bag. There’s some good stuff, for sure (Winona Ryder acting circles around just about everyone else, for one). But there’s a lot of repetition, a lot of dragging, a lot of places where I laughed instead of being scared (seriously, you hook a tow-cable up to a guy we’ve never seen before and then send him into the dimensional rift, that tow cable’s gonna be coming back with nothing attached to it in just a couple minutes), and a lot of me being just plain frustrated by characters acting according to a checklist and not like believable characters. I confess my expectations were likely unduly raised by the enthusiastic online reaction to the show. And just didn’t feel that.
Some background. I learned RPG gaming at the University of York with a very talented group that did things like entirely make up their own games and play without systems, using only percentage dice and common sense and good storytelling. One of the first games I played there was part of a one-off intro day of gaming. The game was original, we were allowed to pick our own characters (I believe from a list of choices), with the stipulation that the game was going to be fun and goofy. I was a North Pole Elf, for example. High points in construction, engineering, and speed.
One of the other players chose Stephen King Child Protagonist. This was oh-so-clever, because it pretty much assured he would live to the end of the game, and he could reasonably argue to acquire any number of arcane abilities over the course of events. I don’t actually remember very much of what happened except that it was fast-paced and hilarious and skewered a bunch of the tropes we had all grown up with.
We played this game in 1993. That the phrase “Stephen King Child Protagonist” could be uttered twenty three years ago and everyone knew exactly what that entailed means that the territory Stranger Things is covering is not only not new, it’s entirely familiar. In fact, the show depends on it.
I question if the enormously positive response is not necessarily to the quality of the story but to the recognition of the familiar. The validation of speaking and understanding a specific language — of past genre tropes and accoutrements, in this case. So much of the point of allusion and referencing in pop culture is about that marvelous moment of recognition, of feeling part of the culture described by the piece.
It’s very nice to feel part of the club. But is the show good? I mean, what is Stranger Things about? Is it maybe actually about “let’s make a perfect replica of a 1980’s Stephen King/Spielberg/kid-centric adventure story using modern production values?” That’s not a story, that’s historical re-enactment.
Because by god that Trapper Keeper in the locker was front and center on that one shot, to make sure we didn’t miss it. (Yes, I once owned a Trapper Keeper. It was gray with kittens on it.) An actual thought I had during Ep. 7: “I swear to god if those bicycles start flying I am rage quitting this right here.” The bikes did not fly, which maybe means the creators knew exactly how far they could push their conceit before crossing too far into pastiche.
And why doesn’t the show seem to care much about Barb? Well, because she’s a trope. She’s meant to be an inversion of that 80’s slasher movie thing where the girl who has sex gets killed by the monster/slasher/whatever. But in this case, the girl who has sex, Nancy, lives; and the plain-Jane good-girl friend is violently killed.
And then the show forgets about her because she’s already served her purpose. The show’s creators are apparently startled that people really like Barb and are really upset that no one in town, not the chief of police, not Barb’s mother — and Nancy only tangentially, as an aside, like “Oh yeah I guess I need to be sad about that” — seems to care that Barb is gone. Meanwhile, the school is having assemblies and funerals and Feelings Galore for Will. It’s a failure of realism. It’s a failure of common sense. (There are quite a few of these throughout.) You know what would have fixed that arc for me? A thirty second scene: Joyce brings back Barb’s glasses or a scrap of her shirt, presses them into Nancy’s hand and says a sincere, heartfelt, “I’m sorry.” That’s it.
(If I were going to be uncharitable and paranoid, I would say Barb gets forgotten because she has no connection to any of the men in the story. Because as strong and interesting as the women characters are, they are all of them defined by their relationships to the men around them. Barb just has Nancy, and Nancy doesn’t have enough agency to do much about Barb, because her arc is all about what boy she likes, amirite? Seriously, the scene where Nancy actually does go looking for Barb is mainly about her spending time with Jonathan, and then setting up the scene where Steve thinks she’s cheating on him. But thinking that would be uncharitable and paranoid, wouldn’t it?)
So is Stranger Things good, or is it familiar? Your mileage may vary. But thank god those damned bicycles didn’t fly.