Review of Stranger Things (2016)

Moving picture, 12 hours

Seen in 2020.

This review refers to the first four seasons only.

The pubertal 1980s nostalgia is well played and I appreciate the production values, but the boys’ metafictive comments on their first-season-finale D&D game as an allegory of the show is more striking than its self-deprecating presentation lets on. The show is indeed like Mike’s campaign: Mostly nonsense.

Brenner and his numbered children are pale copies of the Colonel and the numbered kids in Akira (1988). Eleven also reminds me of Rei from NGE (1995), but that is more likely a coincidence. Brenner is poorly played at first, a generic government-conspiracy villain and dark father figure until the character is explored in season 4. The monster of the first season is just a more anthropomorphic nightmare-horror version of Alien (1979), complete with the same mysterious and implausible life cycle. Its ephemerality is designed to allow the directors to waste time presenting Joyce as behaving irrationally in other peoples’ eyes, a strand of the narrative that goes nowhere. Her social and economic standing play no part in the denouement and is reduced to a joke the later seasons.

The second season has Paul Reiser as Dr. Owens. Like Reiser’s Burke in Aliens (1986), he and his fellow speaking-role doctors are an improvement, in this case over Brenner. They add some believability to the government’s role. Dart the demodog could have done the same for the supernatural menace, but the writers went the other way, simply reinforcing the traditional association between stupidly intrinsic evil, non-human predators and pests, darkness, dirt, rot, cold and the unfamiliar. Kali’s gang, which dominates season 2, episode 7, also falls into a traditional pattern: Ethnically diverse female-majority “outsider” avengers. The writers barely bother to complicate the image of these killers as edgy comic-book heroes.

Kali uses her power of illusion to destroy evidence by killing people who worked at the lab in Hawkins. This is contrary to her own interests. Likewise, Steve and Nancy gather evidence against the government operation and then send it to newspapers under the false pretence of revealing a mundane crime, thus ensuring that the truth will be dismissed. Joyce sees a new monster in the pattern of static on a paused VHS-C tape, Will makes a thousand crayon drawings to be assembled virtually at random, and so on: Despite raising the stakes for each new season, the writers continue to pretend that hard evidence is pointless and that apophenia is the best way to fight evil. In the third season, Scott Clarke the science teacher explicitly states that Joyce is working off of apophenia, but as always, Joyce is right. This is because the writers use the framework of Kali’s gang in the larger cast of characters in Hawkins: Plucky underdogs with narcissistic secret wisdom and character-exploring chats, therefore “good” people. This framework is never broken. Despite the creators’ original pitch (“a marriage of human drama and supernatural fear”), the human consequences just aren’t there. Instead of tension, there’s bickering over trust in an expanding circle of friends. Instead of worldbuilding to give the characters integrity and backdrop, the writers pick conspiracy theory, with Scooby Doo’s “meddling kids” saving the day over and over.

Also disappointing: Mama’s electroshock therapy has nothing to do with real use of this technique and falls into the pop-culture pattern of disparaging the technique as such because it looks painful. Bob Newby the newbie has magical BASIC skills that consist of one screenful of code that’s just a fragment of a program for brute-forcing a four-digit PIN and would not work as depicted. When Bob dies, the narrative pauses to allow the other characters to mourn Bob specifically, forgetting that about a hundred other people died with him; this is the usual trap of US TV drama. Eleven’s nosebleeds turn out to have no discernible repercussions other than a one-season lull in her superpowers. The Mind Flayer is exorcised as in bad Christian fiction. The whole show is thin and runs mostly on audience expectations, just like Mike’s campaign, but it’s entertaining enough. David Harbour as Jim Hopper is the best thing about it until the overarching narrative is revealed in season 4.

References here: Story of Science Fiction (2018), Next Gen (2018).

moving picture fiction series