An Unappeased Yearning to Return

Netflix’s new sci-fi thriller Stranger Things is one of those shows that it’s almost impossible to talk about for all the wrong reasons.  A critical and popular success, any chance of talking about it on its actual merits has already been buried under an avalanche of thinkpieces, listicles, clickbait articles, and animated GIFs; it’s a show that, regardless of its merits, was practically designed to be replicated in miniature doses on Tumblr rather than actually discussed as a whole.  Part of that is attributable to the cultural environment in which everything is forced to exist today, and part of it is the inherent nature of the show itself; sorting out which is which is part of the critic’s job, but few seem to be interested.

The plot of Stranger Things (originally pitched as a comeback vehicle for Winona Ryder, more on which later) is simple, which is part of its many problems.  In an idyllic Midwestern small town, a group of nerdy adolescent boys practice the usually coping strategies used against bullies and boors:  science (fictional and otherwise), fantasy, and the kind of tight-knit social bonding that only this kind of invented outsider apparently has access to.  One of their number vanishes on the way home from a game of Dungeons & Dragons; his disappearance triggers the whole narrative, which involves a young girl with vast telekinetic powers, a portal to another dimension, and a sinister government research laboratory on the outskirts of town that may be behind it all.

If all of this sounds familiar, it’s supposed to.  The plot is an amalgam of Stephen King stories ranging from It to Firestarter, a comparison Stranger Things gleefully invites, even using a title graphic that is deliberately patterned after the covers of ’80s-era paperbacks by the King of Horror.  The overall tone, and even a good deal of the technical filmmaking, is reminiscent of another Steve of the ’80s:  everything from the social relationship of the boys to the camera angles used in big scenes to the deliberate evocation of a previous generation’s pulp fiction given an additional layer of gloss is patterned after that era’s Steven Spielberg.  The show’s (justifiably praised) score conjures the driving synth work of John Carpenter films; the mild sci-fi elements and post-modernist sense of wonder reminds the viewer of George Lucas when people still liked him.  There are elements of slasher films from Friday the 13th to Halloween in the teen romances (as well as in the way they are often paid for in blood), bits and pieces of Spielberg, King, and John Hughes in the small-town Indiana setting, and bits and bobs of everything else from venerable sitcoms to Choose Your Own Adventure stories.

None of this is poorly done; while there are nitpicks to be made here and there, creators Matt and Ross Duffer do an extremely good job of capturing the social details of their 1983 setting.  Every element is expertly done, to the point of distraction; at times it seems like the show is doing product placement for products that no longer exist.  This aspect in particular has really hit home for many viewers and critics, many of whom share the dangerous qualities of being the age at which all these references are resonant and mistaking having their knowledge of cultural nostalgia being flattered for actual quality.  And that’s part of the flaw in the show.  There’s nothing particular about the story that requires it to be set in the past; it could be moved forward to 2016 or backward to 1953 without losing anything of intrinsic value.  That makes it very easy to suspect that the whole thing is just designed to flatter the vanity of people who think remembering things for the sake of remembering them is an artistic virtue.

It doesn’t help that all this nostalgia, which Milan Kundera correctly summed up as a wasted emotion because it conjures a strong yearning that can never, ever be satisfied, is so calculated and complete and yet adds nothing in particular to the story.  Not even Quentin Tarantino ever launched a project so completely cobbled together from previously existing elements as Stranger Things; originality may not be the primary virtue of art, but it’s pretty sadly lacking these days, and nothing here — from the overemotional single mom to the wise and friendly science teacher to the enigmatic villain whose history and motivations we never learn to the sinister government lab exploiting psychic children to the shadowy realm of monsters on the other side of reality — is new.  It’s not that we’ve seen this before; it’s that we’ve seen it dozens of times before, often in the work of the artists the show so slavishly emulates.

The sense that there’s no there there — that all of this nostalgia, no matter how exquisitely crafted, is in service of a story that’s so familiar and filled with tropes that you wonder why it had to be made — serves to obscure what’s good about the show.  It’s extremely good at delivering what would be its raison d’etre if it weren’t for all the blast-from-the-past stuff:  spooky thrills.  There’s at least one moment every episode that is genuinely chilling and suspenseful, which only makes you wonder what the Duffers would be capable of if they weren’t so preoccupied with the period trappings.  The performances tend to be either a lot or a little over the top (which is fine if you consider the style of acting to be part of the ’80s nostalgia vibe), and David Harbour as the local police chief is a real dud, but Winona Ryder is generally excellent despite having a somewhat limited role.  She’s taken a lot of heat for her overemotional acting, but given that she’s playing a grieving mother who wasn’t completely together to begin with, I don’t think she’s at all off base.  The boys are also very well-cast, and while they (and, well, to be honest, every other character in the show) fail to rise past the level of archetype, they and the mysterious test subject known as Eleven do a good job of assaying the stock roles they’re assigned.

There’s just enough substance to Stranger Things to have kept me interested throughout the run of the series, though for all its ability to deliver shocks it never once seemed capable of surprise. Speculation about the second season is already rampant, although it’s not even been renewed yet, and I’m willing to give it a chance to develop into something better.  But after eight episodes, it seems more like a high-test nostalgia delivery system and less like a show that deserves the kind of praise it’s received.

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