The 80s have made a big comeback in the last few years. Seems barely a month goes by without a new movie, TV show, or album being released that’s supposed to capture the essence of the 80s in some way. Netflix original series Stranger Things has become one of the most talked-about examples of this trend, and has become quite popular in its own right. Netflix honchos recently stated that what’s most important to them is not how many peOple watch their shows necessarily, but how much they’re talked about. Make of that what you will. But there’s no doubt that Stranger Things got people talking.
Over the course of eight episodes, Stranger Things charts the course of a few characters on the trail of Will Byers, a young boy who disappeared on the way home from his friend Mike’s house after a heavy Dungeons and Dragons session. Naturally, Mike and friends try to find Will, defying their parents in doing so. During the season, they run into a mysterious girl, known only as “Eleven”, who exhibits unusual behaviour and who seems to have supernatural powers. Meanwhile, there are two other parallel missions to find Will. One involves his mum, Joyce, who insists Will is still alive, despite apparent evidence to the contrary, and who claims that Will is communicating to her via light bulbs. She enlists the help of the local sheriff, while her son Jonathan (Will’s older brother) also embarks on his own adventure to find Will, aided by Mike’s older sister, Nancy.
Stranger Things does have a few jump scares in it, but most of the time it relies on teen melodrama and a lot of overwrought angst from Winona Ryder, who plays Joyce. The series is obviously pitched as some sort of homage or paean to the 80s, but comes across as deeply derivative. Stranger Things borrows liberally from things like ET and the X-Files, as well as about half a dozen Stephen King novels (notably The Shining, It, and Firestarter). None of that is necessarily bad, but Stranger Things is stubborn in its unoriginality. It’s also profoundly unrealistic: while the genre requires us to accept the presence of supernatural beings, it’s harder to accept a maximum security military installation allowing some hick sheriff to snoop around with practical impunity.
The mystery that surrounds the military’s pseudo-scientific experiments is one of the more interesting parts of the series, as is the nod towards the actual history of US military research into obscure phenomena during the Cold War. Unfortunately, the personal melodrama really lets the show down. Much of the show centres on the kids (rather, brats) and their efforts to find Will. I found these scenes largely irritating, partly because the so-called friends never converse or talk, but instead constantly bicker and argue. Maybe that’s what kids do, but it doesn’t make for entertaining late-night drama. Still, the brat kids are still probably better actors than the one who plays Nancy Wheeler, who relies on the same vapid expression of dull surprise in 90% of her scenes. Someone really needs to tell her to stop using that expression all the time–not just because it looks moronic, but because it will give her crazy forehead wrinkles by the time she’s 30. Nancy has a creepy boyfriend who looks like the Milibands’ evil brother; but the cast is generally forgettable, despite some familiar faces from movies and TV.
Forgettable, that is, except for Winona Ryder. As a kid I used to have something of a crush on Ryder, but that was before I had any idea what a bad actress she is. Her overacting in Stranger Things is appalling: we get it that the character is supposed to be massively worried about her son; but there is hardly any variation whatsoever in her performance; she has no depth and is ultimately impossible to relate to. She adopts this voice the whole time which is probably supposed to convey desperation but really just sounds whiny and is pretty insufferable. Inevitably, this has been pitched as a ‘comeback’ role for Ryder, but I really don’t see it.
Stranger Things is so cliched. At one point, a boffin science teacher is explaining inter-dimensional theories to the kids; and this happened:
We were just sitting there like, ‘please don’t do the pencil through the paper thing from Event Horizon’. And, of course, they did it. When Interstellar did the same thing a couple of years ago, we groaned. Its just become such a lazy cliche and I can’t believe writers can’t come up with another way to do this. But it’s indicative of the lazy and cliche-ridden style the writers use here. Another thing I took issue with was when the kids are explaining school bulling to Eleven, and Mike explains it by saying they’re “mouth-breathers”. Bullied children are often consoled with statements like, don’t worry, you’re better/smarter than them, etc. Now, I know getting bullied really, really sucks, and we need a way to explain it to kids so they can deal with it, but this is ultimately unhelpful and a trope we really need to move away from. As a general rule, coming to rely for your self-esteem on the intellectual inferiority of other people is not good for you.
Probably the best thing about Stranger Things is its intro music. Otherwise, its efforts to invoke the 80s generally feel like a typically postmodern exercise in imitation, reproducing the familiar iconography and cultural representations of the 80s, but not featuring anything you can learn from and certainly not saying anything interesting about the decade. The grating identification of the writers as ‘The Duffer Brothers’ also came across as a cheesy, lame and overt attempt at brand-creation. For all the retro-worship on display here, the conceptualization and execution of Stranger Things has produced a soulless and superficial experience, surprisingly embodying much of what is wrong about contemporary culture.