"Stranger Things": The Much Needed Summer Blockbuster of 2016
by Ryan Black | published Sep. 25th, 2016
As a summer particularly overrun with unnecessary sequels, remakes and reboots comes to an end, one couldn't be faulted for assuming that Hollywood had gone "back to the well" too many times. For every "Star Trek Beyond" there was a "Ghostbusters" and "Independence Day: Resurgence"; for every "Pete's Dragon" there was an "Jason Bourne" and "Ben-Hur". Even the box offices for the few of these films that didn't feel like gratuitous cash grabs seemed to indicate that audiences were not as easily swayed at the promise of nostalgia as they used to be.
"I've been waiting for them to bring back 'Ben-Hur' for years," said no one.
That being said, it's somewhat ironic that "Stranger Things," a throwback to the Spielberg and Lucas blockbusters of yesteryear, was able to capture the zeitgeist like none of these films could. The fact that it dominated the larger cultural discussion for the better part of a month seemed to fly in the face of bigger budget and more overtly "nostalgic" endeavors that just kind of came and went. A concise and well-paced eight episodes: "Stranger Things" even maintains the illusion that it is a cinematic experience.
The show manages to keep its filmic momentum without ever letting any plot lines fall by the wayside. At no point does it ever feel like the stories of any of the three main groups of characters (Mike, Eleven & company, Nancy and the other teenagers [except Barb], and the adults: Joyce and Hopper) are dropped or drawn out for too long.
Much of what works so well with "Stranger Things" can be attributed to the sweet spot that the showfound with its eight-episode season. It's easy to credit it for not overstaying its welcome, like traditional TV's 20-plus — or even Netflix's usual 13-episode — seasons can do. Still, the show's true triumph comes in the way it makes use of having more than two hours to develop. This approach adds to the filmic feeling of the show.
The show not only has the time to establish several of the common character archetypes from the movies it is aping (the divorced mom, the small-town cop, the good girl, the jerk boyfriend, etc.), but to further develop them — and occasionally even subvert — what would otherwise be their expected character arcs. Nancy, who could have easily been portrayed as "the helpless girl," way in over her head, was instead a well-developed and competent survivor. And instead of making it seem like she would have to sacrifice her femininity in order to become strong, the show has the tact to show that these are not incongruent traits. On the other side of the spectrum, the show was able to deconstruct the gruff Hopper into someone who perhaps ended up being the show's most vulnerable (and compelling) character.
In a nutshell, subverting what a viewer may expect the characters to be might be why "Stranger Things" was able to have the resonance that none of the aforementioned blockbusters did. Among all these attempts at channeling whatever form of nostalgia studios have the rights to, hardly any of them seemed intent upon building something new on top of what came before. Most of this summer's entries seemed content on at best delivering something serviceable, but in most cases something trite and hollow.
While the foundation of "Stranger Things" is indeed something we have seen before, its lasting appeal stems from how it genuinely seeked to expand upon this foundation with original ideas. Its commentary on the character archetypes of which it is borrowing never steers into satire. Instead it brings to light new facets of such characters which make them freshly sympathetic or relatable; it's what makes getting emotionally invested in them so appealing. In fact, it is ultimately in the cases where the show fails to do this, that it makes its greatest mistakes.
"What about Barb!?," said everyone.
"Stranger Things" still seems to be beholden to some of the more frustrating and cliche tropes when it comes to its female characters,which is sort of surprising considering its awareness of the other conventions it works with.
Mike and Eleven's "relationship" felt facilitated more by generic narrative contrivance than their individual character arcs. Never, until their kiss, do you get the sense that Mike's feelings were reciprocated (and even then, not really). It very much seemed predicated on the notions that she needed to be romantically attached to him (as the main character) and that his primary reason for caring so much about her could only be romance. Eleven, being a character who rarely speaks, doesn't help sell the idea that she sees their relationship as anything other than just a really good friendship as well. Having that be their dynamic instead would have been clever reworking of that trope, much in line with some of the other character work within the series.
Similarly, the budding romance between Nancy and Jonathan feels no less unnatural, if not also far more ... weird. Seemingly forgiving him as quickly as she does, for doing something so inexcusably creepy, was something that felt way too overly reliant on the larger plot versus what Nancy might have actually felt as a character. So forher to now seemingly having mutual feelings for him feels like character betrayal to an even greater degree.
Even Joyce Byer, a character not lacking in terms of intrigue or agency, is emblematic of the fact that a talented over-40 actor like Winona Ryder, can only get roles as "the mom."
And of course there's Barb, whom many have seen as receiving the worst treatment of anyone. The relatable voice of reason was not afforded the chance to subvert the cliche fate "Stranger Things" had in store for her. Embodying the "forgotten fallen friend" from several 80's horror movies, Barb seems like one of the more obvious character archetypes who could have been upended. One could hope that season two might afford her a second chance.
These being conventions and tropes which have sadly existed and permeated throughout Hollywood and entertainment, one cannot lay the blame solely on "Stranger Things," but it's hard not to take note of them in a show whose greatest strengths were commenting upon and exploring some of the tropes and conventions of the genres it borrowed from.