The strangest thing about Stranger Things is its (potentially) undefined future

stranger-things-netflix-trailer

Stranger Things is the latest in a long line of originals from Netflix, a stable that is growing to the point where any one series is no longer really all that pivotal to their brand identity. Netflix doesn’t really put a significant promotional pitch behind a show like Stranger Things: they do some light marketing, some press (if critics/reporters are interested), and then season one becomes a litmus test. If it’s a “hit,” it goes into the list of shows that Netflix will push harder for a second season. If it’s not, it becomes like Marco Polo, which received almost no fanfare when its second season debuted earlier this month.

Stranger Things does pretty well in this litmus test. Critics embraced the show—although it received a slightly lower metacritic aggregate score than Narcos, it also had eleven more reviews in total, suggesting a wider interest in the series from the press. If I had to pinpoint a reason for this, it’s because Stranger Things feels different. Netflix’s series have at times slotted comfortably into existing genres: Narcos into the Breaking Bad anti-hero mold, Marco Polo trying to be a historical action epic, etc. And while Stranger Things‘ cinematic points of inspiration are none-too-subtle, it has less precedent in television, and thus feels novel even though one of Netflix’s first original series (Hemlock Grove) was a spin on the horror genre. The 80s period, Spielbergian, Stephen King-esque take on the material stands out amidst what I once dubbed the “psychosexual horror arms race” ongoing elsewhere in the genre, and the show overcomes some shoddy procedure—more on that after the jump—to construct a compelling milieu, fun characters, and a mythology that draws you in without getting overly complicated.

But there is another litmus test in Stranger Things that I want to focus on, which is this: what kind of television show is this in our era of limited series and seasonal anthologies? At only eight episodes, Stranger Things sits in a decidedly liminal position in an evolving TV industry, and the way the first season ends tells me that even those making the series aren’t entirely convinced where they want this show to fit. It’s a fascinating decision that creates an entirely new “postmortem” conversation about a season of TV: What, indeed, do we want a second season of Stranger Things—all but guaranteed given Netflix has never canceled anything, and certainly wouldn’t cancel something with reviews like this—to look like?

And, perhaps more importantly, do the show’s creators and Netflix feel the same way?

[Spoilers for “season one” of Stranger Things to follow.]

The choice to only make eight episodes does not keep Stranger Things from achieving some effective storytelling, but the seams show at times. There are leaps in character logic and motivation that don’t really make much sense except for their need to move the story alone: everything that Hopper does, for example, ends up getting retroactively reframed as a desperate and grieving father trying not to lose another child like he lost his own, but he still jumps to some extreme conclusions about Will’s fake corpse, and risks his life going into the lab with the “gate” just so that he knows it’s there later. The reason he does these things is never really explained, but can be extra-diegetically explained by the short order: if he doesn’t do these things, the story can’t move along, and so he does them, because eight episodes.

There are similar leaps in other stories: the actual “mythology” of the show mostly holds up, but the human choices along the way don’t always track. The show wants to hit certain beats, and it’s going to hit them even if they don’t also stop to explain how we got from A to C—the B is missing at times, to the point where you wonder if something got cut in editing that would have better explained things. For example, I totally understand why Nancy and Jonathan enter into a weird sort of romantic vibe early on, but the show never actually explains their pre-existing relationship—their brothers are friends, but the show never explores what that means, or works to understand what history they might have before she randomly approaches him as he’s hanging up flyers. It’s a weird omission given how casual their connection becomes instantaneously, and I think the show would’ve been better served with more time to set up the world and its character before diving into Will’s disappearance, but the priority for the Duffer Brothers was clearly to get things moving immediately.

But where are they moving toward? The season’s main storyline concludes fairly definitively at first: “Eleven” sacrifices herself to save Mike and his friends, and Joyce and Hopper rescue Will from the Upside Down. But in the epilogue, things become more complicated, and we’re reminded that lots of things were unresolved. Some of these things are small, like Nancy’s love triangle with Steve and Jonathan, but two are more substantial. The first is Hopper, ushered into a government car following Will’s rescue, delivering food to the woods to what we presume is “Eleven,” perhaps now having become part of the Upside Down herself. The second is Will, washing up before Christmas Dinner, and revealing that he has become a flea instead of an acrobat, coughing up slugs and seeing glimpses of the Upside Down.

If there were questions amidst the season’s resolution about what a season two of the show could look like, the epilogue seems to exist to answer them. Although not exactly a cliffhanger, it creates the potential to explore the aftermath of Will’s abduction and Eleven’s sacrifice, and the way the town of Hawkins lives in the wake of such a tragedy. Will is a miracle, risen from the dead, but can he go back to living a normal life with the Atari under his Christmas tree? Eleven is no longer the girl she was, but she still has a taste for Eggos, and Mike has no idea she’s out in the forest in some form or another—how would he react if he knew? And while Steve’s last-minute, frankly too abrupt face turn has him cuddled up with Nancy on Christmas Eve, do her feelings for Jonathan extend beyond the life-and-death? And did everyone just forget about what happened to poor Barb?! (Rest in peace, Barb. You were too smart for this world.)

But here’s the thing: I don’t really have much specific interest in this second season of Stranger Things. I think it could logically work, sure, but I don’t know if the show would be well-served repeating the same aesthetic patterns as the season before. The cribbing of Amblin/King works for telling a single story, but replicating it strikes me as a mistake—I liked the milieu of the show a lot, but there is a difference between the type of conflict the epilogue suggests and what is typically used to drive a horror engine like the one in this season. Yes, you could tell a story about the town of Hawkins two or three years later—the kids will have aged by the time they put another season into production, the gap gives them some room to work with—but that would likely require a resetting of conflict that I don’t know if this epilogue really leaves room for without becoming repetitive.

And the fact is that Stranger Things is not obligated to follow up on this epilogue. There is nothing stopping the show from reframing this epilogue as the complicating of a clean ending for Hawkins, acknowledging that there would be an aftermath to this attack without following up on what specifically that aftermath might be. Instead, Stranger Things could tell an entirely different story, set in a different period or a different location, dealing with similar themes (and maybe even the same idea of government research gone wrong and alternate dimensions) but with the ability to derive inspiration from different filmmaking aesthetics. Stranger Things is titled like—and to my mind build like—a seasonal anthology series, and this ending is most interesting if it is actually the end of this story.

I don’t necessarily believe this will happen. I think the show wants to hold onto Winona Ryder, who brings a level of name recognition to the project that was a huge part of early press for the series; they could always go the seasonal anthology route and have her play a new part in a new story, but I don’t know if the show would want to so actively ape American Horror Story and American Crime by following this “repertory” model. Moreover, though, I do think Netflix is thinking long-term in terms of their original series, which will ultimately each become—should they run for a long period—a multi-season archive that anyone can watch at any time. And I don’t think it serves Netflix if someone watches this finale two years from now and starts the next season to find their questions completely unanswered: it may be the more compelling storytelling choice, but it’s an unconventional one, and risks disrupting the flow of users’ experience with the show as it continues.

Stranger Things will continue (I hear, similar to other Netflix projects, that a writer’s room is already at work on a likely second season), and it’s most likely that it will continue as a traditional ongoing television serial, picking up a few years down the road as Will grapples with his new condition (which, how did the hospital medical scans not pick on this? And wouldn’t the government want to run their own tests on him, even if they aren’t actively acknowledging their role in this conflict?) and Eleven’s new existence is explored. But given that the show’s strengths were not necessarily in character development or plotting, instead found more in atmosphere and moments, I don’t know if I would call this the best path forward for Stranger Things, and the way the finale resists creating an outright cliffhanger leaves the door open for them to do something more interesting. While it may be a more disruptive option, the contemporary moment has left the door open to plot a different type of path forward for the series, and I’ll be curious to see how the Duffer Brothers navigate the road ahead.

Cultural Observations

  • I legitimately enjoyed this show and will gladly watch future seasons, but this is going to become a laundry list of things that bugged me, because lots of things bugged me.
  • I know why Mike and Eleven are eventually pushed in a romantic direction, but it did not work for me—the romance stuff in general felt like it was there as an homage and never developed significantly enough to earn its place otherwise, but I didn’t see why it was necessary for the younger kids in particular.
  • High school science teachers in the 80s sure knew a lot about alternate dimensions and sensory deprivation tanks, huh? (I would have been fine with one or the other, but they overdid it here, a peril of being an ongoing series as opposed to a film.)
  • Does Mike and Nancy’s mother just, like, never go into her basement? Doesn’t she clean down there? How did she never discover that Eleven was living down there? Cara Buono never gets a lot to do here, but she does at least eventually go into her basement, which I applauded like she’d just saved the day.
  • If the government has technology in the 1980s to create a lifelike dead body like that, surely they’d fill it with something other than cotton batting, right? Right?
  • Another issue with eight episode seasons is that mid-season arcs like Will and Jonathan’s father returning get no room to play out: Lonnie is introduced briefly, shows up, and is then pushed away as an opportunist, all without any clear motivation beyond briefly forcing Joyce into accepting Will’s death long enough for there to be a funeral. It’s just a way to stall for time and create a turning point, and never finds a moment to register beyond this.
  • My single biggest hangup with the show is its use of flashbacks—I ultimately don’t think the show is better for having them dispersed throughout the series. The Will ones stop abruptly, the early Eleven ones make the later, more significant ones feel less significant, and the Hopper ones in the finale lack proper development and play as overly intrusive to the drama at hand (especially the flashes during the discovery of Will in the Upside Down—we get it, the snake thing is like the tube, your daughter also had to have CPR, stop cutting between them). They felt like a shorthand form of storytelling to try to force character arcs onto a shorter episode order that makes those more challenging, but I don’t think the shorthand got the job done in this case.
  • Barb deserved a presence in the epilogue, dammit.
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13 Comments

Filed under Stranger Things, Uncategorized

13 responses to “The strangest thing about Stranger Things is its (potentially) undefined future

  1. Fantastic write-up, Myles. Do you ever share your articles on any film or entertainment sites as well?

  2. Ella Keys

    Were you multitasking the entire time this was playing on Netflix? This review comes off as though you didn’t even watch the show properly.
    They found out what happened to Barb, NANCY (Not “Karen”. She was a main character so that’s a disturbing mistake in a review that takes itself so seriously) was clearly disturbed by her death, but the deal Hopper had with the Feds meant they all had pretend Barb had run away, as this was the cover story. Hopper’s daughter was frequently mentioned throughout the season and seeing her in a flashback was hardly forced.
    Hopper breaking into the Federal facility had so many prompts 1) The tunnel with the fabric in the woods 2) the videotape cover up, 3) the intense federal presence around Will’s body 4) Not allowing the local mortician to perform an autopsy 5) comments from his fellow police officers 6) it is heavily implied that he is a former federal agent from his knowledge of home bugging, MK-Altra, combat and hostile negotiation.
    He found the gate when he was running to avoid capture. It was a perfectly natural series of events, but I guess when you’re checking facebook and then look up to find the character is in the pivotal location, it could be jarring.

    Don’t quit your day job.

    • Ella, thanks for commenting. And thanks for noticing a typo—identifying that typo as a “disturbing mistake” is maybe a little ungenerous, but I appreciate the heads up nonetheless.

      As for your other objections, they do not stem—as you suggest—from my not paying attention. Rather, they stem from a disagreement over how well the developments in question worked in the context of the series. You were very convinced about Hopper’s logical breakdown of events—I felt the show jumped too quickly from one discovery to another; the way he rushed to roughing up the officer who discovered the body, for example, struck me as a very sudden escalation, and I still don’t understand why Hopper would ignore all the radiation warnings to travel into a strange facility and risk his life given the information he had in front of him. The answer to why he didn’t just keep doing more research is because the story had to push forward, and it was more valuable to the story if we actually saw the facility up close—the idea he would risk his life to do so is not completely insane, and we can connect some dots, but the show doesn’t do enough to connect them to sell me on his decision-making moving at the pace it does. Similarly, obviously Hopper’s daughter was mentioned often, but the flashbacks were overbearing and overused, and worked too hard to convince me that singular part of his personality drove his decision-making. That’s oversimplified, and does not track for me.

      That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t track for you—this is a critical opinion, and thus one that is naturally not going to be the same as yours or anyone else’s. And so you believe that the show justified the way Barb is just forgotten once we learn that she’s dead, and I don’t buy that her parents would accept her as a runaway or that Nancy would casually go along with that narrative without feeling some guilt and telling her parents the truth. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t paying attention—it just means I didn’t accept what I was seeing like you did, which is each of our respective prerogatives.

      • Alex

        One small note on the flashback to Hopper’s girl dying in the hospital. Hopper finds the same stuffed Tiger that his daughter has in the hospital in the Upside Down. Earlier in the show they establish that the Upside Down is toxic. It’s entirely possible that his daughter has been in the Upside Down and that was the cause of her sickness. Thus, Hopper’s motivation is explained in one very small detail if he already lost a child to this alternate dimension and doesn’t want to see another one suffer the same fate.

  3. Steve

    First and foremost. I really admire and enjoy your analysis ‘in general’, (A.V. Club et al.)

    However, does seem your being a little harsh here. The shows ‘homage’ to similarity, ‘far fetched’ material, seems to bake in some level of understanding, that characters, particularly auxiliary characters, are more likely than not, going to aide the plot momentum in every opportunity, as opposed to ‘making sense’.

    I thought it was a pretty fun ride.

  4. Thanks for the thoughtful post.

    The flashbacks worked for me, in that they suggested an interesting allegory. Maybe darker, emotionally charged moments — crying in a hospital stairwell while faced with the loss of a child, or listening to the Clash for the first time with an older brother while reckoning with the imminent split-up of parents — are what make the “Vale of Shadows” accessible, knowable. It’s always there, but only darker emotions to allow us to perceive it. I finished the show with an unarticulated sense the Upside Down had more than comic book significance, that it “meant” something more profound. I think the flashbacks contributed to that.

    Like you (I think), I’d kind of like to see the show left as an intact, 8-episode set piece. I worry that making it a serial adventure story “breaks” it.

    Take it easy.

  5. James

    You’re smart, and you write well, but you nitpick every omission in the storyline as illogical or nonsensical. The funny thing about stories is that they do not and should not reflect a 24/7 day. It would be incredibly dull and boring if that were the case. You scrutinize every aspect of the show and eventually come up with wildly speculative criticisms (seriously, you complained that the “MEDICAL SCANS” didn’t pick up Will’s mysterious alien illness? Not MRI, not CAT scans, just generic 80’s medical scans? Oh, and IF the govt had the “proper” technology, they would fill the faux corpse with something other than cotton? Really? How deep does your knowledge of fictional government cover-ups in the fictional 1980’s go that this constitutes a legitimate criticism?).

    This show was not perfect, and your review raised some legitimate questions (such as the limitations of an 8 episode season, although you did not touch upon the benefits, of which there are many). However, overall, your review strikes me as one from a pseudo-intellectual critic who mistakes “critical analysis” for “criticism”.

    Good syntax and well-placed vocabulary does not an intelligent review make.

  6. Stacy

    I wanna throw a couple ideas out to think about. ….
    * How do we know her name is “Eleven”. Until the end when Brenner finds her, calling her eleven (remember that the phone lines were always tapped so it would be very easy to find out what the boys called her with all the spying that went on)… I would assume if it was 11, it wouldn’t be presented as 011. Seems almost as if she’s a 2nd generation “experiment” if Terry Ives is her mother being the 1st one. Mk ultra/monarch program studies multi-generational families. She’s the 2nd generation and theycould be using her in the future for the reproduction of the 3rd one.
    * Hopper doesn’t really seem to care whether he lives or dies cuz in his mind he has nothin to live for. No surprise that he would go into the lab despite the hazard signs. Plus, how do u know that since he is an incredibly efficient cop, and has been to the ‘upside down’ numerous times already, they wouldn’t use him somehow too? Or that he was in the ‘upside down’ when leaving the food for eleven? It was dark, cold and snowing which looks similar to the ‘upside down’ without the actual needing of protective clothing.
    * I never believed that was the real Will Byers. He tells Mike in the beginning that he rolled a 7, when Lucas asked if Mike saw it & followed up with “then it doesn’t count”…. this shows Will’s type of personality by Will himself, as opposed to how others constantly describe him. After coming back he is more sneaky, more secretive and less confident in how he’s supposed to be acting. Plus he noticed Jonathan’s cut on his hand, or did he sense or smell the blood? Which is what attracts the monster correct?
    * They were originally gonna call the show “Montauk” but did a last minute name change. Look into the Philadelphia Experiment with the Montauk Experiment & what parallels u can find between the show & both projects. Montauk Project allegedly ended on August 12th, 1983 after a monster from 1 of the Montauk Boys projected a monster which actually physically manifested to shut down the system.
    * Using the Department of Energy and lights was a great tip to Nikola Tesla’s work. Also, showing the aether or ‘upside down’ was too.
    …..idk jus my opinions.
    I love the show so much though & thought the acting was incredible and a refreshing change in the traditional boring, remake movie/tv show types out currently.

  7. gk20

    Hey thanks I enjoyed reading your article. I did want to exchange differing ideas on some of your final statements, but also share some things that led me there first.

    First is that the entire show is either a rip-off or an homage to the 80’s. I haven’t completely worked out my theory, but the young kid with no teeth was the “Goonie” character. The Dungeon Master kid reminded me of a lot of type-character I saw during my youth but I can’t remember one in particular, but maybe the War Games kid. When the African American kid put on the red jacket and the bandana, that was very clearly a reference to Eddie Murphy in his red leather jacket and that bandana in the Golden Child, maybe. As my girlfriend noticed, the boyfriend of the older sister who got his face bashed in was dressed exactly like Michael j Fox in Back to the Future. The girl was like a reference to the 50’s an 60’s common for 80’s shows, Back to the future comes to mind, like Fox’s mother character, but others are there I’m sure. The oblivious and castrated father is exactly like every father Molly Ringwald had on film.

    The reason I bring this up is because the parents are never aware in the 80’s film. They just don’t go into the basement. They never find out that their kids summoned a supermodel by wearing a bra on their head. So the mom never going into the basement was completely appropriate for the type of story being told, one set in the 80’s. The science teacher is going to know all that because that’s what his character does, in the 80’s.
    They way each sub-group of characters carried the plot forward I also thought was an 80’s way of storytelling. The two, then three kids trapping and torching the monster probably saved the parents in their hunt for the boy. And then also led them to the boy. On the surface it doesn’t hold up to logic but as a storytelling style it does.
    I don’t often reply to these things but I actually liked the show and enjoyed reading your analysis. I totally agree about flashbacks. Lazy storytelling that is and usually unnecessary, you are right, in this show. A person does have to make leaps in connecting with the characters, but if you were raised on 80’s material I felt like it was obvious. I really don’t like the entertainment world cashing in on my childhood, like remaking willy wonka or appropriating comic heroes, and I can’t decide if I will let myself like this show completely until I hash it out over some drinks with a friend.
    I just caught up on game of thrones and like your analysis there as well.

  8. I just finished the first season of Stranger Things and I must say I want more. I can’t wait to see what they will do in season 2.

    • I agree with this, it will be hard to see what the writers can do in the next season in terms of scripting decisions and whether they can carry on the storyline of their first season, however i completely agree.

  9. Netflix has done a lot for revitalizing the miniseries, and I agree that turning it into a serial would be problematic unless done with a major gap – more than 2 or 3 years. It really could go in any number of directions with a young adult Will as the central character – still allowing for Ryder to remain on the credits.

    The show effectively tapped into a True Detective feel, and suffers the same inherent dangers. It will be interesting to see where the Duffer brothers take this, but I don’t hold out a lot of hope for lightning striking twice.

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