I honestly wasn’t sold on Stranger Things at first. Some of that is the show’s fault and some of that isn’t. Frankly as a viewer I’m broken. To use an upsetting metaphor: if a TV show is a dog doing its best at being a dog and doing dog things, I’m a person who rips that dog open and takes out all its internal organs to see how they’re all working together so I can really understand what’s going on here. The dog is happily panting trying to please me while I’m examining his lungs. I can’t just watch something anymore, I’m also vivisecting it as I watch.
That’s not to say I can’t enjoy stupid stuff, in some cases it’s actually the opposite. I can have a real problem with middle of the road material. What really gets to me are tropes I’ve seen too often, ideas that never pull together or attempts to emotionally manipulate me that I do not appreciate.
The constant 80s references in Stranger Things kinda drove me nuts. I don’t have a problem with references in a vacuum; they’re a tool like anything else, they can be used for good or evil. But Stranger Things goes overboard with how many and how frequent it uses references. And what really annoys me about that is that it distracts from what a good show Stranger Things is.
What makes Stranger Things work is its characters first and foremost. Because while the plot and staging of scenes are a patchwork of things ripped right out of 80s movies, the characters that we see going through this stuff aren’t tropes; they feel like real people (For better and for worse). The cast is great, everyone does a good job; particularly notable are the kids who are way better than the kid actors in the 80s movies this show is obsessed with. That’s what allowed me to stay invested in the show even as it kept lobbing VHS tapes at my skull aiming for my nostalgia.
Stranger Things is mostly pulling from Spielberg and Steven King, trying to assemble that blend of kids adventure and horror that’s kind of specific to that era. But while it is pulling directly from the source, it’s also distilling what was there into a more refined thing. It pulls out stuff that was memorable and iconic from Spielberg movies without bringing along the sentimentality that I’ve grown sick of and that’s come to dominate his work.
It’s the kind of work you get when talented fans work to remake something they love. They know the right strands to pull on, the stuff that really worked and hit, while leaving out the shit that no one liked and the pointless bullshit no one remembers. It also has the flaws of a work like that where sometimes they go too far to recreate something that already existed, don’t fully allow their work to be its own thing, and stick a few too many pointless references in just because they can.
I realized I was totally sold on this show about halfway in when the desperate stories the characters had been living on their own started to pull together. Seeing those threads start to intertwine was when I really started to get excited and realized how invested in these characters I was. Unfortunately I also think that’s kind of the high point of the series, as it doesn’t do quite as good a job at finally pulling everything together at the end.
That’s mostly a pacing issue as some of the sub plots just aren’t as vital, and frankly should have resolved earlier in the show but get dragged out so that everyone is at least doing something at the end. Even if some of it is pointless at this point. The show tries to lineup the timing of everything at the end in a way that ends up being more cute than clever and undermines some stuff that should be cooler than it is. (Goddamn teenagers getting distracted by goddamn teenager problems)
Despite its flaws I really enjoyed Stranger Things. In some ways it’s frankly better than the movies it’s so in love with, in some ways it has the same problems, and it frankly just should have cut back on the blatant references a bit. All in all it’s a package worth watching.