This was a Pandora’s box that I didn’t want to open, and thankfully didn’t have to during the height of its Twitter hype and meme–making. The arc of its eight–episode Season One run has been compared to a cineplex feast, an eyelid tiring movie marathon on a summer afternoon. For many, this was the way to watch the compactly unfolding series, in a two–or–three–day stretch based on a friend’s recommendations.
Stranger Things has ridden a unique swell of acclaim, garnering modest critical praise and overwhelming digital hype, but simultaneously resulting in a wave of generally unimpressed viewers, many lodging complaints about its pacing and derivative storyline.
This line between pastiche rehash and refreshing throwback is the critical watershed that Stranger Things seems to balance on. It has a classical horror movie set–up: a monster on the run, a missing child, a quiet suburban town. It’s J.J. Abram’s nostalgic wet dream, with Carpenter–esque synthesizers and ‘80s bops to boot. Stranger Things is obviously and intentionally stylish, but at times the thematic content can feel lost in the pretension of trying to meld a nostalgia film with a science–fiction–conspiracy flick by way of monster movie.
Immediately after the release of the series when the Duffer brothers sat down with Variety, they point to various backstories and explanations that they “didn’t have time for” or that wouldn’t fit into the eight–hour span of the season. They opt for a slow reveal flashback approach that attempts to peel back the history of government experimentation on Eleven and the intrusion of the Demogorgon from the Upside Down.
But in attempting to strip the backstories to the bone for brevity, the audience is left to make assumptions of their own, the answers to which the Duffer brothers know but didn’t have time to share. But such is the error of their condensing. The major plot points stand as lighthouses for an audience who must find their way. How exactly did Eleven create a portal for the monster to enter our world? How and when can the Demogorgon create rips in the Upside Down and how long do these rabbit holes last before they close? Why is the Department of Energy responsible for this research and what were they hoping to accomplish? Questions like these leave the audience grasping for more, as the obvious answers and suspension of disbelief don’t satisfy when the plot holes come with frequency.
Although Stranger Things undoubtedly can reveal its merit for those who stick around past the cascading action that begins in the fourth and fifth episodes, it raises interesting questions about nostalgia pieces, a debate far more interesting than the tiring detraction that the series is a stylish hack lacking originality. Parts of the thread do seem farfetched (Eleven doing experiments to telekinetically intercept transmissions from Russian spies?), but it only comes through when the stitches of the genre–blending start to show. Not very often do throwback films have something new to add in terms of generic devices. This expectation, usually applied to hard science fiction cinema, does not, and arguably should not, hold for Stranger Things.
But is the measure of a good show always its ability to bring something fresh to the table? Or can atmospheric style and simple but taut dialogue suffice? One viewing of Stranger Things, that takes into account Winona Ryder’s hyperbolic performance and the other seeming excesses of the series, could categorize the series as a trial balloon of many different kinds, seeing the Duffer brothers experimenting with a Frankenstein of TV forms and seeing what actually comes alive. If anything else, they’ll know what to bring in its second season.