Stranger Things, Full of Familiar Things?

unfamiliar-things

Stranger Things, Season 1, Chapter 8

I’m stunned by how the final, 8th episode eventually won me over. The depth of mixed emotions were much more rich than some of the other other episodes made me believe was possible. And not just from one or two of the characters, either. Even the evil scientist father reveals a mix of relief and regret in his final scene.

Above all, Millie Bobby Brown, the young actress who plays Eleven, is truly a wonder. What might have been a stiff, stoic performance in the hands of another actress is a quiet, subtle, nuanced portrayal that saved a lot of this show for me.

Although this show was chock full of familiar horror tropes and 80s cliches, there were still enough unfamiliar surprises to rescue it in the end.

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Stranger Things, Season 1, Chapter 7

Now they are just rolling the dice to decide what certain characters are going to do next. OK. Calm down. Just go with it. this is supposed to be entertaining, remember? Right. So what is there left to say about episode 7…. Stuff happened. And adults rolled a 7 and went and did the same thing they had already done because…. Because they rolled a 7. Why not just have them decide to give themselves up to the department of energy in hopes of convincing them to allow access to the gateway? Everybody wins if they go through and come back alive with Will. Why didn’t the teens try to explain that there were multiple gateways into this other realm and that they didn’t HAVE to try to sneak back into the belly of the DOE fortress? Are there even any consistent rules for how this other realm works that would lead these characters to believe they can get anywhere by making one choice over another? Why would all the age groups come together at the gymnasium only to…. Oh, nevermind. Why should I bother being annoyed by this show? …Because I’ve invested time watching and writing about it, mostly. On to the last episode.

Stranger Things, Season 1, Chapter 6

The pacing slowed way up in this episode. You can almost ignore Episode 5 altogether and pick up the story from here. Up to now, we have seen that the evil government agency is willing to kill some people who find a small clue into their operations, but others that have uncovered everything are let go to roam the world freely even though they have shown they are curious and impulsive and desperate enough to be dangerous to the evil government. But if we flush episode 5 and move on, I guess we can just assume that the evil scientists are still a threat to the more vulnerable children, so their descent upon the kids at the end of this 6th episode should be taken seriously.

In Chapter 6, we get a crucial piece of information about Eleven, and some of her internal struggle with guilt that helps to flesh out her character more. The kids are splintering, but in doing so, their story thread is connecting a few more crucial pieces to the overall puzzle.

The teenagers are on the cusp of connecting with the rest of the story a little more, though their journey has, so far, been fairly sequestered from the other age groups. The teens think about the trajectory of their lives in a binary way: you either follow your own internal compass or you become part of a corrupt (perhaps even evil) system. This show has convenient buckets for us to put the adults into if we wish to view it more casually. Like many small-town settings, people fit in more comfortably or less so, and everyone is on the lookout for signs of “otherness” that will make for convenient suspicions and assumptions. The question for any one character toward another: “Can I trust you?” can deepen any reading you might bring to a story taking place in this kind of setting. We already know which characters we are meant to like and which ones we want to bring together. The show wants to make itself easy to watch for most viewers, and so the trajectories of characters are becoming more black and white. This makes it convenient to resolve any tension we might feel with regard to characters.

Is this a…. good story? Do I… like this show? If I squint my eyes and don’t look too closely, I would say it’s entertaining. It doesn’t hold up well under scrutiny. I want to enjoy it more than I do.

One thing for sure: hugs make a lot of things better.

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Lines of dialogue missing from Episode 6:

  • “No, you are not the monster. We are all the monster. There is a little bit of monster in all of us.”
  • “I won’t let that happen. I promise. And when I promise things that are way out of my control, you know it’s a sure thing.”
  • “Why does your nose bleed every time you use The Force?”
  • “How do I know this is real love? Because we slept together without having sex. Yes. This is the real deal.”
  • “You want to see a monster? Look in the mirror.”
  • “You know what a real monster is? A real monster is a bully.”
  • “Because true love and true friendship make you want to punch people. That’s what growing up is all about.
  • “We can’t all just forgive each other and get back together. It’s over. This is the breaking of the fellowship.”
  • “Oh no! They are chasing us on foot! Let’s ditch our bikes and run!”
  • “Maybe you should be the one holding the gun from now on.”

Stranger Things, Season 1, Chapter 5

I wrote a long vitriolic post about Stranger Things Chapter 5, but decided not to post it. Suffice it to say that I’m reminded how little I enjoyed (or engaged meaningfully in) popular culture during the 1980s. All the suspense is gone from this show for me after the 5th episode. Several jump scares have tried to get me in the right fight-or-flight mood. Several cavalier, desperate choices the characters have made have done their best to serve the plot. The characters have become cardboard game pieces that are being pushed around the game board (and through to the underside of the game board, wink-wink). I am a little curious to see how they fill 3 more episodes given the pace of the series up to now. Maybe there will be some surprises, or new curtains drawn, but, more likely, the wool has been pulled away now, and there is little left other than several hours of a TV show jerking me around from one plot twist to the next. I would just stay up late to finish all the rest of it, but sleep is too important. And that’s my more reserved synopsis of Stranger Things, Chapter 5.

Stranger Things Season 1, Chapter 4

I was hoping that the discovery in the last few minutes of chapter 3 wasn’t just a head-fake to lead viewers astray for no good reason. At least they faked viewers out for a reason (they incorporate episode 3’s shocking discovery at the quarry into the plot so that it actually leads the police chief to another improbable, conspiratorial discovery).  But still, they faked us out. It feels like a cheap trick, but, then again, this is television, and we are referencing the kind of 80s pop-culture that was all about cheap tricks: those distracting, shiny objects that mask what is actually going on.

Maybe it is just me. I have a hard time suspending disbelief and submitting to plot-driven devices like this. That’s one of the many things you can lose in the process of learning about nuance and subtlety in storytelling: the pleasure of being surprised. That desire to be surprised with a new kind of surprise. I wrestle with how much to feed these kinds of visceral responses. Go ahead, scare me. Tap into my latent fears. Confirm my paranoia. Make me feel something.

What do you do when a story or a piece of art doesn’t serve you, but asks you to serve it? There are lots of answers, depending on what you are engaging. There are artists that reward you with gifts that are expected and gifts that are unexpected.  In this case, with this kind of a modern-day novel on the “small screen,” you could weigh the cost of putting it down until you’ve gotten enough sleep and carved enough mental space to enjoy it further, or you could plow through it at the expense of sleep and life’s other necessities. You could “binge” through it in order to satisfy yourself with the answers that the TV show wants to swing you towards: the who, what, when, where, and why answers. To stop in the middle and consider how characters are responding or growing in the midst of tension-building plot devices needs to be rewarding enough in itself or it feels pretty pointless when the main drive of the show is to get you watching and to keep you watching.

I can imagine that Stranger Things is rewarding, in some ways, if you were to watch it from start to finish in a short period of time. My speculation during this show as it sets up so many mysterious curtains is feeling, at the moment, a little like merely speculating about what is still partially hidden behind each curtain. And it’s probably of no interest to read through someone’s thoughts one step at a time if you’ve already been through the whole thing. Or if you haven’t started it yet. Live-tweeting a show live, in real time, or discussing sections of it in a classroom, might be more rewarding if more than one person is involved in the discussion. I’ll lean on the expectation that I am indeed writing in a “journal” that is engaging what I am able to view/read with the time I have. Probably just me trying squeeze a little more juice out of the orange rind than is really worth the squeeze, but there it is. Anyone else reading can make of it what they will. I’ll watch Stranger Things, episode 5 when I can get a free hour or two to view it and write down a few thoughts about it. Because that’s the kind of thing I like to do.

Here is a picture of Winona Ryder sitting on her couch all night with an ax:

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This song came to mind as I'm wrestling with consuming entertainment and 
exploring stories:

The problem of leisure, what to do for pleasure?
Ideal love, a new purchase, a market of the senses
Dream of the perfect life
Economic circumstances, the body is good business

Sell out, maintain the interest, remember Lot's wife
Renounce all sin and vice, dream of the perfect life
This heaven gives me migraine
The problem of leisure, what to do for pleasure?

Coercion of the senses, we are not so gullible
Our great expectations, a future for the good

Fornication makes you happy, no escape from society
Natural is not in it, your relations are of power
We all have good intentions, but all with strings attached

...The problem of leisure: what do do for pleasure

- Band: Gang Of Four 
- Song: Natural's Not In It

 

Stranger Things Season 1, Chapter 3

The thing that stands out to me in Stranger Things, chapter 3 is plot progression. The adults became a little more interesting. They are starting to wake up to things unfamiliar. There is a gap appearing between Will’s mother (Winona Riyer) and all the other adults on the show. She is diving headlong into the mysterious patterns she sees between the physical and metaphysical realms. She has begun to look increasingly wacked out to her older son and other adults that cross her path. But as a result, she is able to communicate with her son, Will, albeit, in a removed way.

Another child seems to barely miss being abducted, and the destination of the currently missing characters is slowly unveiled. Sort of. Lots of questions still remain.

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The episode makes an unexpected turn in the final few minutes, leaving Mom (Ryder), Will, “11” and the other younger children dangling in surprising new territory. I left this third chapter throwing my hands up in the air, though in a good way. I thought I was beginning to understand the characters and where the plot was going, but now I don’t know what the hell is going on. I’m better prepared now to go into the fourth chapter with fewer expectations and more anticipation. It’s becoming more difficult to turn off the show at the end of the credits. We’ll see if I can keep from letting the countdown clock roll over into the next episode next time!

Eleven, the mysterious girl, has begun to round out some more. Her past and her various vulnerabilities have come into sharper focus. The characters within the story are at a disadvantage without some of the information viewers have been privileged with thanks to flashback scenes, and the local police investigations into the psychological experiments that may be happening at the nearby US Department of Energy seem inevitable and obvious. We now have a deeper understanding of why certain things do not frighten “Eleven” and why other things do. Just when the show seems to be making some sense of the mysteries behind the younger children’s narrative thread, we are thrown for a bit of a loop. Now I’m not sure that anything is really as it seems. At the end of this episode, the monster creature in this tale, and the supernatural dimension that seems to be layered over the visible world, drifts even further away from what is happening to these kids. Eleven’s story seems to become a little more familiar, maybe, but Will’s story is getting a bit… stranger.

Stranger Things, Season 1, Chapter 2.

Here, in Chapter 2 of Stranger Things, the small-town setting is being utilized to great effect. We know what the reputations are for some of the adults, some of the teens and some of the younger kids. For a show (that seems to be, at least so far) about social norms and misfits and broken assumptions, it is certainly fitting that most of the characters seem to know (or think they know) everything about each other. Who has slept with whom. Which bikes and cars belong to whom. Which families are falling apart and why. Characters are being forced to question their more shallow notions of each other and their families, their kids, their parents, their siblings, their roles within the community. The balance of the community has been broken, and so, everyone feels the dizzying effects of that brokenness in their own unique ways. You can see the characters splitting into their respective age groups as a way of coping with the sudden lack of perspective and lack of trust in the presence of real danger.

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Compared to many similar thrillers and horror shows (in movies and TV and genre fiction), this show leaves more room for the differing perspectives of different age groups. Impending adolescence is as big a theme as impending adulthood. And the adults are finding the ground opening up underneath them, mostly in the form of external threats. The potential audience of this TV series is much broader than many of the films that this show is referencing. We don’t get a primarily childlike perspective, as we do in films like E.T., Goonies, or The Explorers, and this isn’t just a show for a merely teenage crowd either (Ferris Bueller, Edward Scissorhands and the films of the late John Hughes come to mind). So far, the adults are still the least sympathetic group in this community of characters, although the show doesn’t seem to be dismissing their shallow pragmatism outright. They are mostly still just reacting, and are only beginning to probe the “bad luck” of the seemingly disparate events that are playing out in the small town. But I’m hopeful. There are still 6 episodes left in which to explore various responses to their overturned internal and external worlds.

At the end of this second chapter, another character vanishes, apparently at the hands of the unknown evil entity. In an attempt to make sense of what is happening, I find myself searching for connections between these two disappearances. Perhaps the evil presence is targeting those who are the most vulnerable in the community? Is it choosing a representative from every age group for some reason? Much the same way, the youngest and oldest groups of characters are beginning to question the possible connections between different unusual events. And all three age groups represented in this story are being forced into making tough decisions.

The adults are looking to reconcile the disappearance of the young boy, Will, with the death of the cook at the diner (in the process, they mistakenly conclude that Will and “11,” the mysterious child who showed up at the diner, must be the same person). Will’s mother must make a clear choice at the end of this episode: (should I stay, or should I go now? Get it?) To find her son, she must turn and face a great horror: which is an act of turning around and walking back into her own house. To help her son, or to understand what has happened to him, she must stay home. She must turn and face the most familiar spaces in her life, as if for the first time. Are the adults going to be able to reckon with the monsters that threaten their children? Are they in denial? Have they ever truly faced the real monsters in their own lives or are they only now beginning to?

The youngest children wrestle with difficult choices too: do they keep searching for Will? Do they turn in the mysterious girl they have discovered? By the end of this second chapter, it has become clear that, in order to find Will, they must try to hide the girl and discover more about her at the same time. (Puberty is approaching – get it?) In their relative innocence, perhaps they are better positioned to recognize what the hell is going on even if they are not able to interpret what the hell it all means. Their pieces of the puzzle do not help them to define the edges of the picture frame, but they hold the starker pieces: the pieces that contain the eyes, the fangs, the claws…

And then there are the teenagers, who (most of them, anyway) seem the most scattered, barely acknowledging the disappearance of the young boy in the community. They are mostly unfocused, as if they are separating the puzzle pieces into various colors. They lose sight of the things that they say are important to them. Do they choose to restrain their passions? Do they indulge their own curiosities? Are they in the most danger if they are not able to follow the natural progression toward their own burgeoning sexuality?

I think we’re getting somewhere. I believe I started out expecting too much of this entertaining show. I probably still am. But I am looking forward to the next chapter, and waiting a little bit between episodes has been rewarding, in a number of ways. Perhaps for one of the upcoming chapters, I’ll try waiting a whole week before moving on to the next one. You know, kind of like how you had to wait for broadcast TV back in the 1980s.

Stranger Things – Season 1, Chapter 1

I’m a little relieved that there are only 8 episodes in this series that draws heavily on 1980s-style thrillers, especially some of the earlier films by Steven Spielberg. I’m hopeful that the relatively short first season of Stranger Things will help it to be more focused and efficient than it might have otherwise been. Even most good TV these days becomes a little tiresome at times, and baggy, or it is spread too thin. Less is more. (Netflix’s Jessica Jones and Daredevil seasons could have benefited from being a little shorter).

Haven’t we seen all this before? I hope the “stranger things” on this show actually end up being truly stranger-than-strange and not merely familiar-strange. “Familiar-strange” may be the perfect oxymoron-phrase for this show.

I’m intrigued by the possibility of episodes existing as stand-alone entities for a TV show that is always available to view the season at whatever pace the viewer might choose. This makes these made-for-streaming, TV-show drops lean even closer to the format of a novel, with episodes being analogous to chapters in a book (Netflix is even calling each episode a “Chapter”). At the same time, the impulse to rush through the 1st season is there. I believe it is called “binge-watching”–that socially acceptable indulgence. 2 or 3 or 4 episodes of a show all at once usually ends up just making me bleary and weary and relieved when it’s finally over. So I think I’ll watch one episode at a time. Is it worth the investment of 8 hours over (at least) 8 days? Well, if not, writing about it will be, as it usually is, its own reward…

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First impressions of Stranger Things, Episode 1:

  • I found episode 1 diverting and fun. It’s heavy on plot; a little light on character.
  • Like most of 80s pop-culture, this show is not subtle.
  • “Stranger Things” Is a bland, nebulous title. Stranger danger? Stranger than what? Things? “Could you hand me the things behind that other thing? No, the stranger things that are behind that thing.”
  • Shameless product placement that adds a thin, nostalgic, emotive layer for viewers of a certain age but adds no depth to the story? Difficult to tell at this point.
  • Lots of no-nonsense characters constantly emoting and reacting with intensity.
  • They did a whole lot in a very limited space building the character of the boy who is about to disappear. Well done, I thought. He is the one who confesses to what really happened with the dice-roll during the D&D gaming session. His quiet confession about being beaten by the demi-gorgon creature in the D&D game is a nice foreshadowing of what is about to happen to him on his way home on his bike.
  • I’m trying not to use the word “strange” when describing the strange things in this show. Or the word “things.”
  • Adults were sure stupid in the 80s, right? I’m glad adults are smarter these days… Right?
  • The child actors wield a very magnetic presence on the screen. I’m hoping they get rounded out more as the series progresses.
  • Why isn’t Sean Astin in this show? Well, it’s early yet…
  • I can’t decide whether or not the blatant 80s tropes are to establish the setting in a meaningful way or whether they are just checking boxes on a list of 80s references. (When are the Smurfs going to get screen time? Where are the Star Wars toys?)
  • We get a missing boy traded in for a telepathic, androgynous girl. The show seems to be heading in lots of directions at once. I hope these threads will be tied together more clearly by the end and not just left hanging for the sake of mysteriosity.
  • The strange girl with strange powers must have something to do with the strange, goopy, web-like, hive-structure substance that strangely….
  • Crap. I said “strange.” A lot.
  • In a post-LOST, post-X-Files, world, I’m worried that this show will ultimately be stringing viewers along on thin plot lines that never resolve… That’s something I hated about 80s and 90s TV.
  • The show is revealing too much right up front about the humanoid, gooshy, drippy, alien-like presence in the show. I’d prefer more suspense. I’m already getting the idea that I’ve seen all this before.

Actually, that’s not a bad place to stop for now: Haven’t I seen all this before? I hope the “stranger things” on this show actually end up being truly stranger than strange and not merely familiar-strange. Familiar-strange may be the perfect phrase for this show, but it is also an oxymoron.

I hope that, by the end of the season, When I ask “Haven’t I seen all this before?” I will be able to emphatically say a both “Yes!” and “No!”

 

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