Man, I’m behind on so many things for this blog: I’m way off schedule for my Disney Princess Movie Challenge, and I definitely should have watched Revenge of the Sith by now for my ongoing Star Wars Re-Watch. But today, at least, I’m finally getting around to reviewing a show that I did have the opportunity to check out (forever ago): Stranger Things.
There are, admittedly, a few things I’d like to change. Overall, though, I’m pretty into it.
I was planning on making this review spoiler-free, but then I was also planning on having this review out, like, three or four weeks ago, so. Sorry. SPOILERS ABOUND, for I am lazy and weak. (But you’ve all seen this show by now anyway, right? Right?)
A boy goes missing, and a search begins. Found along the way: a mysterious, super-powered girl, a government conspiracy, and a whole bunch of other spooky ass shit.
1. Here’s the thing: I don’t consider myself an 80’s child. I mean, technically, I am, having been born at the ass end of ’85, but it’s not like I remember a whole lot from those four years, either. (Rounded down, obviously. Please don’t comment just to tell me I suck at math. You won’t be giving me any new information.) In my heart, I’m definitely a 90’s kid.
Still, I’ve learned an appreciation for the 80’s, partially because some parts of that decade are just fun, and partially because so many of the creators I like are obsessed with the era. You don’t watch seven seasons of Psych without developing some sort of weird nostalgia for the decade, even if you didn’t actively participate in it and/or refuse to watch certain 80’s classics because it’s gone on so long now that it’s become a part of your identity, like, The Girl Who Hasn’t Seen ET. Anyway, you’ve got to enjoy the 80’s: they had the most hilarious music videos. Watching ridiculous 80’s music videos has become my new method of digging myself out of a bad mood.
This is a particularly long-winded way of saying that while I don’t automatically go gaga over 80’s nostalgia, I did appreciate the sheer dedication and attention to detail that the Duffer Brothers put into making Stranger Things look and feel like a show ripped out of that decade. As a point of comparison: I’ve also just finished watching Dead of Summer, another horror show set in the same time period, and while there are some good things about it (and other things that are deeply vexing) it doesn’t feel like an 80’s show at all: it feels like Freeform’s bubblegum version of the 80’s. Stranger Things, though . . . I mean from the grainy filming to the terrible hairstyles to the perfect music choices to even the themes; it’s on point. I was especially impressed with the title sequence, both with the theme song and what I assume we’re all just calling the Stephen King Font?
I’m not gonna lie, though: I’m still kind of waiting for movies and TV to start showing some love for the 90’s. Come on, guys. Give me some All That, some dresses with combat boots, and maybe a few Mentos commercials for old times’ sake.
2. Now that all being said . . . while I appreciate how dedicated this show is to the 80’s, there are some things I wish were a bit updated to more current times, like, gender roles. I can’t help but shake the feeling that Stranger Things would be a lot more exciting if almost the whole cast was gender-flipped. In fact, the only person who I absolutely do not want to gender flip is Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), who is amazing. I love Eleven, and I will gush about her awesomeness a little later–but she’s also the only major female character who I think is particularly innovative.
To dive into that, let’s talk about the other ladies. Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder), for instance, is the mother of the kid (Will) who goes missing, and I’ve seen just a ton of praise for her.
And acting-wise, I would entirely agree with that praise: Winona Ryder gives a fantastic performance, at times tough as nails, at times seemingly losing her mind. Often, both simultaneously. I like her a whole lot. But when people are praising Joyce as being this exciting female character, this determined mother who goes at all out to save her son from supernatural and/or otherworldly forces? I kind of don’t feel it. Jillian goes to Death Tower after her son in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Diane goes through the portal after Carol Ann in Poltergeist. It’s not that unusual for female characters to be fierce when their children are involved; I mean, that’s basically just the Mama Bear trope, right? And that doesn’t mean it’s bad by any means; I’m just not excited by it. I don’t think it’s new at all. I’d be a lot more interested in a female character who goes all out to search for a sister or a friend or anyone who isn’t a love interest or their own child.
Which brings us to Nancy.
Theoretically, Nancy (Natalia Dyer) is a little more interesting: for one, she proves she’s not a totally useless character who just stands on the sidelines while the men do the work (always a plus); for another, her chief motivation in getting involved in this mess is finding her best friend and fan favorite, Barb (Shannon Purser), who goes missing very, very early on in the show. And this should be great: I’m all about girl friendships on TV that aren’t solely of the toxic, backstabby variety.
My problem is that, for the most part, I agree with this Vox.com article that Barb’s disappearance and subsequent death is mostly an excuse to bring Nancy and Jonathan closer together. Joyce is primarily defined as a character by her relationship to Will, but I wouldn’t define Nancy by her relationship to Barb at all; instead, far more time is spent on the triangle between her, Jonathan, and Steve–and a teenage girl whose primary storyline centers on one or multiple love interests isn’t exactly what I’d call original, either. We’ll talk more about the triangle itself later, but for me, Barb is less of a character than she is a plot device, which is why no one but Nancy seems to care about her when she’s gone. Yes, yes, Stranger Things has promised us more emotional fallout from Barb’s death in Season 2, but does anyone really believe that was always the plan? Or was that the hurried response when audiences unexpectedly fell in love with a character who was really only in a couple of episodes and probably had six minutes total screen time?
Don’t get me wrong: I really like Barb too (despite her mom jeans–I’m sorry, everyone, but I just cannot go with you on those awful mom jeans) and I was seriously disappointed (if not surprised) when she died, but Shannon Purser pretty much said it herself on Twitter: Barb wasn’t supposed to be a big deal. We made her important. If Nancy’s relationship to Barb was actually supposed to matter, wouldn’t we have seen more of it? Even in flashbacks? Even in nightmares and dream sequences? Nancy’s chief motivation for getting involved might have been finding/avenging her best friend, but let’s not pretend she gets to spend anywhere near as much time on her fear and grief for Barb as Joyce does when it comes to Will.
3. But yes, back to the gender-bending: if you flip the women, I’m immediately more interested in them: now you have a single, hardworking father hysterically trying to communicate with his missing son via Christmas lights, and you have a studious, slightly uptight, and naive teenage boy considering losing his virginity and mixing in with the popular kids. And that’s not even taking the male characters into consideration. For instance, the boys:
While it’s always relieving to see kids actually getting to act like real kids (you know, ones who swear and like weird things and look like normal children and are capable of cogent thought), I can’t help but feel like it’s always little boys who get to nerd out at A/V Club and play D&D and journey off to find dead bodies and stuff. (Yes, that last one is Stand By Me, and observant people reading this blog will probably realize how my whole 10 Movies I Wanna Gender-Flip NOW list came about in the first place.) But seriously ladies, especially Nerd Ladies, how awesome would it be to watch a group of young geek girls doing science, playing D&D, and banding together to find their friend? Cause I think it would be pretty awesome.
Still, the most exciting role to gender-flip (at least to me) might actually be Sheriff Jim Hopper.
Again, I like Hopper (David Harbour) quite a bit. In fact, he’s my second favorite character in the whole show. But just think about this guy for a minute: at the beginning, he’s this schlubby, sardonic, alcoholic cop who initially seems like a worthless schmo but quickly becomes this badass character who you end up rooting for . . . how often do we get to see female characters like that? I can’t really think of many. Jessica Jones, maybe. (Not that you ever think she’s a worthless schmo, exactly, but she’s the tough, mean, alcoholic PI character men regularly get to play. Anyway it’s the closest I can come up with at the moment.) And don’t get me wrong: Jessica Jones is super cool and complex, but I want more. Strong Female Characters so often come in only one variety; I want ALL the variety, all the personalities, all the badass women.
Oh, and pivotally? Lady Jim Hopper wouldn’t look like your typical SFC, either, i.e., super skinny, tight clothes, etc. Lady Jim Hopper would be an overweight woman in a Sheriff’s uniform, and her size wouldn’t ever be a joke: she wouldn’t be clumsy and falling all over the place for the usual BS laughs. She would be overweight and badass simultaneously. I want to see it. I want to see it NOW.
4. Oh, and as far as that love triangle goes . . . I’m pretty sure the show wants me to ship Nancy with Jonathan (Charlie Heaton).
When we flash forward at the end of the season and realize that Nancy and Steve have gotten back together, I’m pretty sure that’s supposed to be a blow, like, oh noes, after everything they’ve been through, Nancy still got together with the wrong guy.
I’m . . . not so sure.
For the most part, I generally like Jonathan, or at least, I feel sorry for the kid: his younger brother is missing, his mom appears to be going nuts, and his deadbeat dad sucks donkey balls. But Jonathan secretly also takes pictures of Nancy stripping down when she’s about to have sex with Steve, and that’s all kinds of oh HELL no. I’m not saying the kid’s automatically irredeemable, but it’s also going to take a long time for me to ship Nancy with Peeping Tom kid. And I sure as hell don’t feel bad for Jonathan when Steve goes “psycho” and destroys the kid’s camera. Presumably I’m supposed to because he’s poor and can’t afford a new one? Yeah, fuck that. You take pictures of someone undressing without their knowledge or consent, you don’t deserve a camera, simple as that. In fact, the only thing that does disappoint me is that Nancy doesn’t break the camera herself. (Although I do love that she calls Jonathan on his whole ‘I try to take pictures of people as they really are’ bullshit. I was going to be so pissed if we were honestly supposed to buy that crap.)
Meanwhile, Steve isn’t exactly a winner himself.
He’s not nearly as bad as he could be, actually. You think you know exactly who Steve is when the show starts (preppy rich boy jerk who only wants to get into Nancy’s pants), but he quickly surprises when he doesn’t tell the whole school about having sex with Nancy and/or immediately dump her afterwards as expected. But when he thinks that Nancy is cheating on him with Jonathan, Steve is quick to go along with his friends publicly slut-shaming her. It’s gross and awful . . . but is it any worse than what Jonathan did? I’m not convinced that it is. (Not to mention I was way more impressed with Steve later yelling at his friends than I was with Jonathan’s half-assed apology in the woods.)
Either way, though, I can’t find myself getting too excited about Nancy ending up with either of these guys, at least, not so soon. So yeah, dump these losers, Nancy, and find someone better. Or else, stay single for a while! I actually kind of enjoy when characters do that–not everyone jumps straight from one relationship into the next like ladies often do on TV.
5. So, those are some of my more negative/critical notes. On the other hand, did I mention that I’m a fan of Eleven?
Because I am. She is the BEST.
Seriously, I want to be all articulate and analytical and composed about this, but I’m not sure I can. I just like her a whole lot. Eleven is nuanced and badass and vulnerable and interesting. Millie Bobby Brown does a fantastic job with the character; in fact, she probably has the best facial expressions on TV since Nadiya on The Great British Bake-Off. If I had to pick a favorite . . . hm. Her face when testing out the La-Z-Boy is pretty great, but I think the very best is when Mike gives her a makeover. The face she makes as she’s attacked by blush for the first time is THE BEST AND MOST ACCURATE FACE EVER. (Oh, and not for nothing, I don’t think I caught Brown’s English accent once. Although, to be fair, she rarely says more than three words at a time, so that might have something to do with it.)
God knows what’s up with Eleven at the end of the season, if she’s living between worlds, occasionally eating Eggos or what. But I assume we’ll figure that out in Season 2. Hey, maybe we can also find out whatever happened to One through Ten while we’re at it? Are they failed, dead experiments? Or are they EVIL CHILDREN waiting to be released?
6. I’m running out of steam on this review–as happens when a project that was supposed to take a week takes over a month instead–so I’m going to finish it up with a bunch of short, even more unrelated notes than before:
6A. Seriously, there is so much Stephen King love in this show. Hints of IT, Firestarter, Cujo, etc. I also couldn’t help but think of Dean Koontz’s Seize the Night, which also has a government experiment that goes rather wrong; in that book, they’re trying to travel forward in time (I think) and up going sideways instead.
6B. The whole show has a pretty cool look to it, but the Upside Down is especially creepy and awesome looking. Also neat: anytime Eleven goes into a sensory deprivation tank. Those scenes are very simplistic, but also seem incredibly effective.
I don’t know if I’d call Stranger Things scary, exactly, but there are definitely some great creepy visual moments, not just with the demogorgon popping up behind people, but also with that one tree passageway, and the dead deer that’s suddenly dragged away. That moment definitely got a jump out of me, I’ll admit it.
6C. The soundtrack in this is pretty great. The theme music is a pitch perfect fit for the show and will get stuck in your head for WEEKS, and I’m always happy to hear some Clash. Also, Echo and the Bunnymen. Also “Hazy Shade of Winter” and “White Rabbit,” among other songs I’m surely forgetting now.
6D. As I’ve said, I really am super fond of Hopper and Hopper’s angsty facial hair. (In the happy past–before his kid died–he was clean-shaven, naturally. Frankly, I think the light beard looks a little better on him.) But if Eleven is my absolute favorite and Hopper is my very close second, then Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) has to be my extremely close third.
He’s obviously the primary comic relief of the kids, and I liked him early on, but Dustin definitely won me over when he yelled at Mike for not understanding why Lucas was upset, not to mention just generally being an awesome kid constantly stuck in the middle of his two best friends. Plus he’s generally pretty cool to Eleven. Obviously, I found this endearing.
6E. I forgot to mention this before when talking about my Big Dream Gender-Swap, but it would also be nice to see a female nerdy science teacher comforting her freaked/grossed out boyfriend while watching a horror movie. Very rarely do you get to see a dude scared or cringing while watching a scary flick, and it’s almost as rare to see a female character who really enjoys horror movies. The latter is VERY MUCH not my experience with life.
6F. I like Flo (Susan Shalhoub Larkin) a fair amount, but there’s a scene with her and Nancy at the police station that kind of bugs. Jonathan has just been arrested for resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer, and Flo tells Nancy that “only love makes you that crazy, sweetheart, and that damn stupid.” It’s a great line and one I’d normally enjoy, but I don’t much like it in this context because it assumes that Jonathan has hit Steve for Nancy’s honor . . . except that’s totally not what happened. Jonathan attacked Steve because Steve was a giant douchecanoe about his family; it had nothing to do with Nancy at all. And that would be fine if it was just a character making an incorrect assumption–God knows people do that all the time–but the way it’s shot here, it seems clear to me we’re supposed to agree with Flo. And I don’t. It’s yet another example of how I feel the show is pushing us to ship Jonathan/Nancy, but I remain unmoved. (I mildly ship Hopper/Joyce and Eleven/Mike, but that’s about all.)
6G. Finally, I wanted to mention my fourth favorite character: Connie Frazier (Catherine Dyer).
She doesn’t have a whole lot of screen time. Not much actual character either, unfortunately, but she is a government agent in her 50’s who goes undercover and murders people and all sorts of things. (I still weep for you, Benny.) Since women in Hollywood regularly stop getting anything to do but have babies after the age of 32, seeing a woman in her mid-50’s getting to be this badass villain lady? Pretty awesome.
Sadly, Connie Frazier dies. But at least it’s equally badass Eleven who kills her. I genuinely feel better about that. Is that weird? That’s probably weird.
Mr. Clarke: “Science is neat, but I’m afraid it’s not very forgiving.”
Dustin: “We never would have upset you if we knew you had superpowers.”
Joyce: “I need this phone, and two weeks advance. And a pack of Camels.”
Dustin: “All three of you were being a bunch of little assholes! I was the only reasonable one.”
Dustin: “Why are you keeping this curiosity door locked?”
Joyce: “Look, he’s a sensitive kid. Lonnie–Lonnie used to say he was queer, called him a fag.”
Hopper: “Is he?”
Joyce: “He’s missing, is what he is.”
Dustin: “Sometimes, your total obliviousness just blows my mind.”
Dustin: “You really need to learn more about compasses.”
Barb: “Nance . . . seriously? He invited you to his house. His parents aren’t home. Come on, you are not this stupid.”
Barb: “Is that a new bra?”
Pretty fun. I think it could push boundaries a little more than it does–because at the end of the day, I want it to be doing something old and something new simultaneously–but I still had a great time watching it: it’s creepy and funny and meticulously well-crafted. I’m definitely looking forward to the second season.
Millie Bobbie Brown. But Winona Ryder and David Harbour were also quite strong.
Hm. It’s either D&D will prepare you for life and the supernatural adventures that go along with it, or don’t crawl inside creepy trees, NANCY. Choose whichever advice you thinks suits you the best.