Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Stranger Things & The Art of Withholding: A Solidly Engaging Tale with a Naggingly Spare Mythology


A Short Description of, and NON-SPOILERY Review of, Stranger Things,
A New-ish Netflix Series.

"If you've ever loved Stephen King, or John Carpenter, or 70s/80s Spielberg, or maybe just 80s music, then Stranger Things is liable to be up your alley!"
You've probably heard or read some version of that somewhere by now, and it's not untrue.

Stranger Things is steeped in the 80’s in a lot of ways, but that’s never the real narrative focus of the show. The show isn't about the 80’s, it just inhabits that decade (very enjoyably/evocatively, for this viewer). Those of you who didn't live through the 80’s, or who didn't very much like the 80’s, will still get intelligent, dark, self-contained-but-potentially-expansive sci-fi/horror with a hefty helping of humor and heart. Sounds pretty good, right? How about this: It's also winningly sincere throughout, which feels rare, and not faux- or painfully sincere, which feels rarer.

Stranger Things is a good time in general, regardless of your feelings about The Greed Decade, is what I'm saying. What's the show about? I'm so glad you asked!

Young Will Byers has gone missing, throwing the quiet town of Hawkins, Indiana into disarray. His mother - single, close to the poverty line, already frayed at the edges - draws the attention and sympathy of local police Chief Hopper, a self-destructive, short-tempered, and deeply damaged man who is similarly barely keeping it together.

At the same time a strange young girl, marked like a lab animal, furtively scurries into town pursued by sinister men and women from a government facility on the edge of town. She's given a place to hide by Will Byers's best friends, three squabbling, tight-knit nerds, who find that she's connected to Will's disappearance.

Meanwhile, the older sister of one of the boys has just started dating a popular guy, and this subplot initially feels both extraneous and dull - like a lesser John Hughes effort inelegantly jammed into the proceedings - until that narrative thread refutes audience expectation and veers neatly sideways into the main storyline.

That's the basic setup for Stranger Things, and it's all I'd want to know about the plot before I saw it, other than "Was it any good?"


Stranger Things is remarkably assured, which is doubly surprising given that its creators/directors/writers, the Duffer brothers, aren't well-seasoned veterans. The scripts are tight, the dialogue natural overall, the direction and cinematography impressively moody, atmospheric, and cinematic*. The show cares about its characters to an admirable degree. And the actors are all pretty great**.
* Stranger Things marks the first time I have ever thought “Shawn Levy is talented!” That’s not meant to be mean, but nothing Levy has involved himself in before this has ever struck me as anything other than “vaguely passable family fare.”

**Depending on who you are you may or may not enjoy Matthew Modine's performance. Yes, MATTHEW MODINE is in this. You may also find yourself taken with, or cold toward, Winona Ryder. I think she's admirably solid, if a little too young for the role, but your mileage may vary.
Was Stranger Things "Great"?

I dunno!


…Maybe? What do you think?

My conception of "Great" may be (probably is) wildly different from yours. Devin Faraci of Birth.Movies.Death didn’t like the show at all. Kyle Pinion of GeekRex and Comics Beat was cool on it as a whole. People are unique and individual pop culture-absorbing snowflakes. For me, what matters is that Stranger Things is a solidly entertaining way to spend time in front of your facescreen of choice, as should already be evident*.

*With some (spoilery) reservations. I’ll discuss those below.

That's that, newbies. Go hence, and view the show. Or do not. Or just do what I do and watch two episodes to see if it hooks you. So endeth the non-spoilery section of this piece. Those of you who've already seen the show, this next section is all for you. HERE BE SPOILERS. Don't read what follows unless you've seen the show or don't care about being spoiled. Cool? Cool.



Spoiler Things, Or, The Art of Withholding

Let’s talk a little turkey.

There’s a lot to like about Stranger Things, from its solid casting and its smart and referential scripts/direction, to its murky, evocative atmosphere and its grounded performances. But most interesting to me is the show's desire/willingness to keep its mysteries mysterious. By refusing to offer up much in the way of detail about its own mythology the show deploys one of fiction’s oldest, most potent tools and riskiest high-wire acts: the art of withholding.

All fiction practices that particular art on some level. When someone refers to a book as a “page-turner,” we know they’re saying that they needed to know what happened next – were in fact compelled to discover what happened next – and they’re often saying it precisely because the author has been carefully or instinctively withholding character or plot information from the readers in order to help propel them through the narrative via their own curiosity. Cliffhangers – in print, on TV, and on the silver screen – are prime examples of the art of withholding. They can send their audience into fits of bliss over the possibilities presented (see: "we're gonna have to take the boy," in the Season One finale of LOST), or send their audience into fits of (frankly embarrassing) rage (see: The finale of last season’s The Walking Dead). When withholding on a “story-mythology” level is done well it’s maybe the most effective trick that a fiction can pull on me. In fact, almost all of my favorite television shows are on some level exercises in story-mythology withholding: LOST, Twin Peaks, Buffy/Angel, The Lost Room*.
*Have you never heard of The Lost Room? Do you like TV shows like the ones I just listed? Then trust me: plunk down money for the DVD, which you can buy here. When you're done watching you can read my thoughts on it, right here. And you can follow two of its creators, Paul Workman and Christopher Leone, by clicking their names.

Stranger Things understands the power of story-mythology withholding; Shawn Levy and the Duffer brothers know that creepy and mysterious things are often creepier and more mysterious when they're unexplained. The show’s main issue in this regard lies in the highly subjective way that withholding is received by the audience: how much is not enough? How much is too much? The show arguably gives us juuuust enough in the way of explanation about the background details of its world in order for the audience to make sense of what's happening. It withholds enough from us so that the Upside Down and its petal-faced, murderous inhabitant(s?)*, Matthew Modine and Eleven, the bio-organic "gateway" between dimensions, the purpose(s) of the Department of Energy - all remain compellingly and/or frustratingly inexplicable.

I say frustrating, because this kind of plot/mythos-related withholding either works or it doesn't. Whether it does or does not depends, in part, on your personal preferences, and on the manner in which that withholding is handled.

* Is there just the one monster inhabiting the Upside Down? Or are there several? This detail was genuinely confusing to me. The Duffer Brothers have said in interviews that there is one monster, and so that would appear to close out the question. But it really only opens up more questions. If there’s just the one monster, then why are there eggs in the Upside Down? Why is the petal-faced monster doing…whatever its doing to Will Byers and to poor, poor Barb if not to breed other monster-babies? Why does it seem as though Petal-Face loses a foot in the Byers house, but seems to have both his feet later on?

For this viewer, Stranger Things practices the art of withholding well enough, but ultimately not as well as it could or should have. The possibility of another season, in which some more of the show’s background mythos is exposed and explored, alleviates potential disappointment, but all in all, what Stranger Things ultimately accomplishes via withholding is (1) to make its tale a “page-turner” (success!) while (2) leaving this particular audience member somewhat deflated due to a suspicion of hollowness at the show mythology’s core (sadness!).

The Upside Down itself is strikingly, hauntingly realized, and as a supernatural setting it’s fairly spectacular. It’s also literally empty: a negative image of the “real” world, devoid of people or animals or even multiple large predators. It appears to be populated solely by one petal-faced monster, a couple of tentacle things, an egg, and some dead bodies. We learn absolutely nothing about the Upside Down over the course of the season except that it’s another dimension. On the one hand, this is great. Our lack of knowledge lends the place – which is wonderfully brought to life in large part via practical effects-work – a feeling of genuine otherworldliness. On the other hand, the particular WAY in which the Duffers withhold any information on the Upside Down feels as though it might be because they just made up a space for their monster, and didn’t think the rest through.  

Take LOST, as example. On a very general, overall level, that show was always careful to suggest a history behind its mysteries. When Locke or Jack stumbled onto some secret station or ancient ruin viewers would notice a wealth of detail seeded into the show that gave the sense of these eerie, otherworldly locations having a story behind them. That sense of history made every mystery (well, almost every mystery) that much more compelling. Stranger Things doesn’t do that. It’s a defensible choice, no doubt, but it’s also, subjectively, a choice that leaves me feeling cooler than I’d like.
This, far more than any pop cultural anachronism, is my biggest issue with the show. I don't care about the relative likelihood of whether a teenager in the specific year that the show is set in would listen to a specific song, nor what that says about the creative motivations of the show or the "cred" of its makers. That topic is, to be frank, utterly uninteresting; nitpickery at its most aggravating and useless. It's clear that the Duffers love all this stuff, and that they're enjoying including it. Why does it matter whether Jonathan would have an Evil Dead poster in his room?
It doesn't. Not to this guy. What matters is whether the Upside Down and all its  has any meaning, utility, or purpose, other than as a well-dressed set.

It’s possible to craft some thoughts on the Stranger Things mythology, but it’s not very satisfying because there’s so little to it so far. What’s the egg? Is it where the monster comes from? Or is it a source of food for the monster? Is the Upside Down a literal other dimension? Is it more of a collective/universal mindscape, with the Demogorgon acting as the literalization of a predatory subconscious? Do the slugs that Will was made to ingest act like Alien larva and use humans as hosts? Or do they transform humans into monsters? Maybe most naggingly: has the monster always been able to pass into the “real” world? Because it seems to be able to do so at whim. So what’s the point/purpose of the portal that Eleven inadvertently creates? How does a second one appear in the woods? ANSWER MEEEEEE.


…However, very much in its favor, Stranger Things is clearly less interested in telling a story about secret programs and the Upside Down than it is in telling a story about the people who unwittingly encounter those things. For all of the show’s copious reference points/homages/blatant thefts, that's really the show’s most genuinely, enjoyably King-ish/Spielberg-ian quality: it tells a believably grounded story about small town people encountering the unknown using archetypical characters that are also, somehow, gently subversive in how those archetypes end up feeling dimensional, human and real in pleasantly interesting ways. The characters outweigh my suspicion of hollowness at the show’s center. It’s thanks to them, and to a few very well-chosen story-beats, that I can write the sort of positive review I posted in “Chapter One.”

Two character examples that serve to illustrate the whole:

(1)   Nestled inside Stranger Things is a mini-John Hughes-ian tale which at first feels depressingly extraneous, then snaps into focus when it veers sharply into the main storyline. Convention and archetype dictate that preppy rich kid Steve be revealed as shallow/antagonistic toward poor (literally/figuratively), misunderstood Jonathan, alienating Nancy and helping to reveal to her that Jonathan is a sweet soul who should totally, like, be her boyfriend, The show feints in that direction, but then takes a different, more interesting path. Jonathan is shown as sweet, yes, but also sort of creepy (shades of American Beauty). Steve is revealed to be genuinely good-hearted. We expect Nancy to end the show paired with Jonathan, but instead she’s shown snuggling up to Steve, who rejects his stereotypically snide former friends. It’s not a startling or a groundbreaking storytelling, but it does gently subvert expectation in surprising and enjoyable ways. The show enjoys doing this with its characters – letting them be more rounded, in big and little ways, than they might otherwise be in a story of this kind. To wit:

(2)   Minor characters like Mr. Frank the science teacher are given small, sharp splashes of definition in their relatively brief screen time, making them a little more than just the murder victims or exposition-delivery mechanisms that they typically are. The show takes a few moments to show Mr. Frank relaxing at home while watching a very appropriate John Carpenter flick alongside his Asian girlfriend*. We’re used to seeing “science teacher” characters in these sorts of stories as asexual blanks, and for a minute, we’re given the sense that Mr. Frank has an actual life we’re not privy to - even if the story being told still relegates the character to an expositional role. Touches like this one turn what could be rote into something more specific and personal.

*Had this show been made in the 80s, Mr. Frank would very likely not have had an Asian girlfriend.

Stranger Things has an interest in, and empathy for, the vast majority of its characters. That interest and empathy are, I’d argue, the reason for the show’s success. Yes, people online can be annoying in their effusive praise for the show, and yes, it’s true that the show’s genre elements are all sourced from elsewhere. But the characters matter, and the show’s writers/directors/producers/actors clearly care about those characters in a refreshingly unironic way.
Along with the characters, it’s specifically the show’s willingness to eschew Happy Endings that makes it feel like more than just an exercise in enjoyable references and nostalgia. The show’s final scene, in which Will Byers coughs up a slug-thing and watches the bathroom around him transform into the Upside Down for an eerie moment, before returning to “our” world, and to his family, carrying the secret of that moment inside of him, is quietly devastating. It’s also the moment that ultimately sells me on the show as a whole. My disappointment with the lack of depth in the show’s mythology is finally countered, very nicely, by the sense of disquiet and foreboding that those images leave in my mind. Will may be back, but he’s changed in some way, and there’s Something Terrible lurking around him still. If Stranger Things never gets a second season, the show’s final moments serve as an appropriately haunting and unresolved ending.


Should It Stay or Should It Go?

As of this writing, Stranger Things has not been renewed for a second season. I find it extremely difficult to believe that a renewal is not forthcoming, given the sheer amount of love that the show has received online from critics and audiences. Even if the actual viewing numbers for the show as a whole are average by Netflix’ standards, the show is clearly becoming one of “those” properties for which fans develop deep (and sometimes, to be honest, extremely annoying) affection, and those fans are helping to expand Netflix’s brand in ways that aren’t quantifiable via viewing metrics. The show’s potential is borne out in the way it’s taken off across the internet as a meme-source, a fan-art accelerant, a think-piece generator (hello!), and a source of growing grumbling from certain sectors that Stranger Things doesn’t live up to the hype, that all the fan affection is extremely tiresome, that if people were REAL fans they would watch some other thing, etc. etc. etc.

I would guess that Netflix will announce a second season for the show by the end of the year, and that they are waiting (a) on the initial hype/excitement cycle to die down (a renewal will reignite interest in the show and draw more viewers; do it too soon and you’d deaden that effect); (b) for the conclusion of Finn Wolfhard’s filming time on Andy Muschetti’s upcoming adaptation of Stephen King’s IT (they need Mike Wheeler!); (c) on the boring-but-necessary work of negotiating, drawing up, and executing the necessary agreements and contracts; and possibly (d) for people to get a little disinterested/distracted - at which point they’ll begin secretly filming to capture the kids before they age any further, and THEN announce a second season.  

So, let’s assume for the moment that Stranger Things will return and that The Duffer Brothers, who have gone vaguely on record to talk about their season two ideas, will be allowed to pursue those ideas. Where does the show go next?

We know that the story will likely pick up at least one year after the events of the first season. We now know that the Duffers have a show bible containing a LOT more information on the Upside Down and its monstrous inhabitant/s (hooray!). We know that the Duffers are interested in exploring how the events of season one have affected their cast – not only Will Byers, who is decidedly NOT okay, but everyone else who was exposed to the apparent toxicity of the Upside Down. We know that Chief Hopper has developed some kind of relationship, whether voluntary or coerced, with the mysterious folks at the Department of Energy. We know that Eleven vanished, but isn’t dead, and might just be skulking around in the woods or might be a monster now. Or something*.

*Your thoughts, theories and ideas are encouraged. Post them below, or send them to me on twitter: @M_Morse

What we don’t know is where the Duffers will take any of those developments – in large part because (as I’ve harped on to increasingly diminished returns) we don’t know anything of real worth about the show’s mythology. Will Stranger Things expand its mythos and deepen its mysteries? Will it reveal itself as handsome and loaded with charms, but ultimately not as satisfying as it could have been? We’ll just have to see whether Netflix does the right thing and renews the show for a second season.

Netflix: Do you cast a protective spell, or roll for a fireball?  

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