I really wish I could love Netflix’s Stranger Things more than I do. But the show makes it so difficult.
Despite a strong, promising start filled with plenty of atmosphere, creepiness and mystery, along with excellent scoring and cinematography, Stranger Things lost my adoration. It happened much more quickly than I was expecting – especially considering how the first two hours utterly captivated me (I even wondered, briefly, how it could have less than 100% on Rotten Tomatoes) – but it happened.
I’m not sure when the moment struck me, but by the beginning of the fourth episode (right around the discovery of “the body”), I was already feeling that the show not only ran out of steam but revealed the shallowness of its central concept, and storytelling.
Where to begin? I’m pretty sure I could rant all day, but here’s taste of four of the main culprits: 1) Macguffins galore, 2) no consequences, 3) artificial tension, and 4) stereotypes, stereotypes, stereotypes.
The big disappointed hit me when I realized that show seems unable to propel its story forward without the use of plot devices.
The very first scene of the series features four characters playing a game similar to Dungeons & Dragons and the actions they take in the game are immediately played out in real life (a character does something reckless, is taken by the monster).
While it was an intriguing opening premise – fantasy mirrors reality – the show soon over-relies on object clues like this. Perhaps they are meant as foreshadowing, or to be more subtle than they come across, but realistically a viewer shouldn’t be able to guess most events before it happens.
To illustrate, two prominent examples happen in the first four episodes, both involving actual devices.
The first, is the camera which Jonathan constantly carries with him. Instantly, he is presented as a reclusive photographer, and the mere presence of the camera causes us to suspect that it will inevitably capture a grainy shot of the monster, which will be discovered later and used to validate the protagonists conviction. It then does exactly that, with the added bous that after it served its plot purpose, the camera is destroyed. Any mention of photography, or artistic introspection vanishes.
In another scene we are introduced to a high powered radio transmitter. It initially seems like it is used to establish the nerdiness of the central characters but, like everything else in the show, it’s also simply a plot device. The characters ask themselves where they can find a more powerful radio at one point and – ding – the device we saw earlier. The device then serves its purpose, and is also destroyed.
It makes a brief appearance later when an agent on the side of the bag guys stumbles upon it dressed as a repair man. Perhaps it was to show the forces of evil closing in on the heroes, but since they find other ways of tracking down our protagonists, it ultimately serves the same purpose as it was never mentioned again.
Either way, in both cases, we have objects that literally become plot devices, and are then removed from the plot after their purpose has been served, with virtually no meaningful consequence or reference to either afterwards.
The greatest culprit of the Macguffin problem, however, is the character Eleven. She’s a telepathic, telekinetic, grab bag of undefined psychic powers. Whatever power any given scene calls for in order to move that scene forward, she has it. Need to move a van out of the way? Done. Need to open a door? Door. Need to change a compass’s direction? Done. Block a manager with a shopping cart? And done.
Lack of real consequences
This is a show about an evil monster than inhabits another realm of reality. The premise is scary as hell, since we have no idea what sort of rules it follows and the show slowly teases its abilities to us. It attacks from the shadows, striking without warning; it lurks in a particular patch of woods, and everyone who ventures near there has disappeared. It would seem then that the more we learn about the monster, the stakes seem to be getting raised.
Okay, great. We as the viewers know what the consequences should be for approaching that area, and the monster.
But then, it abandons all those stakes for rather arbitrary reasons.
For instance, Nancy – a main character – walks in the woods where we know it lurks. She catches a glimpse of the monster, there’s tension as it crawls by the camera and then – it doesn’t attack.
Even after it was established earlier as attacking on sight, we get nada – just a cheap jump scare. Later, she returns to those woods, with a reckless plan to fight it. Okay, great – now her courage will bite her in the ass. It even seems that way as she gets trapped in its lair at the end of one episode – with the final shot suggesting her way back is blocked.
Yet, by five minutes into the following episode, she escapes through the route that she entered – the same route that was apparently trapping her there. Even once she’s free, there’s no chase, no monster hounding her out. Just safety.
In another instance, another character acts with vigilante recklessness and gets a bit too close to knowing the truth. He breaks into a lab, is captured at gun point and sedated – only to be released moments later by the same agency, mind you, that killed another character earlier in the show for getting too close to the truth.
Essentially, instead of following through on the consequences which the show already establishes, it decides to eschew them in favour of artificial tension.
And the tension – or lack thereof.
If the consequences for the main character’s actions do not follow the consequences for the lesser – expendable – character’s actions, this leads to a lack of tension. If main characters have the equivalent of “plot armor” – invulnerability for the sake of progressing the story – we don’t worry about them, leading to the needing other ways to generate conflict. And it does so by having characters constantly clash with one another, but these clashes are in themselves often artificial and without many stakes either.
As the show makes abundantly clear, there are no grey areas in terms of morality, tension or character action. There are good guys and bad guys.
Every disagreement and conflict in the series boils down to one of 2 possibilities: 1) It’s between the good guys (the characters we are rooting for) or the bad guys (the characters who have already been established as terrible); and 2), it’s between the good guys but for reasons that are largely arbitrary (to slow down the plot and pacing, more than a clash of values and ideals).
An example of the former would be when Jonathan gets into a fight with Steve – Nancy’s jockish ex-boyfriend. He’s already been established as a bad guy asshol, so it boils down to a protagonist and antagonist fighting. As they clash, we know neither will walk away having gained or learned anything new, since it’s just one side versus the other.
Perhaps more sheepishly is how this fight in itself becomes another plot device. A mere minute after they fight, the cops arrive, arrest the protagonist, and A) pause the already established plan Jonathan and Nancy had to fight the monster and B) send him to the police station so that two disparate groups of protagonists can encounter one another. The bad guy ran off, and the good guys meet up.
An example of the latter would be when the gang fights among themselves about how they should – for lack of a better way to explain it – advance the plot. They attempt to use some compasses to find the evil lair (again, more literal plot devices) but are foiled when the realize they were simply walking in circles. Different protagonists raise different issues in the moment, and clash over the right course of action and whose to blame. Things escalate, and they split. Yet, we know their fight won’t matter because no real stakes were raised (other than voices) during their fight and we suspect that within an episode they will make up (they do).
The conflicts in this show, then, feels like it’s simply stalling for time, in order to pad out eight episodes of the first season. It’s unfortunately cheap storytelling.
I get that it is supposed to be a throwback to the 80s, along with the character dynamics, but that doesn’t mean we need to relive all the clichés of the period – particularly gender roles.
The main female characters – Winona Ryder’s Joyce, in particular – are presented as irrational, emotional types. While we can feel empathy for her lost son, the show aligns her emotional response with the protective aspect of motherhood, as she feels certain her son isn’t dead and she has to rescue him. Ultimately, her feelings are correct, but it’s made for glaring by the fact that male characters can reach the same conclusion without requiring the use of their emotions.
In essence, in contrast to the female characters (excepting one assassin type), the men are cold and emotionless. Finn and Nancy’s father seems unable to understand his emotionally tense family over dinner. Matthew Modine’s evil scientist is a slate as blank as the colour of his hair. Lonnie, the apparently reckless egomaniacal ex-husband of Joyce, appears as someone always half awake / half asleep, even when fighting with his ex-wife.
Perhaps a small exception are the young men, who haven’t yet learned to reign in their emotions, and David Habour’s Jim Hopper has one emotion – righteous anger – which in itself is a masculine trait (aggression).
Jim also happens to be a walking stereotype in a different way. While his introductory scene was remarkably well done and shot, it still ended up providing us with yet another alcoholic, depressed, divorced, reckless and hypermasculine cop character. In the end, we are given yet another male protagonist who acts both within and above the law when it suits his storyline.
Curiously, Eleven – the telepathic young girl – is different than the other women characters, in that she is the most “masculine” of all the women on the show. Eleven shows little emotional comprehension and acts of her own agency and fighting against the opposing characters using the power of her mind (not emotions). However, to balance this, she is an androgynous character – neutered by her buzzcut. It would seem that a character cannot be both female and in control, without some signifying marker of her femaleness (her hair) removed (and note that characters even wonder if she is in fact a boy at various times, because of her lack of hair).
In general, one could say that all the men (even the younger ones) are essentially brutish, violent characters who solve problems by hitting or smashing things, or raising their voices without emotional connection to the events surrounding them; while the women, are misunderstood, emotional mothers who need to nurture but are constantly being prevented from doing (two mothers with missing or kidnapped children, one with a teenage daughter who refuses to bond with her).
Disclaimer: I’m currently only 7 episodes into the 8 total. So while that might seem a little early to bite the bullet on ranting about this one, I’ll definitely revisit if the conclusion shocks or changes my opinion.