By Loryn Stone
Stranger Things: The first Netflix Original Series to make us forget that Game of Thrones wasn’t on the air. I was hopeful that title would go to Fuller House, but after watching thirteen episodes of that drivel (leave me alone), it was clear to see that we needed something else to fill the murderous incest void. And got it, we did! All of us watched Strangers Things. All of us enjoyed it. Then, we waited so very patiently for Season Two. And we watched that, too! It was great, right!?
And the truth was…it was…okay.
No, it wasn’t perfect; few things are. But it was very entertaining television for various reasons that I’ll hit on here today. There were however, some fundamental issues with both seasons. I’m going to focus on Season Two primarily, but I’ll be going back to Season One to use as reference.
Just remember: when you enjoy the media you consume, it’s important to know how to turn the critical eye on and off. Especially, if you’re a writer. Part of the game is shutting your brain off and letting yourself have fun at the party, forgetting that the dynamic rules of plot and structure are ingrained in your fucking head, making you eat, sleep, and breathe writing. Don’t ruin the fun all the time, damn it. But when you can’t turn that voice off and you want to watch shows as a writer, part of the game is appreciating what’s done well, learning from what is not, and re-writing the bland parts to make them sexy. (Everyone does that, right?)
We Need to STOP calling Stranger Things “A Nice Little Surprise”
I am not even kidding here. If I hear Stranger Things described as “the nice little surprise Netflix dropped in our laps” one more time, I’m going to be sick. People keep saying it/writing in in reviews and just the words rolling around in my mouth are worse than a toothpaste sandwich. I’ve heard/read that phrase so many times now to describe the show, and not only is it, simply put, embarrassing, but it’s toxic. Here’s why, and we’re going to look at that phrase from a business standpoint.
Television is expensive. TV production is expensive. And no production company goes out of their way to make a bad show. Networks and studios only want to make shows that will make them…wait for it…money! Because making TV shows costs money, fuck loads of it! And unless people give a shit about the show you’ve made, you’re not going to get your money back!
Second, it’s taking credit away from Netflix, suggesting that they don’t have the capacity or the right to bring quality TV shows onto the air. Because really, at this point…well…their Originals catalogue is a little…specific. But that’s why Stranger Things is so delightfully Netflix appropriate. It’s not a surprise that it’s there- it makes perfect sense!
By calling the show “a nice little surprise that Netflix dropped into our laps”, we’re collectively admitting that we consider them a shit bin. That we’d written off Netflix as the graveyard of trash heap sequels and 1-star horror flicks. Anecdotally, I know people just love talking about how the show was rejected by what, nine studios, before it found a home on Netflix? There’s probably some romanticized idea of “Stranger Things almost never was!” or even “Ha, those executives at the rival studios sure missed out on striking gold!” Both of which are fine, but I think what people fail to realize it that’s exactly what happens when you’re a content creator! You hear no far more than you hear yes. That’s part of the tradeoff!
Fuck Will, He Sucks.
What’s so funny about the anecdote about the show getting rejected by so many studios, is you’d think it would give them time to step back and see what it is about their story, show, or arc that isn’t working correctly. For example, part of what made Will such a strong character in Season One is that he wasn’t there. He literally wasn’t present for most of it, he was an idea, a notion propelling the plot for other characters on their journeys. Will’s absence made the audience get to know Joyce, Jonathan, and Hopper. It made the entire plot with Mike, Lucas, and Dustin materialize into its own thing, which was great.
The problem with Stranger Things 2 is it showed clear indications that the writers were disconnected from their audience. I’ll speak for myself and some of the friends I yelled about the show with over beers, but we all agreed that no one gave any fucks about Will. None, zero, any, don’t care. If he had gone full dark-side and became a soldier for The Upside-Down shadow monster, that would have been fine with me. If Will died in Season Two, that would have been fine with me too.
I don’t know if this is their Standards and Practice division, someone is telling them not to take it to a crazy place, or if they consider it a kid’s show or something, but there are some real problems with the way they show/don’t show the action.
And if conspiracy theory vodka-dude could tell me more about why people aren’t dying and less about him trying to push Jonathan and Nancy into doing the shmegma-shmear, that’d be awesome, thanks. (No, but really, they’ve been driving around on their proverbial meth bender for like, three days. Serious crust-yuck happening in the…situation. ::points down to nethers::)
One thing about the show that drives me crazy is how entirely safe it plays it. And when they don’t, it almost makes no sense, because their safety has very little balance. For example, the whole town was losing its mind looking for Will in Season One, but when Barb died, no one gave any fucks. Like, absolutely none. My guess of what happened here is the writers didn’t understand the impact of Barb’s character and thought she was more disposable than she was. But she was really rather fleshed out, which is more than we can say for other characters in the show, either season.
Now, if other people were dying all willy-nilly, no one would be whining about Barb. But that’s not what happened, unless you count some faceless soldiers or government dudes in suits dying. But they, again, were under developed and faceless. They were disposable. It’s clear the writers had some flavor of buyer’s remorse, because a good portion of Season Two went to the Barb’s Death B-Plot that, if you ask me, sort of fell flat on its face.
Understanding the Narrative Arc and Moving Parts
One thing to make note of with Stranger Things 2 was the choices they made with the way they (seemingly attempted) to set up these secondary narrative arcs and moving parts. My awesome cool buddies over at Cracked published this hilarious article containing questions the show needs to answer for Season Three. And while I don’t personally question most of the questions, one of them did stand out to me, which was “Why Did We Think Bob Was Evil?” And I can answer that question for you guys.
Because that’s the way trope narratives work. Also, since Stranger Things is the love child of all things 80s and predictable, Bob being evil made perfect sense. And if 80s movies have taught us anything over the years, it’s that kindness comes with a price tag.
I’m not saying Bob had to be evil. I’m saying that Bob needed to be…well…anything. I mean, it’s cute, he’s Sean Astin, Mikey from the Goonies. The 80s are coming full circle. It’s sweet. And I’m glad he was a nice boyfriend for Joyce, who had just been through the ringer in Season One, but other than that, the character was disjointed and out of place. But the writers knew we were going to think Bob was evil, and that’s where they could have played with us more. But they didn’t. They set Bob up to be this moving part, a potential obstacle…and he just wasn’t.
The exact same issue is present when “Mad Max” and “Mullet Wig Billy” are thrown into the show for no reason. Their backstory was kept vague and discreet for a very good portion of the season. Billy made it very clear to us, the viewer at home, that he and Max were not brother and sister. And with the whole secondary theme of Season One about kids (like Eleven) getting kidnapped and getting experimented on, it wouldn’t have been a stretch to think that Billy and Max had some sordid past. Especially because they kept not telling us what their deal was…that sort of secrecy is on purpose.
And when we finally learned their backstory…they were stepsiblings. Who didn’t get along. And Billy’s dad was a dick to him. Great. Man, they were supposed to be robots! I wanted some insane, off the wall backstory for them how they were soldiers in the upside down, held captive by some agency down there or something, and now they are spies placed into a mundane high school setting. This entire show is an urban fantasy. Start getting crazy, guys!
What I’m trying to say is this: Stranger Things 2 has a completely linear plotline and it suffers from it. It moves like a laundry list, from the first point to the last without budging to nurture the storylines it IT ITSELF is clearly trying to set up. Truthfully, that sums up my watching experience with it in a nutshell: I enjoyed it while watching it for its gripping storyline. I loved the tension, and the suspense was exciting. But when it ended abruptly and everything tied up so neatly, I realized that nothing I thought the writers were setting up to happen actually happened.
But It’s About the Characters!
I’m going to say front and center, the only character that matters to me in Stranger Things 2 is Lucas’ little sister Erica because she’s the best thing to happen to television. Seriously, I’m ready for her spin-off where she makes a robot friend and yells at it because it’s a dork. Second goes to Mick, the driver from Kali’s rough and tumble gang because she was super cool, she glared, and her natural hair made me swoon, but that’s a tale for another fan-fiction, er, time.
There was also something I liked about Jonathan getting his parts touched, but he looks so much like Richard Ramirez meets one of the heroin addict teens bumming smokes outside the Starbucks that I can’t even celebrate correctly. At least Steve and his death-bat weren’t too sad about it. I mean, they were bullshit anyway, right?
There was an argument presented to me that respectfully disagreed with some of the points I made about Stranger Things 2’s weak points. That argument was that the show is all about the characters. So, as far as I understood the point my friend was making, it was that what happens on the show doesn’t matter quite so much because it’s the characters we’re following, along with their journey and growth. But to me that’s just forgiving bad storytelling. It’s saying that it’s okay that Mike sucks now. Remember, in Season One, the only thing that made Mike interesting is him hiding Eleven and their sudden bond. But when they pulled Eleven out of the mix for her hiding/journey, Mike fell flat. Eleven, from the start, was one of the few things that made Mike matter.
I’m asking sincerely, do you care about Mike as much in Season Two? It comes across to me that he gets unwarranted attention and some crowned role as the leader in the group without having to accomplish much. In fact, between his yelling at Max that she couldn’t be in their crew and standing around Will’s hospital bed like he’s some sort of chosen-one, I almost couldn’t quite find where Mike fit into the narrative. Except for when Eleven was trying to tune into him. That’s when he mattered again. Or when she found Mike in the gym with Max, got mad because vagina near her man, and ran away for no reason that made sense other than to tease the viewer. But remember, set up, gags, and incomplete scenes does not equal good writing. You need follow through. It’s vital.
Time to crown the king of “That Character Made No Sense”, and that award goes to Billy. I’m not even kidding, that character could have been edited out of every scene he was in and the story would have changed zero percent. A point that was brought up to me by a friend was that Billy was important to Lucas’ narrative as a sort of authority figure. I didn’t catch that at all. I saw a bully who was one N-word away from making me turn off my TV. It was weak and forced. Let’s switch focus, then. Billy, the oldest looking high schooler, was important to Steve’s narrative, right? A wink and a nod to the homoerotic decorum present in A Nightmare on Elm Street 2, where everything was just gay and thrusting and awesome. Billy and Steve would realize their lust, start making out in the shower, and then we could celebrate our newest gay ship, right? Oh…but nope…Billy’s character didn’t go there.
I know, how about he’s abusive to Max in some capacity? Nope, didn’t go there either. He’s just kind of a jerk, but he listens to his dad and stepmom when they tell him to go out and look for her. Oh! I know! He’s totally gonna pork Mike’s mom when she’s giving him fuck-eyes, right!?!?! Nope…that didn’t happen either. Can he at least send Steve to the hospital or teetering between life and death after their fight so we can have some sort of semblance of “oh fuck, this is getting so real, this character is insane!” Uh huh…no? That’s not going to work out for us either. Awesome…
And briefly touching on Eleven and her plotline: the “zero-tension fan-fic journey” episode didn’t bother me quite as much as it did other people (though it was goofy as all fuck), but on the real…Eleven made a van fly over her and Mike’s head in Season One and spontaneously crushed some dude’s heads if I’m remembering correctly, but moving a parked train was an especially difficult challenge?
In an Upside-Down Nutshell
So, these were my thoughts and opinions on Stranger Things 2, and all of the weakness were in the writing. The writers thinking that they were smarter than the viewer. The writers not realizing what mattered to the viewer, disposing of what they deemed disposable, and then having buyer’s remorse and taking it back in Season Two. The writer’s thinking Will needed to stay innocent, instead of letting him go full dark-side, or letting him be a red herring, a willing participant in his own ‘captured by the upside down’ story. Choosing to have a linear narrative instead of a complex and layered one, where multiple storylines exist simultaneously. The forced characters that didn’t mean anything. And the strange episode seven which doesn’t fit in, unless it’s possibly fodder for future spin offs and seasons. That’s the most authentic way to do an 80s show, you know: just pile on a failed spin-off.
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