During Labor Day weekend, I caved, turned on Netflix, and watched it. You know very well what ‘it’ I am referring to- I know you do. Unless you live in a cave (or were out of the states during its release, like me), you saw the ripples of Stranger Things across the Internet over the summer. The title-card-turned-meme, the fanart, and the endless stream of season 2 theories. I sat down knowing next to nothing about the series; I finished it in two sittings, all teary-eyed and breathless by the last episode. I had laughed, cried, and left a little skittish to enter dark rooms.
The latest in the lineup of original Netflix programming, Stranger Things takes the viewer down the rabbit hole and back to 1983, where paranormal horrors are unleashed on the small town of Hawkins, whisking away a young Will Byers in the process. We follow several characters in the aftermath: the intrepid, geeky trio of Will's friends. his despairing family, the gruff town sheriff.a starry-eyed teenager, and a mysterious girl with a shaved head and love of Eggos. It’s beyond a decent description though. It is a love letter to Poltergeist, E.T., The Goonies, and the original Star Wars trilogy, but as universal a story as any those films put together.
And Stranger Things is a, well, strange entry to the ranks of American television. Rounding off at just eight episodes for its first season, it’s quite short, especially when compared to its genre counterparts like Supernatural or The X-Files. But it works, and works where many, many paranormal series have failed in the past: it tries and succeeds in telling a story.
Not to say other series don’t have merits- they do. But in an effort to keep people hooked a little longer, many series lose their heart along the way. Recent trends find TV shows, and movies, and even books hyper-extended with convoluted plot-lines, unresolved character arcs, and cliffhanger finales thinly veiled as sales bills for the next season/film/novel. We are knee-deep in a media that relies very heavily on the sequel, second season, and whatever viewership can be garnered from a returning audience. The resulting content can be… lackluster, at best. The aforementioned Supernatural is often found guilty of stretching its story and characters to the point that Sam and Dean’s adventures mean very little after a few seasons. In the popular Once Upon a Time, its witty fairytale-based plot and sometimes dynamic characters became buried by cameos and romance plots. Game of Thrones veered off of Martin’s plot recently to keep the series going, and is fairly critiqued for overusing sex and violence to sell itself (this is also fair game for shows like Outlander, Penny Dreadful, and many of their MA-kin).
Stranger Things challenges this trend with bold, broad strokes, opening in cinematic fashion and capturing your attention for the next eight episodes. Finishing its story during that time, which surprised me. From all the anguished comments online about the ending, I expected a cruel and unusual cliffhanger. The ending is though, without spoilers, a tidy and complete thing. A few bread crumbs are left to keep the series open, but the majority of Stranger Things season 1 is wrapped up by the final episode. It occurred to me right then the Stranger Things doesn’t really leave you waiting; it leaves you wanting. You experience the show. You become enveloped in all its rich 80’s culture, music and pop culture throwbacks alike. Your heart wrenches for every character in some way, and you’ve picked a few favorites by the end (Joyce Byers and Mike are mine- and hey! Who doesn’t love Eleven?). You care deeply and wonderfully about what happens to these fictional people, and within a very short amount of time. I'm inclined to compare it, in more modern terms, to films like Guardians of The Galaxy. The Marvel-verse is often more about interconnected movies, and very few of its films stand alone. This is why I love Guardians above all of the the other Marvel films, because it maintains a simple story and uses strong, lovable characters to keep us entertained, rather than becoming tangled in an extended narrative.
Masterful solo storytelling is its own art form, and there is a lot to be gleaned from series like Stranger Things and its bravery. We are not staying for an over-teased romance arc or a long shot of the lead actress in a sheerer-than-needed dress. Something else draws us in. As a writer, you cannot help but notice that the series’ plot is simple, but deep. I think of plots a little like plots of earth, flat at a glance, but deeper and richer when we dig. Each character Stranger Things is a person with their own motive, each sweep of the plot is surprising and evocative. By allowing the story and characters to carry over to the audience, the series becomes more complex and enriching without extending beyond its means. We stay for three boys’ journey to find their friend, and we are rewarded for it.
With an expanding fanbase and the recently announced 2nd season, you cannot help but admire the little series for winning people over simply by telling a good story. It does my heart good as a storyteller, because it reminds us of something important in good writing. Maybe this show will do more than remind you that “Africa” by Toto is pretty awesome, or create a resurgence in D&Dcampaigns (c’mon, you know it’s about to happen). Maybe Stranger Things will set a new stage for entertainment, promising quality in the face of quantity. Because depth and heart are all you really need to draw the viewers in, and make stories truly memorable.
Caitlin Jones is an author, film editor, and lover of all things Victorian and fantastic. Please check in for information on her upcoming series.