And now we come full circle.
As many of you remember, I wrote a pretty abrasive review some weeks ago. It took me forever to watch the rest of Stranger Things, and much of it is probably my fault. I was always busy and was looking for excuses not to have to watch the show and pay close attention. Part of it’s pride, no one wants to admit they’re wrong. The other part was just finding the time to sit down. If I was going to watch it, I didn’t want to be distracted so I could extract the good everyone else saw out of the show.
Thus the question is, now that I’ve seen the whole thing from beginning to end, what does the one guy in the universe who said he hated Stranger Things have to say about it now?
Well If You Ask Me
What I wrote was concerning the first episode and a half and nothing more. To that end, I stand by what I said.
The first two episodes of the show are boring. I have watched them both through more than once, but was bored on the first watch. The show takes at least two episodes to set the world up, and that’s a long time for a show to start getting really good. You wouldn’t watch a movie only for it to get good after almost two hours, that hook has to be in the first few minutes.
“But Greyson,” I hear in my daydream, “that just meant they spent a lot of time building up the world.” Well that’s too much time. It’s the 80’s, Reagan is President, we’re coming to the tail end of the Red Scare, I get the picture. The 80’s already has so much media and shit built around it, movies and TV shows and all these well known references, Stranger Things doesn’t have to work so hard establishing where we are in time. Almost all of us have some kind of memory from the 80’s, either firsthand from living through it or second hand from watching the many MANY iconic movies and TV shows from the time. I know what to expect, get to the friggin point.
“But Greyson,” the projection continues, “you mean to say that a mutant killing people in a small town isn’t a great hook?” Yes, I mean to say that. I’m a douchebag millennial, so video games and technology have desensitized me to most things(apparently). In this case, that’s a little bit true. I don’t consider the first few minutes of some B horror movie on Scifi to have a great hook if they tease the creature. That’s what everyone does. It’s predictable.
And finally, after A LOT of soul searching and internal struggle, I have finally mapped out the language I need to describe what didn’t sit well with me through the first watch. I will grant there are nuances about the characters that I missed the first time through, that’s a fair criticism. And shit, for as much Hell as I give the show for giving too much of a fuck about the setting, they really do make it look and feel like the 80s, they spared no expense there. But the first two episodes are predictable. I knew exactly what each scene would be and what it would contain the moment it started, and that was frustrating. Like I said, I’m a millennial who’s addicted to technology and stimulus (or so the news articles tell me), so I need something to surprise me if I want to be invested. And those first two episodes are straight out of the 80s playbook, verbatim. Each beat was an easy guess: no one believes the mom about her son, cop is has a ton of baggage I need to care about, kids are going to sneak out and get into trouble, every word Steve speaks makes me want to self immolate. Been there, done that, seen it all before. Some people had a huge nostalgia hard-on for it, but I was left flaccid (Great joke 10/10).
One of the predictable aspects that I can’t make up my mind about is the characters themselves. We spend so much time being introduced to them one by one and getting to know them, which may or may not serve the series well later on in the season. But the show isn’t trying to hide how each character is a trope, you can tell exactly who the characters are just by looking at them (which might be a testament to their design and acting, or it could be laziness, take your pick). That’s the Good Girl, Lazy Cop, Frazzled Mom, Loner Student, Bully, Group of Nerds, Evil Scientist. The character design does a lot of heavy lifting, yet Stranger Things insists on making for damn sure that we know that each character IS in fact that trope, before turning them around and expanding later on. TLDR, it felt like the show stretched the introductions and beginning scenes when I had a pretty good idea of who everyone was right off the bat.
That being said, if you can get through the first two hours of the show (which is not easy), the show stops being so predictable and finally starts being clever. Reincorporation gets utilized in ways that I didn’t foresee until just before it was used, which to me counts as a surprise if I don’t see it coming until 5 seconds before it happens. Emotional payoff.
Each character has something resembling an arc, even if it’s kind of small, and though I didn’t think it would be possible, they started to grow on me which we got all of the pleasantries out of the way. Characters start as tropes and predictable, but as soon as they begin to defy appearances, all the sudden I’m leaning forward in my seat rooting for people. Sam said one of the main themes of the show is appearances can be deceiving, which was a much more concise and intelligent way to put that point (and I cannot take credit for thinking of that). From the Upside Down all the way down to Steve at the bottom of the barrel, people defy what we think about them and reveal something deeply personal sometime throughout the show.
A quick aside concerning Steve, I understand that he has something resembling a redemption arc throughout the show, but I am glad that Jonathan beats the shit out of him. I think the show wanted me to like Steve, but I refuse to allow him into the warm places in my heart the DnD kids inhabit. His behavior has no excuse, and though he apologizes for it, that doesn’t make it okay. At the end of the show, we end up neutral. He’s made an effort to clean up his mess, once before making it worse, and then again by physically cleaning up a mess (if I don’t notice that symbolism, my high school English teacher would appear like the creature from another dimension and slap me). He tried, he deserved to get his ass kicked, and we break even on his character by the end of the series.
Now that I’ve excised that demon, I can say that in the end, the show did impress. Once you wade through the first two episodes and pull your head above the boredom, the view is pretty good. Characters get more and more likable, which is not something most shows can pull off. The production was always great, even from the beginning, and the show has a unique and engaging perspective in how it’s shot. Sound design is awesome, the use of visual and audio motifs makes for great atmosphere when things get real. I am willing to look passed the lack of diversity, the characters are still pretty great (there are only two POCs in the entire town? I really don’t buy it, you can’t get away with this shit anymore. Get with it).
Dr. Brenner is a piece that doesn’t quite fit. When every other character gets back story and purpose, he’s just “the mad scientist”. That’s fair to have antagonists other than the creature, but I was waiting the whole show to find out what the fuck his deal was. But that’s never explained, he’s just an asshole that steals children when he can to turn them into weapons against the Soviets? Never explained. I was rooting for him to die in the end, and so far as I know he’s dead, but it could have had more weight to it like the rest of the show if there was some understanding of what all of this shit was for. Not just “psychics are neat”, it takes someone pretty damaged to make all of this infrastructure and do the things he did to people, especially children (seriously, what the fuck is wrong with you, mate?). I wanted to hear that story, not because I wanted to sympathize, but because I thought it was owed to the audience, and for all of the flashbacks, I never got the payoff of having one with him before all of his evil genius shit. Another small demerit.
But the best character, hands down, one that never failed me in anyway throughout the series, was Dustin. Gaten Matarazzo is a gift and should be protected. His character is lovable, reasonable, and fun to watch. He’s got the best lines and is just adorable. A+ and a gold star, kid, you nailed that role in every way.
That’s it, I’m done. I’ve talked about this series to death, from hating it to actually really enjoying it. That’s right, I said it. Stranger Things was an excellent show and I was wrong. By the end, I was actually almost okay with Steve and all of the characters had become deep and likable. The story, although not entirely original, did manage to surprise me (eventually). The pay off is great, the teaser at the end of the season is a great lead in to the next season, and I can’t wait for next year so we can get our little Yoda back. I turned my opinion Upside Down, I give it 4 alternate dimensions out of 5.