By now you’ve almost certainly heard about Netflix’s fantastic new series, Stranger Things, but if you’ve shied away from it up until now, stop what you’re doing and go watch it. Seriously, it’s absolutely wonderful. I know we live in a clickbait hyperbole world where everything has to be either “OMG THE MOST EPIC OF ALL TIME FTW THIS IS LIFE” or “LITERALLY I WANTED TO DIE BECAUSE IT WAS WORSE THAN A VIRAL INFECTION,” but cut through all the Tumblr posts and set aside to time to experience one of the best and most surprising shows on television today.
To my friends who hadn’t seen it and wanted to know what the vibe was (without giving anything away) I described it as if Freaks and Geeks was mashed together with The X-Files. I realize that’s a very unusual combination on paper, but once you see it, you’ll understand exactly what I mean. The best part is that Stranger Things isn’t one of those shows that only horror and sci-fi fans enjoy. I’ve talked to people who have no interest whatsoever in anything scary and absolutely love it. So what is it that makes this show succeed and appealing to such a wide audience?
The answer is something that appears to be so simple, but seems to be incredibly difficult for so many movies and shows to pull off, especially in the sci-fi and horror genre. Simply stated, it’s enjoyable because you like and connect with the characters. Now this isn’t to say that the story, cinematography, and soundtrack isn’t amazing, but there are countless shows that look beautiful, but you can’t connect with it. These characters are written and acted in a way that makes them feel like actual human people we know instead of just flat, generic bodies taking up space on the screen. That’s why I mentioned the Freaks and Geeks vibe, because, while at its core, it’s a sci-fi story, it’s also the story of a group of outsider kids trying to belong. It’s the story of a single mom doing the best she can and putting her own rationality aside to do what she thinks is best for her son. It’s a story about friendship and first loves and understanding and forgiveness. You know it’s a good show when you could take out the overall story arc, but you’d still watch it just to spend time with these characters.
Simply stated, the show is enjoyable because you like and connect with the characters.
Lost was a perfect example of this. Yeah, yeah I know a lot of you didn’t like the ending and just wanted Jack to sit in a chair with Jacob while they listed off answers to every little question in the series, but for me, it was a perfect ending because we got to see the end of the journey for the characters we loved so much. We watched flashbacks that changed our entire perception of the characters. Some we hated, but then we learned where they were coming from and what they’d been through to get to this point, and it changed everything. They felt authentic and they felt real.
That’s the problem with so much horror nowadays. There’s a great idea for a monster and there are plenty of jumps and scares, but we don’t care because there’s no connection to any of the characters. It’s just a bunch of very attractive people covered in Axe Body Spray who high five a lot and have topless sex. But then we’re supposed to care if a knife-wielding psychopath chops their arms off? If I’m honest for a second, I’ve watched way too many recent horror movies where I was cheering for the monster to kill off main characters just so I didn’t have to see or listen to them anymore. And I’m not talking about the bully who you’re supposed to dislike, I mean the main characters who we should be cheering for and have us on the edge of our seats because we want them to get discovered when they’re hiding in the pantry.
I will never know why these younger characters are always written as just absolute garbage people. They’re mean and abusive to those around them, and then the filmmakers expect us to root for them. Stranger Things does an absolutely masterful job of giving us lovable characters that have depth and aren’t just caricatures of what is supposed to be in those positions. “Oh it’s the nerd. He likes science and wears glasses. Here’s the jock. He drinks beer and yells at his girlfriend.” These are the “personalities.” So many movies and shows that have failed where Stranger Things succeeded did so just because they let those actions alone define the character. I don’t care if he drinks beer. I want to know WHY he drinks beer all the time. I want to know if he’s doing it as a defense mechanism or if he’s trying to suppress feelings inside that he doesn’t know how to deal with, so he’s just trying to ignore them.
Stranger Things tells us the “why” without forcing it down our throats in a heavy-handed way. A look or a brief moment of silence in the middle of a conflict tells us so much about a character. You don’t have to have a ghost who shows up to spoon-feed the plot to the audience in case they’re too dumb to understand what’s happening like on Dexter. Dexter would find out the detective that was suspicious of him found one of his murder weapons and his ghost dad would pop up and say, “She found the murder weapon. This is not good for us, Dexter. We need to resolve this situation so she no longer has evidence against you.” Then Dexter’s voiceover would kick in with, “He’s right. If she finds the murder weapon then she will know that I’m a murderer and I will go to jail and it will hurt everyone I love.” YEAH DUDE WE GET IT WE UNDERSTAND ALL OF THIS WITHOUT YOU TELLING US.
Stranger Things respects the audience and doesn’t assume we’re idiots while giving us what we want even when we don’t think it’s what we want. It’s fantastic storytelling and hopefully the beginning of many more fantastic projects from The Duffer Brothers.