I like Stranger Things, and I’d hazard a guess that if you’re one of the select few that waste your time reading this blog, you probably love it. It’s a good show, a fun show, and I want to say that upfront because I’m about to discuss its flaws at length. You see, during my viewing of the second season, I was struck by something: The writing on this show is not that good.
It’s not horrible by any stretch, but this presents Schwartzblog with a conundrum, as it basically exists to pick apart writing, and make bad jokes. Prior to watching Stranger Things 2, I would have said that good writing was a basic, immutable requirement for creating a good show. That it was possible to take something that was good on paper and bungle it in execution, but there was essentially no way to do the opposite. Stranger Things’ plotting, concepts, and dialogue are serviceable enough but certainly nothing special, at least on paper. The set-ups are clunky. It uses nostalgia as a crutch (if a mostly charming one), and while it has a general affability for vintage geek culture, it doesn’t demonstrate much actual knowledge or interest of anything past the most basic touchstones of that culture. It’s lead romantic characters tend to be less interesting and likable than the supporting players around them. Its sci-fi/fantasy plots are a patchwork of conceits and scenes lifted directly from earlier works, and not even obscure ones, such that it is only a technically original story in that the Duffers are the first fanboys to be given this much money to ask “what if the Goonies were in ET? What if they were in Firestarter? Okay, how about Jurassic Park?”
|"Your motivation is to be as Paul Reiser as possible. Action!"|
There is nothing wrong with using familiar, even archetypical, characters or plotlines. But with such whole cloth appropriation going on, they don’t even find much in the way of original motions to put these familiar pieces through. El’s mysterious backstory is exactly what I assumed in her first scene and very little more, and in two seasons the only really effective plot twist* I can think of is Will’s attempt at standing up to the smoke monster failing so utterly. The emotional payoffs are similarly telegraphed, and frequently verge on the cloying. The finale’s closing sequence at the dance, for instance, is completely overwrought, especially on the page. All four of the nerds get to dance with pretty girls, and two of them cap off their romantic subplots with sweet, awkward kisses during the same song. Neither of those moments is wrong for the characters, but just for variety’s sake they should have found a different button for one of them. It’s exactly the sort of indulgence that I took Sense8 to task for in the post immediately preceding this one**. And it should be especially galling in this context, because Stranger Things styles itself as a horror story, but it can’t even pretend to have the nerve to actually kill off any regular characters.
But none of this has stopped the show from becoming a phenomenon, or me from enjoying it. I do not think the Duffers are great creative visionaries, or really more than able journeymen as it comes to plot and dialogue, but despite that I think they are great showrunners. Because they have an even rarer talent, and one that may ultimately be more important than an innate genius in the craft or flair for narrative invention: they are excellent at getting out of their own way. I would not rate Stranger Things as truly exceptional in any particular area, but it manages to be better than the sum of its parts by its knack for tacking toward what is working for it, even if it is not what was originally planned.
And maybe I should backtrack on that last slight, because the show is remarkable when it comes to the casting department. The kids are remarkable finds across the board. Millie Bobbie Brown in particular. Winona Ryder was obviously a big get. It can’t be overstated how vital the grounding and soul David Harbour provides is to keeping the show from jumping the tracks. And Joe Keery is fantastic as Steve, exemplifying exactly how good the show is at embracing the unexpected bonuses it stumbles across along the way. The Duffers have been very forthright that Steve was conceived to be a stock asshole jock, but Keery’s innate likability spun his storyline in a very different direction, such that in the second season he has become my and others’ favorite character, and perhaps the most heroic of them all.
|I seriously can't believe this is my favorite character in anything.|
The love triangle between Steve, Nancy and Jonathan is the ultimate example of the show mishandling what it set out to do, but embracing an accident that works out better. Steve was, by admission, written as a simplistic romantic obstacle in season one, but expanded into something more on the strength of the performance. It’s become clear that when Nancy stayed with him at the end of the year, the show thought it was just delaying gratification until she got with Jonathan, the sensitive loner the audience was supposed to prefer over the dumb pretty boy. Even in the second season, it was clear that they hadn’t fully grokked how imbalanced the triangle had become, as they quickly dispatched with Steve and Nancy’s relationship so she could cavort with Jonathan as they sought #justice4barb.
That particular storyline shows the downside of being willing to embrace surprise positive reactions, as Barb was another case where the brothers admit to not thinking much of the character until the internet freaked out. As the creatives, they probably should have recognized that Barb still didn’t warrant this much follow up, but hey, it’s not like it was just them that bought the hype. The Emmys had already endorsed the meme with a patently ludicrous nomination, and it’s not like the internet itself is that good at knowing whether or not it is joking about any given thing. The storyline itself has some fine conspiracy shenanigans to start, but its resolution comes a bit easy and early, and is ultimately kind of irrelevant (the closing of the lab seems more motivated by the portal to hell than the story about chemical spills). But the show seems to find this a worthy detour primarily for paying off the will-they-won’t-they tension between Nancy and Jonathan. And that stuff is just a total snooze, redeemed only slightly by another brilliant stroke of casting, with Brett Gelman cast exquisitely to type as the guy that is way too invested in having some teenagers bang on his couch.
Meanwhile, Steve’s surprise pairing with Dustin is the highlight of the entire season. Dustin is another character that was clearly conceived of as one thing and then reworked to suit Gaten Matarazzo’s specific talents, and the two have a fun, funny chemistry. Steve as a big brother figure only makes him more likable, even before he goes full action hero. The love triangle stuff is present throughout the season, but buried by the plot, informing the characters’ emotional states but not culminating in any dramatic confrontations. Steve is just too good a dude for any of that that. He’s not interested in punishing Nancy for breaking his heart, or pummeling Jonathan for catching her on the rebound. He’s not even stingy with his hair care regimen.
As such, the love triangle pretty much completely misfires as an actual love triangle, but in doing so creates something more interesting. In a show otherwise comprised entirely of bits and pieces lifted from prior iconic works, this stands out as the one original spin on the familiar tropes. On one level, it plays out exactly as we would expect from an 80s teen romance – the smart girl dumps the dumb jock for the sensitive, artistic loner that has pined for her from afar. But because they were so open to steering Steve’s characterization in new directions (and because, let’s be honest, Jonathan never became anything as a character), they accidentally turned the jock into the courageous, unappreciated hero and the sensitive boy next door into the boring, milquetoast option. And then our “hero” doesn’t get the girl, but no one makes that big a thing about it. It’s pretty great, in large part because it is the most unexpected part of a show that mostly trades on familiarity and nostalgia.
|Pictured: a bold new vision, as long as you have never seen things before|
I may be selling the Duffers short here. I am reading a fair bit into what was intended and what was accidental, and there is an extent to which it is self-evident that since they wrote something so many people (including me!) enjoyed, they are good writers. And as backhanded as it sounds, I do mean it as a compliment when I say that Stranger Things works in spite of its lack of originality or inspiration and because of its happy accidents. I think this speaks to our collective conception of genius as this wild, unpredictable thing more than anything else. When you get down to it, this kind of truly genius inspiration is exceedingly rare, and also kinda exceedingly out of anyone’s hands. There’s a reason inspiration is commonly described via the imagery of lightning bolts; it come when it will, with little regard to our mortal whims. Stranger Things doesn’t have a truly inspired bone in its body, but it has things that are probably responsible for more brilliant television moments than any genuine bolt-from-the-blue strokes of wild invention: good work habits, a keen eye for talent, enthusiasm and a level, ego-less head when a detour presents itself that looks more interesting than the original roadmap.
That last bit especially is so important in television, which is more of a going concern compared to more contained media like films/novels/plays, which function more as a one-off encapsulation of a single idea. And it is especially rare to see when a creator finds huge success right off the bat. One need look no further than True Detective’s sophomore effort to see how the breakout first season could have convinced the brothers they were incapable of having bad ideas or needing outside input. Instead, they brought on more outside writing help, and allowed those newcomers to keep chasing the odder but more interesting angles the show produced, to great (Hopper as a single dad for El, Dustin and Steve becoming bros) and not so great (everything with El’s “sister” and her gang of Bebops and Rocks-Steady) results.
|"Can you help us? We were trying to find Short Circuit 2, |
but I think we got a little turned around..."
So maybe the Duffers aren’t geniuses in the trailblazing sense in which we commonly conceive of that term. But maybe in the final tally that sort of wild virtuosity isn’t worth as much as the simple ability to appreciate what is in front of you and embrace the unexpected, the st-….uh, let’s say the more unusual things that crop up with enthusiasm. And for a show whose ingredients consist entirely of the leftovers of Thanksgiving dinners past, that improvisational enthusiasm goes a long way to keeping things feeling fresh.
|Rated 104% Fresh|
*A plot twist is not to be confused with an M. Night Shyamalan/Twilight Zone style Big Twist. A Big Twist is of the “X was actually Y all along” variety, and tells you that you were watching something different than you thought all along. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it only fits a certain type of story. Plot twists come earlier in a narrative and don’t attempt to pull the entire rug out from under it, just to zig where you expected a zag. Most types of drama need to deploy them with some regularity to keep things fresh and engaging.
**Though to be fair, Stranger Things at least has the modicum of restraint to wait until the closing sequence to indulge itself fully. Sense8 would have scattered another 9 dances throughout the season, and Dustin would have won all the girls over with his bitchin’ guitar solos at the first of them.