Stranger Things Season 1 (A Review)

TV shows and Movies no longer manage to provoke the levels of anticipation they once did, and its unlikely they ever will as the internet has created such an on-demand approach to entertainment. It leaves me to believe that the speed of modern living leaves little opportunity to create the slow burn necessary for the hysteria that the release of films once did.

Occasionally though a TV show or movie manages to challenge this assumption a little.

Stranger Things is a Netflix show that that hasn’t exactly caused the storm that shows once did, unless it was a storm in a teacup, but in fairness this is probably the best modern entertainment can muster in a world running at such a speed.

I suppose I have to start by saying that I wanted to like this show a great deal more than I actually did and even though there’s much in the eight episodes that make up the first season of Stranger Things that struck me as good, even excellent, the overall experience left me with more than a little to be desired.

Lets start with some good and see where it takes us.

The music is some of the best compositions I’ve heard for a TV series ever, the synthesized score not only captures the time in which the show is set but it also perfectly amalgamates with the 80’s music so well that sometimes its hard to know where one ends and the other begins. I don’t often buy soundtracks or scores anymore, I own plenty, but most come from a time when scores were more than just incidental music that sounds more like stock filler than bespoke music.

The soundtrack to Stranger Things is anything but and in all honesty it could be one of the best scores ever produced for a TV show and one of the few I could listen to purely on its own merit regardless of the show it was connected with.

I also think that the shows visual design is up there with some of the best I have seen, it not only manages to portray the early 80’s in a simultaneous combination of slightly larger than life and slightly embarrassing (for those of us who saw ourselves in the characters at times); but it also allows these elements to slip into the background and not undermine its moments of suspense.

This isn’t to say that the design is actually all that accurate in realistic terms, its actually a slight exaggeration of the times a kind of good natured parody of a decade remembered probably more fondly that it really deserves.

There’s an element of ret-conning going on in Stranger Things where some of the casual speech that would now be considered homophobic or racist have been excised and the political and social pressures of the times have been eliminated.

Stranger Things doesn’t really present an accurate picture of the decade and outside of the obvious attempts to replicate the feel of films of the time by (lets be honest) far greater film makers I struggle to understand why such effort was taken to place the show in that time.

Essentially its not necessary to tell the story in the 1980’s as no part of what’s happening seems tied to that decade in any way.

Not that it has to be of course, and there’s nothing saying that it had to be.

However this does lead me to my main problems concerning the show.

Firstly there’s a awful lot of dead-air in it.

Strange Things is eight 45 minute episodes so it weighs in at 360 minutes but if unnecessary characters and elements were removed I think it’d be likely we could eliminate four episode of running time and I’d be tempted to ask someone who hasn’t seen the show to start watching it at episode five and see how much they understand of it plot as much of its dead air is in the first half of the show.

We also have characters who seem to perform almost no function in the show, or at best preform a function better performed by another character. The Police Chief is a good example of this, nothing he does could not have been better performed by Joyce Byers (played by Winona Ryder) and he adds little to the show as a result.

He is also a pretty unlikable character, who at one point unnecessarily beats a man for information and at another sells another character’s location to the shows villains in order to secure his own safety.

I think its safe to say I didn’t like him very much, so I guess I’m not exactly open to the nuances concerning these incidents.

To make a slightly more objective point. I think it would have served the shows interests to have Joyce Byers pursue her son alone, with just the aide of her eldest son and the children she befriends. The addition of the Police Chief unnecessarily undermines her character and this both muddies the waters of the show as well as pulls away from the influences on which it is based.

The movies and stories on which the show was influenced are not known for their acceptance of authority figures and a common theme in movies of the time is a rejection of authority and an emphasis personal endeavor.

Why Joyce needs the Chiefs help is a little beyond me and I’d have found her dangerous journey far more compelling if the shows creators didn’t need to back her up with such a character.

There are a few other characters in the show who are similar, Lucas (one of Will’s group of friends), Steve (Will’s sisters boyfriend)  and both of Steve’s friends all serve little to no purpose in the story and aren’t particularly interesting characters to boot.

But we do have a few standout characters who ARE worth persevering with.

Most notably for me was Will’s other friend Dustin; a slightly overweight lad with a speech impediment who shows oodles of character. He routinely outshines those around him and is a peculiar combination of attributes, he’s geeky and goofy in equal measure but he’s also gutsy and probably the single smartest character in the show.

And this brings me full circle to my issue with the first season of Stranger Things.

The whole thing could have been told better with less of everything.

Less running time and less characters, less digital effects and less locations; and if the film makers had truly understood why some of its influences worked so well I think I know exactly what they’d have done with the second draft of each script for the show.

They’d have cut a whole bunch of unnecessary stuff out and left us with a show that was much leaner and meaner in the process.

E.T. The Extra Terrestrial was less that two hours in length, as was Poltergeist, even Stephen King’s IT was only three.; and none had the superfluous characters that Stranger Things had collected.

Ultimately I have to say that for all my complaints I did watch Strange Things to the end and I couldn’t say that I disliked the show, there was enough there to keep me interested and there was enough to make me at least take a cursory glance at season two when it comes out.

But it was not the show it could have been, it wasn’t even the show it should have been with the obvious talent on hand.

Once again I find a modern piece of entertainment where all the faults lead squarely back to a script that needed closer scrutiny.

The 80’s was an interesting time, with many social forces pulling its youth back and forth and Stranger Things would be a better show for being aware of this.

Season two of the show now has a trailer online and a quick search shows that most of its characters have returned, including one or two which should be a surprise. Now the experimental first season is over the promised second season a far more enticing prospect; as even though I saw a great many failings in the first season I liked the idea of it and I can see it having a great deal of potential if they embrace the setting of the show more securely.

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