STRANGER THINGS: Turning TV upside down

From the perfectly 80s genre opening title card, through the eerie opening scenes, into that glorious, magnificent, hitting-every-pleasure-center title sequence, STRANGER THINGS started its journey flawlessly, and only got better from there.

ST titles

It was the breakout hit of the summer — the show we never knew we needed, but that we couldn’t get enough of. The showrunners — The Duffer brothers, identical twins — served up a beautiful mix of all the Spielberg movies and all the King novels that we loved from the 80s, along with a massive helping of other 80s movie references, but all done in an aggressively fresh and original way. It tapped those memories of long, hazy summers reading IT and seeing Stand By Me and E.T. And yet it felt so new, so modern, even as it hit those nostalgia buttons, and kept hitting them. Too much was never enough.

What made it perfect?

It all starts with the writing. This was storytelling at its finest. Swift characterization, distinct and authentic dialogue, and the careful unfolding of the mystery. The deeper we got into the story, the more the characters evolved. Over 8 episodes, each titled as a chapter, there were numerous arcs, surprises, reversals, shocks, and SO MANY EMOTIONS.

Without the great writing, we wouldn’t all be obsessed with the show. But without perfect casting, the show would be a shadow of itself. And the casting on this show was some of the best casting we’ve ever seen. The kids — Gaten Matarazzo as fan fave Dustin, Caleb McLaughlin as the conflicted Lucas, Noah Schnapps as the vanishing Will Byers, the epically named Finn Wolfhard as Dungeon Master Mike, and British newcomer Millie Bobby Brown as the mysterious Eleven — all looked like 80s-style Spielberg kids, which was a feat in itself.

ST kids

Even better, they were all fantastic actors who invested their roles with heart, humor and conviction. But it didn’t stop there: David Harbour, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton and Joe Keery all delivered grounding, haunting performances, as did Shannon Purser, brilliant in her first ever role, playing Barb, who ended up being one of the most beloved TV characters of the year. And of course, Winona Ryder and Matthew Modine brought veteran class and skill to their respective roles, Ryder’s highly strung Joyce, and Modine’s cool, sinister Dr. Brenner.

Assembling a legendary cast like that elevated the show to rare heights.

But those performances still need to be part of a bigger picture, a richer tapestry, and the Duffer Brothers more than delivered. They directed seven of the episodes, with exec producer Shawn Levy taking the eighth. This was such a visually rich show, with incredible cinematography from Tim Ives. Whether it was the wood-paneled suburban feel of Hawkins, Indiana, or the futuristic labs, or the horror-spookiness of the Upside Down, each world felt lived-in and authentic.

They played with the iconography of their favorite movies (E.T., Aliens, Stand By Me, Poltergeist, The Thing, and many others), but did it in a naturalistic way. All this, coupled with the hypnotic, immersive, none-more-80s, instantly iconic synth soundtrack from Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein of the band S U R V I V E (and that soundtrack is available in suitably epic form, 75 tracks across 2 albums, utterly essential listening), brought us a mesmerizingly atmospheric world, rich in detail and emotion.

ST soundtrack

It’s no wonder the show took off and generated instant and sustained buzz and excitement. This show is exactly what TV needed. It turned expectations upside down, and showed us a new way forward.

To be fair, it has had some criticisms, mainly for its supposedly negative treatment of women. But such criticism seems to almost willfully ignore the facts.

The show’s most powerful character, in all senses, including agency, was Eleven. No one and nothing on the show had more literal power than her. If it wasn’t for her, the boys, who, let’s face it, are often hapless idiots, would be dead. Also, probably everyone in the town would be dead. As she goes on her own journey, she helps the boys go on theirs. That kiss with Mike wasn’t just for his emotional development — they both needed that moment. Character and story were one in Eleven.

ST 11

The character with the biggest arc, the one who travels the furthest, was also female: Nancy, who, as played to perfection with always believable emotion and heart by Natalia Dyer, journeys from neat-sweater-wearing-girl-next-door-in-an-80s-teen-movie to Sarah Connor in T2 style badass.

ST Nancy

 

The show’s most beloved, legendary character was a woman. Let’s take a moment of silence and pour one out for Barb.

ST barb

Much criticism has been leveled for the fact that she goes out like a punk pretty early on. We should refocus that: she’s brilliantly written, and perfectly played, and that’s why we all so desperately wanted her to be saved. (And btw, she’s not 100%, absolutely, conclusively dead, you guys — sure, things didn’t look good at the end there, but she was just cocooned, and as fans of Newt from Aliens know, being cocooned ain’t necessarily the end)(apparently switching directors is the end, so let’s be grateful the Duffer Brothers are still on board).

The character who first figured that weird shit was going down was a woman — Winona Ryder’s heartbreaking Joyce.

stranger things joyce

It’s Chriiiiiistmaasssssss (that’s one for fans of UK Xmas music)

Of course, did any of the men in her life believe her? They did not. Kind of like how the boys don’t trust Eleven entirely until late in the game. Let’s face it, if the men did believe the women right off the bat, that would actually be less believable that the Upside Down and the monster.

Far from having a “female problem,” as some articles and commenters have suggested, it’s pretty much operating at Jim Cameron levels of female badassery.

It was, basically, a glorious love song to 80s Stevens (and Stephens), but one that couldn’t have been more now in its execution. Netflix sure made us sweat it out, but they finally announced that season 2 will be coming, set one year after the first season. Which means that the masterclass in how to make truly great TV will continue.

Stranger Things 2

We can only hope they call it this

Time to go fireball a demogorgon.

Rating: Five out of five Eggos.

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Terminator Mode

It’s been a Swedish kind of week. I feel like I owe Stieg Larsson.

Here’s how it played out: low key, lots of coffee, read the last few chapters of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, completed the entirety of The Girl Who Played With Fire, started The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets’ Nest, watched the Dragon Tattoo movie on DVD, and saw the Played With Fire movie in a beautiful old-school cinema like the ones I would go to in the summer when I was a teenager, taking a break from the books I was reading to go and sit in the dark and see other worlds (once the strangely loud local ads were finished running).

But… I also found out the wonderful news that I’m getting a story published in the Momaya Annual Review anthology. The story is called Love Like A Shooting Star Across The Dream-Night Of The World. It’s about dreaming of worlds and making them real, searching for truth, giving yourself to your feelings, and never giving up.

In some ways, this is what Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy is about, and this is also a good way to think of the existence of a writer: we’re mystery-solving, obsessive fighters for new worlds. One of the sections of The Girl Who Played With Fire is entitled Terminator Mode; it’s perfect for that point in the story, and it got me thinking.

As writers, we must always be in terminator mode: we must not stop, ever, until we get want we want. Whether this is publication, a TV, film or stage production, or jokes in a routine, we must pursue it relentlessly and unflinchingly. We need to dream it and then make it real. We have to go to the third dream level every day and plant our ideas, achieve Inception. It can be dangerous and exhausting and requires infinite patience, adrenaline and verve. As someone once said, there’s a word that describes writers who never give up: PUBLISHED. You could insert “hired on a TV show” and “got a movie script made” there also. It’s talent plus luck plus persistance. This is the writer’s trinity. Creating and constructing a dream-reality is a painstaking, deliberate and sometimes overwhelming task. These dreams become real with many thousands of accumulating elements. They coalesce in small increments: a story published here, a script reaching the semi-finals of a contest there. (Thanks to sitcom screenwriter and blogger Evan Shaw for the increment idea). These increments are always deeply meaningful, because each one gets us closer to that promised land. There’s another blog to be written about the journey being the destination, but that’s another story: this one’s about that destination, arriving at the citadel of accomplished dreams.

Making It.

And the only way we can do that is to act like Lisbeth Salander and James Cameron’s Terminator. We must always be in terminator mode. We must be relentless until we get there. And even then, because this is what we do, we’ll dream the next reality, and we’ll fight our way towards it.