Sunday, July 17, 2016

Mood Unfolds Into Slushy Substance: Stranger Things Season One Fizzles.

The Good: Mood, Most of the acting, General concept
The Bad: Not exceptional on character development, Plot-centered, Derivative
The Basics: Stranger Things is marginally interesting, but hardly enduring or exceptional television.

In its quest to create cutting-edge television entertainment, Netflix has surged forward with production of a number of projects. In fact, it seems like almost every week now, there is a new Netflix film or television season being released. Only a few days ago, I saw the first preview trailer for the first season of Stranger Things and now that the eight-episode season has premiered, it is hard to watch the season and feel like Netflix is choosing quantity now in the classic argument of quantity versus quality. With vastly more programs than are being produced by HBO, Showtime, or obscure networks like Starz, Netflix makes a conscious business decision each time it produces something new, as opposed to continuing a season of a previously-established work. It was not long into the first season of Stranger Things that I started to feel like Netflix could have better used their resources to continue the story begun in Sense8 Season One (reviewed here!).

Stranger Things might instantly draw comparisons to the film Super 8 (reviewed here!), due to its setting in the early 1980s, its predominantly young cast, and its scientific/supernatural elements, but it owes great homages to The X-Files (reviewed here!) and Fringe (reviewed here!). The Winona Ryder vehicle was created by a team of people who loved The X-Files for its government conspiracy ideas and Fringe for its normalized exploration of an alternate universe. Unfortunately for fans of the works that Stranger Things is derivative of, the first season lacks characters and character dynamics as interesting as Mulder and Scully . . . or the Bishop family. Instead, the science fiction mystery that is pieced together over the course of eight episodes is plot-heavy and mood-intensive in a way that fails to fully invest the viewer. Viewers are likely to stick with the season more to find out what the hell is going on, rather than because they actually care about the characters involved.

Opening in the early 1980s in Hawkins, Indiana, where a Department Of Energy worker meets an untimely, unreported, gruesome death, four middle school boys get together for a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. At the end of it, three of the boys leave the gathering and one of them disappears completely. Joyce Byers wakes up the next morning and cannot find her son, Will and her other son, Jonathan, does not know where he is, either. Joyce contacts Police Chief Jim Hopper, who treats the missing person's case by the numbers. But as Will's friends Mike Wheeler, Dustin and Lucas look for Will on their own, the trio of boys discovers a traumatized girl who is fleeing agents from the government facility in town.

While Mike hides the girl, Eleven, in his basement, Joyce begins to experiences seemingly supernatural visitations in her house. She quickly realizes that the mysterious lights and sounds in her home are Will attempting to contact her and she brings her suspicions to Hopper. Hopper's initial skepticism dissolves, though, when another government agency arrives in Hawkins and claims jurisdiction over what appears to be Will's corpse, which they pull out of the local quarry. When Hopper discovers the corpse is a synthetic, he begins to suspect a larger conspiracy. Eleven, meanwhile, begins to exhibit telekinetic powers and tries to convince the boys that Will is still alive as she is pursued by the government agents. As Joyce tries to communicate with Will, the citizens of Hawkins are hunted by a creature from the place where Will has been taken and Hopper, Joyce, and others in the know have to figure out how to save the town and get Will back!

Stranger Things Season One sets up a number of tropes, scenarios and concepts over the first two episodes, then spends the remaining six episodes tying them together and explaining them. The result is a season that is plot and concept-heavy and while the show generally comes together well, it is executed using characters that are virtually impossible to care about or be invested in. The mystery of Eleven (Elle) is simplistic and the show belabors costumes, props, and dialogue to set it in a very specific time and place as opposed to intimately exploring Joyce's grief and sense of being jerked around by the otherworldly contact from Will. The episodes are fleshed out with subplots of teenage romance and bullying that create a well-rounded setting, but dilute the horror of the otherworldly predator and the effects of the rips in space on the small town.

Despite the rather large cast of characters, Season One of Stranger Things has few characters of real depth and sophistication. The primary characters in the first season are:

Joyce Byers - A distraught mother living paycheck to paycheck when her young son, Will, disappears. After she receives disturbing phone calls which make her believe Will is still alive, she becomes obsessed with finding Will and bringing him back from the horrifying place he has been transported to,

Jim Hopper - The hard-drinking, smoking police Chief in Hawkins, Indiana, he has encountered nothing particularly extraordinary in his tenure as Chief. Years ago, his daughter died and he has not had a particularly stable life since. When Will goes missing, he organizes the town to search for the missing boy, but is quickly clued into a secret conspiracy from the Department Of Energy facility in town when a body appears in a place he already investigated. Hopper starts to put together the pieces of the conspiracy surrounding sudden surprising deaths and disappearances in Hawkins and their relationship to the facility in Hawkins,

Mike Wheeler - A geeky boy who is bullied at the middle school he attends, he is good friends with Will, Dustin and Lucas. When Will disappears and the trio discovers Eleven, he sneaks the girl into the basement of his parent's house. He is protective of Eleven and he soon realizes that her powers were developed with a high psychological price to the girl,

Eleven - A traumatized girl with 011 tattooed on her arm, she sneaks into a diner in Hawkins, before he has to go on the run from the men pursuing her again. Running into the woods near Will's house, she encounters Mike and his friends. She develops a love for Eggo waffles and tries to explain to Mike and his friends where she believes Will is. As the boys hunt for Will, her telekinetic powers begin to develop and she starts to remember the experiments performed on her by Dr. Brenner and how they relate to the town's current problems,

Nancy Wheeler - Mike's older sister, she studies and gets good grades, but is attracted to the high school jock, Steve. She is best friends with Barb and when Steve's parents go out of town, she uses Barb as a chaperone. But, when Barb disappears and Jonathan Byers has some clues into what might have taken her away, she begins to develop a friendship with him. As she searches for her lost friend, she becomes deeply intertwined with Jonathan Byers, his younger brother, and becomes more of badass in the process,

Jonathan Byers - An outsider who works hard and has a passion for photography, he was working the night his brother Will did not return home. He starts hunting for Will and reaches out to his estranged father in the process, but when some of his photos of Nancy and Barb enrage Steve and his friends, he is bullied. But Nancy reaches out to him for help and soon the pair are arming up to find the predator from the place Will has disappeared to,

and Dr. Martin Brenner - A somewhat monolithic adversary, he is part of the military base that is using the Department Of Energy as a cover for his experiments in Hawkins. He essentially raised Eleven as he experimented upon her from the time of her conception. In the process of his experiments, he inadvertently created many of the problems overrunning Hawkins.

While Stranger Things is dominated by a young cast in its first season, the show is almost completely stolen by actor David Harbour. The Newsroom was the work of Harbour's I was most familiar with prior to watching the first season of Stranger Things and as Chief Jim Hopper, he illustrates a far greater range and depth than he did as Elliot Hirsch. Harbour might look at various points in Stranger Things like Michael C. Hall or Jack Nicholas and the big surprise of the season is how he is able to perform on that level. Harbour starts the season playing Hopper as disgruntled and somewhat monolithic, but fleshes him out in almost every scene as a man still coping with his sense of loss. Harbour makes Hopper into someone who is not a simple womanizer and he is able to use his more subtle facial acting to perfectly sell the idea that Hopper is smart enough to observe things like the lack of rain on the government's video footage and question the state of reality in Hawkins. Harbour perfectly dominates every scene he is in.

The rest of Stranger Things is well-portrayed by Winona Ryder (Joyce), Finn Wolfhard (Mike), Natalia Dyer (Nancy), and Charlie Heaton (Jonathan). Matthew Modine is pretty much wasted as Dr. Brenner - the role is monolithic and does not require him to use even a fraction of his established range. Millie Bobby Brown is the breakout performer as Eleven and her emotive, complex performance plays off Modine's simplistic one. As well, Brown manages to cover the generally mediocre portrayals of the other child actors in the ensemble.

Stranger Things utilizes its special effects well in its first season. The show has fun retro-style credits and a soundtrack that clearly places the show in the time period, without ever overwhelming the unfolding mystery.

But, the sense of mood is one of the few superlative elements of the first season of Stranger Things and it is terribly inconsistent. The creepy moments are almost entirely overwhelmed in the early episodes by long stretches of boring teenage melodrama. While there are moments that are evocative of Twin Peaks (reviewed here!), the show lacks the character quirks and overall complexity of its obvious influences. Unlike something like Netflix's Sense8, where viewers had a lot to go back for multiple times and had a lot to anticipate for the second season, Stranger Things is simplistic enough in the first season that attentive viewers will catch - and, sadly, too often predict - everything, making it entertaining for one viewing, but hardly worth coming back for after one is done.

For other Netflix exclusive seasons, please check out my reviews of:
Friends From College - Season 1
Gilmore Girls: A Year In The Life - Season 1
Arrested Development - Season Four
The Clone Wars - Season Six
House Of Cards - Season 4
Jessica Jones - Season 1
Orange Is The New Black - Season 3
Daredevil - Season 1
Grace And Frankie - Season 1
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt - Season 1


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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