Writing Strangely Familiar Things

Spoilers for Stranger Things (television series) seasons 1 – 2.

On 15th July 2016, Netflix released the Duffer Brothers’ Stranger Things (ST), a nostalgic love-letter to the ’80s filled with concentrated fun and then ground down into an addictive substance and unleashed on the world, ensnaring an entire generation of unsuspecting viewers.

Many fans resorted to snorting Stranger Things, heedless of the tragic risks.

Although the second season failed to live up to the expectations set by the first, it was still good fun, and now we have a third season, on which I am intending to binge as soon as I have stocked up on enough ice-cream and popcorn to get through the entire thing without needing to move from my sofa even once until it has finished.

Living the dream.
(Homer Simpson, The Simpsons)

Curiously, ST’s strengths are unconventional. Before proceeding with this article, consider finding some reviews of the series thus far. Unless, of course, you have yet to watch ST, in which case do that instead because it is one of the only fun things I have watched in years that is not Have I Got News For You?.

Keeping satire alive in a post-satire age. (Via IMDb)

What is the secret of ST’s appeal? And why is its formula for success so hard to reproduce?

Everyone Loves Magic Trifecta

Notice what the reviews do not say: anything about ingenuity. To put it bluntly, ST thrives on familiarity: familiarity of tone, familiarity of content, familiarity of narrative. Nostalgia is a powerful feeling, and the ability to create a new or “new” thing which evokes a sense of comfortable familiarity is an increasingly recognized route to success: remakes of old films and computer games swamp the public consciousness whilst new ideas languish and fade without ever seeing the light of day.

It’s like a Cave of Wonders in that respect, and also in that the terrifying old men at Disney are largely to blame for it all. (The Cave of Wonders, from Disney’s Aladdin)

The constant homages to the sights and sounds and films of the 1980s are not only embedded in the setting, but also in the narrative itself. The Duffers are unapologetic in their approach: ‘If you have seen a Spielberg film, you have seen this’ they seem to say, with characters directly and indirectly reproducing scenes from the childhoods of the same people now moving away from older television broadcasting and embracing streaming services. This can occasionally backfire, as in the scene when the Demogorgon attacks Joyce at home, and the action pauses just long enough for the camera to hover over the monster’s Krueger-esque breach.

HEY YOU GUYS REMEMBER THAT BIT IN NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET HAHAHAHA THAT WAS SO COOL IMAGINE IF SOMETHING LIKE THAT WERE TO HAPPEN NOW OMG
(From Stranger Things, season 1 episode 4)

In doing this, the Duffers are not doing anything very creative in the sense of building a world from scratch: Hawkins is a slightly anachronistic slice of time with a sci-fi crust and a light dusting of horror. The fears and conspiracy theories making their way through America at the time surrounding D&D, Project MKUltra, and so on are the seeds of the ideas which the Duffers have grown into ST. This is not necessarily a problem. If anything, it goes to show that a good story does not necessarily follow from an entirely original promise, nor does a poor story follow from a familiar one. The Duffers’ writing and the cast – exceptional not only for great names like Winona Ryder, but also for the excellent child actors, whose like is rare and therefore all the more laudable – both portray the drama, the action, the comedy, and the sorrow with rare competence. The gratuitous references are the only real clangers.

‘It’s as stupid an idea as Gandalf taking the Enterprise to rescue Starscream from the beholders on Alderaan!’ – A Duff line. (Pictured: Stranger Things, season 1 episode 1).

Where the Duffers flex their creativity more is in the creation of the parallel dimension which the cast is still calling ‘the Upside-Down’ even in the second season, despite how increasingly awkward that appellation is.

The term ‘Shadow Realm’ was already taken, apparently.
(Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters, season 3)

The precise nature of the Upside-Down is still vague and mysterious, but each season so far has revealed a little more about its occupants, a trend which I hope will continue until the series has run its natural course. Vital parts of the story remaining vague for no good reason is a peeve of mine because, as far as I can tell, it is usually to cover up a writer’s inability to commit to key details. Acknowledging that a clearly defined villain is less threatening than one whose true nature and motivations are ambiguous, thus allowing us to project our fears onto them, white walkers, Martian invaders, and sapient cosmological phenomena all make for great villains, until it becomes clear they have nothing to gain from their genocidal obsession with the protagonists’ home. So far, the Duffers seem to have worked out enough about the Demogorgon and the Mind Flayer that the world does feel complete, instead of waiting for critical information to be divulged in order that everything can fall into place.

The final element is the narrative: there are relatively few twists and turns in the story which could not be predicted. Indeed, the familiarity and importance of the core cast to the plot has effectively made them invulnerable ever since Will was revealed to be very much alive, if slightly infested.

‘How unexpected! Better keep this sort of thing to myself in case I inadvertently help my friends and family survive in the face of murderous evil!’ (Stranger Things, season one episode 8).

Consequently, every season has needed its sacrificial lambs in order to raise the stakes and the tension without endangering the status quo. On one hand, the cynical hand, this is a cowardly move designed to protect the franchise at the expense of the story. On the other hand, the sacrificial lambs have thus far proved to be so wildly popular (again, due to their acting ability and the quality of the script) that the silly Duffers must be kicking themselves not only for abandoning characters like Barb and Bob so quickly, but also because they will have to continue the trend or risk enraging people all the more.

That said, if the ‘B’ name theming is a clue, then I’m pretty sure I know who’s going to get Duffed up this season. (Stranger Things, season 2 promotional material)

If It Ain’t Broke

Shamelessly wearing the skins of better media like a suit of flesh the fact that it has no original ideas of its own on its sleeves, ST manages through strong characterization, snappy narrative, compelling characterization, and a very light-handed approach to world-building to do what every true writer desires: to tell a story and tell it well. The Duffer Brothers clearly know how to tell a story in that they balance the old and the very real risk of nostalgia-induced campery and low-stakes boredom with an excellent script, a solid story, and a cast which, at its worst, is reliably entertaining.

Yet, the true test will be how the franchise concludes. As Battlestar Galactica (2004) stretched out, its complex threads of story tangled and frayed and then snapped entirely, and what resulted was the most memetically disappointing ending in television fiction until Game of Thrones stole its crown and chewed off all the lead paint. The Duffers have proved their craftsmanship in Stranger Things. Let us hope, like the masters of any craft, they know when the story has been told and it is time for the end.

Picture related.

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