A Review of "Stranger Things: Season One"
To say I was unimpressed would be redundant, but I also was able to spot a meager handful of gems hiding among the manure. And while I have mostly chosen to refrain from opining on these popular shows and films I find so severely overrated (Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, etc.), I feel justified this time because I was asked to watch six more episodes of something I really did not want to see.
Rather than write a lengthy diatribe on the series which, frankly, this writer already did so well, I have broken my critique down to a small list of technical aspects that (mostly) didn't work and some that actually did.
Lazy (Possibly Incompetent Writing)- The Duffer Bros. are the creators, writers and directors of this show, so everything that works and doesn't work falls squarely on their four shoulders. Sadly, they aren't very good at any of the three tasks they've assigned themselves. Like so many writers in Hollywood these days, they seem incapable of distinguishing between homage and flat-out copying. It's one thing to write a story that is in part a tribute to another writers's work; I'm talking about Stephen King here, in case it isn't obvious. The creators of "Lost" did it while creating something entirely new. It's quite another matter to blatantly steal from those works and pass it off as something new and exciting. And King isn't the only one they do this to. Spielberg is heavily "borrowed" from as well as John Carpenter, Dean Koontz and a host of other lesser known filmmakers and authors.
Yet the Duffers lack the necessary skill set to do anything more than copy better artists and nowhere does it show more than when they have a character literally ask, "Have you ever read Stephen King?" I guess that was for those who have no idea they're watching theft repackaged as originality.
Journeyman Direction- Speaking of their lack of skill, I would be remiss if I overlooked the basic, trite direction the Duffers indulge in. The imagery is often flat and uninteresting, the performances rarely rise above the needs of the thin plot and the artifice is thicker than a London fog.
Really Bad Acting (The Kids)- Give them points for earnestness. The kids on this show really try. Unfortunately, the effort is visible and often grimace-inducing. I won't single anybody out on the negative side, but it is interesting that the one kid who can actually act is the one that only shows up in the last half of the season finale. The lack of credible performances from the kids in the cast is a real detriment early on, but the Duffers wisely incorporate the little tykes into the overall action in the the last few episodes, which helps.
Uneven Performances (The Adults)- I have never been a Winona Ryder fan. Much like the kids on the show, her "acting" has always felt obvious and artificial to me. Maybe it's her voice or her verbal delivery, but she tends to diminish the work of other actors in the films she's in. In this case, there aren't many adult actors that are all that great except the always dependable Matthew Modine and a surprisingly good performance from David Harbour as Sheriff Hopper. In Ryder's defense, however, the Duffers provide her with a two-note character for most of the show's run, only toward the end giving her more to do than act hysterical or angry.
Surprisingly Good Acting (The Teens)- At first, I was on the fence about the teen characters. They reeked of cliches when they were introduced, but there was a surprising depth and compelling aspect to their characters as the show went on. In fact, there wasn't a bad teen performance.
Lack of A Diversified Approach- Simply put, the Duffers aren't talented enough to do it all on their own. That's why their work on "Wayward Pines" was so much better. There were other writers involved and it had a quality source material. Much like the two former "Lost" writers who created the gods-awful "Once Upon a Time," these guys need help and they need it yesterday. They need good writers who can say, "Wait. That scene in the hallway where they coat the entire area in gasoline should not be extinguished with two pumps from a fire extinguisher!" Or, "Maybe mentioning Stephen King is too on the nose. Could we consider assuming our audience is reasonably intelligent enough to know what we're doing and let those who don't find out through different means?" And maybe, just maybe, somebody might have said, "The monster is boring and a terrible antagonist."
Maybe somebody would have had an issue with the fact that a mere eight-episode run was so thinly plotted it resulted in two filler episodes that literally consisted of characters discussing the plot and their motivation for forty-five minutes. Hire more writers!
Pointless Setting- Why does this show take place in the Eighties? Let me explain why I'm asking. As someone who has not only written for publication but studied it as well, there were many times when I was asked similar questions.
"Does this story need to be written in first person?"
"Is this scene necessary to the plot or just here because you enjoyed writing it?"
In a similar vein, I ask again: Why does this show take place in the Eighties? What purpose does it serve? As much as I hated the recent version of "It," the Eighties settings makes perfect sense because the followup takes place thirty years later. What is it about the Eighties that makes the setting so important in "Stranger Things," though? Is there a certain limit on technology that wouldn't work now? Were there social attitudes of the time that lent themselves towards a story about a laboratory experiment getting out of hand?
I can't speak for the Duffer Bros. but I am inclined to say they have no idea beyond the fact that they wanted to reference Eighties horror and science fiction. Newsflash: You can still do that in modern-day storytelling.
Lack of Authenticity- Springboarding off the previous point, the Duffers are clearly too young to remember the Eighties. (They are. I looked them up.) While they get the clothing and cars right, the decade itself feels less real. This was one of my many issues with "It" as well. And while being too young isn't in and of itself a reason to avoid writing about prior periods, it does bring me back to the need for more writers on the show. Writers who, I don't know, might actually be able to say, "People didn't use the word 'awesome' like that in 1983!"
So, you might be getting the idea that I hated the show based on the above points. I didn't. I just found it trite, bland and derivative. It angers me that I worked so hard to make something of quality and guys like this can just wander out with half-baked rip-off material and have people hail it as a masterpiece. At least if the other elements, namely the acting, direction, etc. were better, I might be more forgiving. Also, if the season finale had been stretched to another twenty minutes and just turned into a movie, the story would have been much more effective.
All in all, it isn't a terrible show by any stretch. But it's mediocre and sometimes that's almost as bad~