Opening Volley: Stranger Things

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As you know (hopefully), we at Deja.Revue have started a podcast. The first episode is up on iTunes. It’s a bit rough, and a trial run for sure. We hope to bring you a new podcast every month. One of the goals of the podcast is to branch out into the larger pop-culture world and cast our eye on whatever the flavor of the month is. So, for the upcoming ‘cast, Andrew and I will be discussing the Netflix Original Series Stranger Things.

The discussion will be less confined than the page, so in order to get my thoughts down, and touch on a few specific things about the show, I’m introducing a new column: Opening Volley. I plan on doing something like this whenever the podcast comes around. My hope is that it will open up discussion here on the blog, as well as give you all a heads up on what we’ll be discussing so you can catch up if you like. Selfishly, it will also give me a leg up on Andrew heading into recording. Rest assured, the discussion will range more widely in podcast form and those of you who will inevitably disagree with this article will be have a capable champion in my colleague.

Stranger Things is a Netflix Original Series that has taken the world (or, at least, the internet) by storm over the last month or so. The series mainly centers around a group of kids, Mike, Dustin, and Lucas (played by a group of mostly unknowns, who put on entertaining and believable performances), in Hawkins, Indiana whose world is turned upside down (ahem) by the disappearance and apparent death of their friend, Will. While searching for him, they come across a strange girl named Eleven (played by Millie Bobby Brown, whose performance here good, though her magnetism in press appearances makes one wish she were given more room to breath throughout the series) in the woods who may or may not hold the key to finding Will. At the same time, Will’s mother (Winona Ryder, an actress whom I love, is similarly stymied by the narrow range of her character) searches desperately for him and descends into a seemingly grief-stricken madness, which may, in fact, not be madness at all. She is joined by the town sheriff, whose past contains uncomfortable resonances with the present, and who begins to center his search for the boy around the mysterious Hawkins National Laboratory. Running parallel to all of this is a teen drama involving Will’s older brother, Mike’s older sister, her boyfriend, and the disappearance of her best friend. While the various plot strands here may seem a bit confusing or convoluted, I will say that the show mostly handles this problem with grace by keeping the various groups separate for its roughly 8 hours of runtime. But, as Sean T. Collins points out in his great Vulture piece, triangulating the particular fears of each group into something truly terrifying proves simply too broad of a goal for the show to achieve. However, I will leave that for later discussion.

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Allow me to zoom out for a moment. Netflix began dipping their toe into original programming around 2012. They began to push it in earnest in 2013, which brought House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, and the long-hoped-for-revival of cult favorite Arrested Development. The merits of each of these shows will vary widely based on who you talk to, but since then, Netflix had churned out a massive slate of original content each year. And not just “TV” shows, either: movies, documentaries, stand-up specials, Christmas specials, talk-shows, and a huge slate of kids programming have all been part of the nonstop onslaught of content which Netflix has invested in, created, or nabbed the exclusive distribution rights for. Now, I cannot claim to have seen all, or even most, of this content. There is a ridiculous amount of it and I only have so much time. But I would like to put forth an argument here which does not, I think, require that one see every single second of Netflix Original Content.

Most of this content, regardless of its quality, was made primarily on the basis that it resembles non-original content that has been popular on Netflix in the past. You may say, “Yes, duh Ian, of course they made something because they thought it would be popular with people who like other popular things. That is how capitalism works.” To which I say, yes, lamentably, this is how things have always worked, to an extent. The difference is that Netflix (and other streaming services who have branched out into original content) has more data than any other network or movie studio has ever had, or has ever dreamed of having. Presumably, though it is notorious for keeping its viewing numbers under wraps, Netflix can tell exactly how many users have watched a particular show, or film, or whatever. Not only can they tell you how many people have watched it, they can also tell you when they watched it, how quickly they viewed an entire season, whether someone watched it and turned it off 5 minutes in, or watched it all the way through in a single sitting. TV networks are expanding the Nielson system in order to better understand how audiences watch shows, and what they watch, but even that much-expanded system leaves tons of gaps. Similarly, movie studios have box-office and DVD/Blu-ray sales and VOD sales and rentals to go by, but again, the gaps are enormous.

What this mountain of data leads to are shows that often feel like they were created by Netflix’s algorithms instead of real people. The revivals, or continuations, of shows that have been cancelled elsewhere are an obvious example of this: Netflix knows a bunch of us watched all three original seasons of Arrested Development, so it makes economic sense for them to pull all the strings they can to be the exclusive carriers of the show’s return. Ditto all of their Marvel/Disney content. On the one hand, Netflix took a gamble on House of Cards, it being their first high-profile release. On the other hand, Netflix knew exactly how many people liked the British original, as well as things like Mad Men, or The West Wing. So yes, it was a gamble to get into the game, but they were holding all the cards. There are exceptions to this art-as-algorithm equation, but even these exceptions are created from the same You Might Also Like mentality – they just happen to rise above it on an artistic level. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a great show, but it only got the green light because Netflix knew how much people loved 30 Rock (both shows are created by the same team) and The Office (which shares with the Netflix series the great talents of Ellie Kemper).

This brings me back to Stranger Things. To say the show owes a massive debt to its influences would be an understatement. If you removed every callback, reference, and homage from the show, I think you would be left with only some B-roll of the Christmas lights hanging over the hastily-scrawled alphabet on the wall (easily the greatest image the show conjures), backed by an interesting synth score (which, admittedly, owes a great deal to John Carpenter, but which, I think, manages to be interesting enough on its own). Netflix knows how many of us watched E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jaws, Poltergeist, The Goonies, Stand by Me, The Shining, The Thing, Halloween, Alien, Nightmare on Elm Street, Freaks and Geeks, The X-Files, Twin Peaks, Fringe, etc. and its only job is to concentrate those, repackage them enough to call it “Original,” and hook it directly to our veins via a Netflix subscription. I cannot be sure that every single one of these works has been on Netflix at some point, but I know for a fact that most of them have. Lest you think I am merely being cynical, the most obvious rip-off comes in the scenes when Eleven is inside the sensory deprivation tank. The look of the scene is lifted in its entirety from Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 indie sci-fi film Under the Skin, which starred Scarlett Johansson and has never been on Netflix. But as you see below, this single fact does not make the appropriation any less egregious.

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The show mostly pulls the teeth out of its influences however, making them taming, more palatable. While watching Stranger Things I found myself wondering who exactly this was for? For those who grew up with the works that are referenced, it seems the original works themselves would be a quicker, more direct, route to nostalgia. And for those younger viewers with limited or non-existent knowledge of the tropes and references, the show would seem to be almost nonsensical. My conclusion is that the show is meant for everyone. Parents who grew up with this stuff can watch something same-ish with their kids minus the more edgy elements of the original works. People who have been meaning to get around to Poltergeist, or Alien, or the collected works of Steven King can skip that long, boring road, and get all of it in just 8 hours. However, in the shows quest to be pleasing to the masses, in its quest to be for everyone, it fails to be directed at anyone in particular. This lack of specificity, an element which the works it owes its debt to all share, leaves me cold by the time season one ends, despite having found it to be a vaguely pleasurable watch.

The failure of Stranger Things, then, is not that it is not enjoyable, it is designed to be, but that it never pushes beyond its influences. It is content merely to be an entertaining collection of callbacks to movies that Netflix occasionally acquires the license for. They know you like this stuff – Spielberg, Steven King, John Carpenter, et al – they have the numbers to prove it, but a bunch of people watching E.T. does not net them the kind of profit and publicity that an “original” series does. So they give us Stranger Things, an ironic title considering how intentionally familiar it all feels.

 

-Ian

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