1. My buddy Sara returns serve with more Uncharted 4 correspondence over at Videodame. I hope to volley back later next week.
2. I’m busting outta the ‘burbs and will be at the NYVCC summer shindig at Barcade this coming Monday, July 25. If you’re in town, come on by!
3. I’ve been wanting to write about Stranger Things all week, but knew I should wait until I finished the season; my wife and I started on Sunday after the kid went to bed and pushed through 2 episodes per night, and so we finished it on Wednesday evening. I woke up later that night at 3am and had one of those middle-of-the-night timeless intervals trying to figure out what I wanted to say about it. Now it’s Friday and I’m still floating out to sea, somewhat. (There’s a reason for that, though.*)
If you don’t know what Stranger Things is, here’s my very abbreviated elevator pitch: imagine Steven Spielberg directing a Stephen King novel, with a John Carpenter soundtrack, in 1983.
This essay from Paste goes into a bit more detail, especially in terms of what exactly it’s stealing from; here’s a TL:DR excerpt:
If you were a child of the ‘80s and ‘90s, chances are you’ve seen Stranger Things before. An eight-part sci-fi spectacle and shiny new Netflix original from filmmaking brothers Matt and Ross Duffer, Stranger Things is spooky supernatural entertainment unashamedly in the 1980s popcorn mould. It won’t be a problem for today’s kids less familiar with that period in film, but for those that recognize the influences—anyone who’s been paying attention to pop culture over the last 30 years, probably—there’s nothing surprising about Stranger Things. In fact, there’s barely an original idea across its six-and-a-half hours. Instead, it constantly recalls old stories.
There’s an argument to be made that this is in fact Stranger Things’ ‘original’ concept: arranging shopworn ideas in a new and interesting way. Collaging is considered an art, and it no doubt takes talent to make a worthwhile season of television almost entirely out of borrowed parts. Which isn’t to say Stranger Things is like some scrappy mish-mash; like Quentin Tarantino, the Duffers only cadge ideas from the best, but are more importantly talented enough as storytellers to use those ideas in effective ways.
I don’t know if I would count it among the greatest seasons of capital-T Television I’ve ever seen, but it was incredibly fun, and I guess the thing I appreciated the most is how, while it’s obviously borrowing heavily from a lot of 1980s tropes, it’s also incorporating a lot of today’s story-telling methods. Let’s be honest – if you go back and revisit a classic 80s movie that you haven’t seen in a number of years, a lot of them haven’t aged particularly well; they are better in your memory of them than how they actually are.
A few key examples of this: the first Tim Burton Batman movie, from 1989. I saw this movie in the theater as a kid and LOVED it, but hadn’t watched it again until a few years ago. And for all its stylistic Tim Burton-ness, there’s just a whole bunch of nonsense that 14-year-old me just didn’t notice at the time. There’s a scene in the back half of the movie where Jack Nicholson’s Joker pays Kim Basinger’s Vicki Vale a menacing visit. But there’s literally no reason for him to show up there. The scene doesn’t accomplish anything. It’s a fabricated excuse to give Jack and Kim a scene together, and when you watch this with the benefit of watching 20+ years of movies in the interim, suddenly it sticks out.
Or, alternately, Big Trouble in Little China, which I loved to death back in the day. It’s still fun, and it’s visually interesting, but the movie itself barely hangs together.
Anyway, back to Stranger Things. Here is a bullet-pointed collection of thoughts, which I am currently too distracted to properly formulate into an actual essay. (See the above-referenced footnote below.) It’s hard to be specific without getting into what are technically spoilers, but I should also note that this isn’t the sort of show where you’re being knocked over by plot twists; there’s a tremendous amount of forward momentum here and so anything spoiler-y is less about a BIG REVEAL and more about a moment of character development. Still, be warned.
- This story could certainly have been told in a 2-hour movie. But by stretching it out to 8 episodes, we’re able to have these characters actually talk to each other. And, in what feels like a genuine first, we’re having characters have conversations where they actually say all the things I wish that characters would say. I don’t know if that’s a testament to the writing, or the acting, or if it’s simply that I am the target audience for this show and so I related to every single goddamned pixel on my television screen. But, like – it’s great to be able to follow Winona Ryder into what for all intents and purposes looks like a psychotic break, and to have her fully acknowledge to anyone who asks that yes, she is very much aware that she knows what she looks like, but for us to know that she isn’t.
- How great is the casting? This is some of the best work Winona Ryder’s done in her whole career – and while casting her is no accident, she knocked it out of the park. The kids are great: the girl who plays Eleven looks an awful lot like young Wil Wheaton, wouldn’t you say? And of course the older brother looks a lot like young River Phoenix.
- OH GOD THE MUSIC. Obviously one of the things that makes this show so great is how it mixes lots of 80s things together, but especially how it takes a Spielberg-ian look at childhood in the 80s but eschews the John Williams orchestra and instead goes for the John Carpenter minimal-synthesizer thing. I only wish they could’ve gone a little bit further and added some David Lynch/Twin Peaks weirdness, though I suppose having this story take place in an unusually strange town might’ve been pushing it a bit too much.
- As noted above, I am the target demo for this show – a child of the 80s, thoroughly steeped in 80s movies and music and clothes and Trapper Keepers and D&D (well, in my case, piano lessons), and so I of course related to both the junior-high AV Club kids and the high school hormonal teenagers. (And on behalf of all the teenaged girls I knew when I was a teenager: I’m so, so, so sorry.) But I am also currently a 40-year-old parent, and I also thoroughly related to the adults on the show, especially with regards to how those parents care about their children. Like the scene between Nancy and her mother where the mother knows what just happened to Nancy and her boyfriend and desperately wants to reach out to her daughter because she’s been there and wants to be cool about it, and how heartbreaking it is for her to have the door shut in her face. Or the deep sorrow that Chief Hopper carries around with him in losing his very young daughter; I don’t know what that feels like first-hand and I hope I never do, but I can certainly imagine what it would like to lose my son, and jesus I have to move on because I can’t finish this sentence. Point being, I related to everyone, in intensely different ways.
- BIGGEST SPOILER, SINCE IT’S ABOUT THE LAST TWO EPISODES: In the last two episodes, how great was it to have all the good guys, who’d previously been in their own groups, finally come together? And to also appear in completely different pairings than they’d been in for the rest of the season? It’s so nice when people don’t have to keep secrets from each other. The sense of relief the little kids must’ve felt when not only did Chief Hopper rescue them from the bus, but that he believes them.
I loved the show; you should watch it.
* This week’s been a shitshow – work has been busy, and the RNC is a waking nightmare, but on the lighter side of things I’ve also been pleasantly obsessing over music, which carries its own set of distractions. I know I’ve talked numerous times about how impressed I am at whatever algorithmic alchemy Spotify manages to achieve for the weekly Discovery playlist; the hit-to-miss ratio is more than acceptable, especially considering that the songs that qualify as “hits” more often than not end up becoming profoundly affecting. Part of the reason why I couldn’t write anything yesterday is because I spent, like, 5 hours just listening to the bridge in Moses Sumney’s “Everlasting Sigh”.