Monday, June 20, 2022

The Thing I Love About Stranger Things

It's about time we talked about the Netflix hit. 

Okay, so I am a Stranger Things fan, but even things I love can't escape my critical eye or general orneriness. So before I get into the thing I truly love about Stranger Things I want to hit some of the parts I'm not really the biggest fan of, and in theory emphasize my love through contrast. 

So spoiler warning ahead. 

Also complaining warning. 

I complain a lot. 

It's Not The Kids...

First thing I'm not a fan of are the kids in the show. While they did a great job accurately portraying how preteens-and now teens- act, especially when they're not with their parents, my issue is that it doesn't make them any less obnoxious. Their precocious shenanigans appeal to some people because they like to project themselves into the Goonies but all it makes me want to do is scream out "Get off my lawn!"

The teenagers aren't much better, since most of their motivation is the usual TV teenage "Do they like me" storylines. As our main kids have grown up over the seasons they've gone from precocious to obnoxiously love struck. Season 4 has been pushing the whole Steve/Nancy/Jonathan love triangle and frankly the "Who will Nancy choose" plot line is boring because it's been done a thousand other times. 

Note that Eleven is exempt from all of my above complaining. Her story arc is one I love watching in characters. The outsider to humanity trying to become part of is one of my favorite tropes, with others including Star Trek: The Next Generation's Data, DC Comic's Conner Kent/Superboy and the MCU's Vision. 

Also I love the adults. Hopper is my cop dad and I've missed Winona Ryder. I hope she does more after the series is over. 

... And it's not the 80's...

Despite being born in the 80's I'm a 90's kid, so I don't have a lot of nostalgia for the 80's. I think the effort the show has gone through is admirable, but whenever they pause the story for a cute 80's joke, like Lucas drinking a New Coke, I just want to move on. My least favorite part of every season is the first couple episodes when the 80's nonsense is at its highest. The same is true for other 80's nostalgia bait, like when they did it in Wonder Woman 1984. You can wear all the neon triangles and bad hair you want, I'm just not that interested. 

...And it's Definitely Not the Dungeons and Dragons.

This may be surprising to hear from the guy who is writing a series going over every 5th edition class and how they can be better played, but the D&D stuff in Stranger Things just does not do it for me. First, it gets old explaining to non-players why mind flayers aren't 30 foot tall spider monsters. That's a minor niggle, since narratively I get it and I do find it mildly endearing, but I just get annoyed. Second, I hate the once again portrayal of Dungeons and Dragons players as outsiders and nerds. This portrayal once again pigeonholes us into the role of the outsiders, the ones on the fringes of society who are out of touch with the real world. This is better in season 4 where the outsider issue ignites paranoia against the Hellfire Club (Cool name for a D&D club) as they are suspected for being murderers. The use of the true to life satanic panic that happened at the time but with the main characters victims of the paranoia is an interesting concept, and I will withdraw this complaint if the second half of season 4 explores it further. 

It's the Cosmic Horror

What I do love about Stranger Things is that it portrays my favorite horror subgenre brilliantly: Cosmic horror. Also known as Lovecraftian horror this type of horror pits people against the great unknowable, powers so unfathomable that the only hope is to get out of their way. The Upside-Down is a perfect example of this, being an alien world with unknown motivations and mechanisms at work. We do get the idea from season 4 that One, the first child to be experimented on in the Hawkins Labs has more to do with it, and my own theories aside, this doesn't take away from the sense of overwhelming helplessness in the face of his power. Even Eleven, at arguably full power, could only banish One to the Upside-Down, not truly defeating him but sealing him away from our reality, which is straight out of the pages of H.P. Lovecraft. 

The individual parts I complained about earlier all add to the cosmic horror setting, even if individually I don't particularly care for them. The ordinary kids are an extreme juxtaposition to the powers and monsters of the Upside-Down, establishing clear differences in power between the two. The 80's setting is a familiar setting, not just for those who lived it but because of the numerous popular movies and TV shows that take place in the era that give us a general sense of what the era was like, so the familiar normality comes clashing directly against the horrors pouring out of portals. The D&D/satanic panic is analogous to the real satanic panic, where the problems of society were blamed on a simple game instead of addressing the real issues, in the show being monsters and in real life being... Well name a problem in society. 

I love Stranger Things as the sum of its parts, and because I know that for every "get off my lawn" moment, nostalgia bait moment, and cringy D&D reference, there's going to be something truly terrifying that will make it all worthwhile. 


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