Something about Stranger Things seemed to captivate every single one of its viewers when it was released in July, as if on top of stuffing its victims with slimy slugs, the Demogorgon was also capable of some kind of demonic love potion. Whether it was the cuteness of the kids or the power of '80s nostalgia, the Netflix hit truly took the internet by storm.
And while there was some acknowledgment that maybe not everything about the show was utterly perfect, there was barely any criticism to be seen, since most of the discussion around Stranger Things was focusing on Eggo waffles, the shenanigans of the young cast on various talk shows, and fan theories about the functioning of the Upside Down.
But surely you noticed that a lot of things in the plot and the characters' behavior made little sense; that some episodes were longer than they needed to be; that amid all the brilliant references, we actually didn't learn that much about the story itself. So aside from its guilty pleasure-like enjoyability, is Stranger Things really that good of a show?
Far from making an attempt at ruining the fun of those who dived into the Upside Down without looking back, this review is about constructively debating the quality of the show while we're waiting for Season 2 — or maybe it'll give you a space to vent because you've run out of Coke cans to crush out of frustration. Hear me out, and let me know what you thought of the show in the comments!
The Plot Of Stranger Things Is Watered Down
When I first started watching Stranger Things, I knew little about the show except for the fact that about 99% of my colleagues had recommended it to me, and I was quickly grabbed by the mysterious mood and the pressing urgency of finding out what happened to Will. But the more the show went on, the more that urgency slowly faded, watered down by plenty of sub-plots that didn't go as far as making me forget the original goal, but definitely didn't make it seem as straightforward as it did.
Obviously, the show shouldn't simply be about finding Will — but while the sense of danger had me on the edge of my seat in the first few episodes, the end of the season dragged itself out to a point where I was debating when exactly the characters would get to tackle the monster, instead of if or how. There are eight chapters to the series, and yet by the end of the third we've already established Will is trapped in a parallel dimension, and he's already managed to communicate to his mother that he wasn't in the best kind of place. And the reason it takes five more chapters to find him doesn't lie in the amount of obstacles the characters have to overcome — it's because there are a whole bunch of scenes, from two school kids bullying Mike into jumping from a cliff to El stealing frozen waffles that serve little purpose, other than the wish to remind us that the kids are pretty damn cool.
Similarly, why does Chief Hopper lead us twice inside the secret government lab? The first time we're scared that he could get caught; the second, we're just wondering what the hell he's doing. Not only that, but it takes him two chapters to offer Joyce his assistance after he's broken into the lab. And as if Joyce really deserved no support, why does it take Jonathan three episodes to tell his mother he knows about the monster? Sure, his character is trying to be the man of the family, but he's hoping she won't go all crazy, so how about telling her he knows she's not hallucinating? Since he tells her eventually, it just feels like someone forgot to include it in the script earlier on.
Let's not even talk about the finale, a classic case of the "let's give all the players a quick conclusion without forgetting to include a hint that the story isn't totally over" TV formula. In the end, it takes so long for the pieces of the puzzle to fall together that it seems like Stranger Things would almost have worked better as a movie, in which the plot could have gone from undecipherable to clear in one sweeping motion, even with a few hiccups in between.
We Still Don't Know Anything By The End Of Stranger Things Season 1
Speaking of clarity, one thing struck me by the time I was done watching Stranger Things, and it was my inability to explain what actually happened. After an entire season, we still don't know how the Upside Down works. Why is Will having flashbacks? Why did he make it, and Barb didn't? They both had slugs down their throats, didn't they? There's no indication of the monster's motivations, how exactly he was born, or why he'd wander into our world. Most importantly, we have no idea why Eleven had to disappear with him when she could make the brains of 10 men explode simultaneously. And while we pretty much found out her real name was Jane and her mother was sitting in her home in a sad, vegetative state, the final link to bring these stories together was never made.
I can hear fans of the show from here clamoring to shout that the mysteriousness is what Stranger Things is all about, but I feel like for the amount of questions it leaves unanswered, the story could at least provide the viewer with a small sense of having learned something, discovered something new. Instead, we watch the characters come to terms with the issue in their own ways, but as an audience there's nothing we can add to our knowledge of the Upside Down between the beginning and the end of the show other than the fact that a gate has been opened by Eleven.
Just like that gate, Eleven's adventures opened a whole lot of questions in my mind, but rather than the hungry feeling of desperately wanting more than the Netflix people checking their ratings are probably hoping for, I'm feeling disappointed and lacking closure. The explanations the show teased never came, and though I became attached to the characters, the shroud of vague meaning surrounding their story doesn't make me so eager to meet them again.
The Characters Start Out Endearing, But Lack Consistency
Indeed, the last major roadblock to the power of Stranger Things lies in these characters, and more precisely the consistency of their decisions. They're likable for sure, but I would've been bald if I'd literally pulled my hair out every time I got frustrated by a nonsensical move. Seeing as the show spends so long on each character's story — to the demise of the overall plot — you'd hope that they were fully fleshed out by the time the end credits rolled around. That all of the individual paths had stretched out enough to make it worth eight episodes.
But though they serve the plot very well, as people, the characters of Stranger Things make little sense. The biggest and most talked about example is obviously Barb, and the apparent non-reaction to her disappearance. Nancy might be trying to get out of her comfort zone by dating cool guy Steve, but we know she's got a good heart. The show reminds us of that repeatedly, as she refuses to join in Steve's gang bullying of classmates such as Jonathan, or calls Barb's mom because she's worried. So why is she not freaking out that Barb — who would obviously tell her if she'd fled from home — is nowhere to be seen?
If you think she seemed scared enough, what about her reaction when she learns that her all-time best friend is dead? She puts her hands over her mouth, and she attacks the monster, but shows little sign of actual trauma. It's the amount of reaction you'd expect if Nancy had just learned Barb moved to a different country without telling her — upset and slightly mad. And because I can't leave Nancy alone, why does she climb into a tree hole barred with pulsating skin when she's in the woods, at night, with Jonathan as her only companion, and doesn't warn Jonathan or wait for his acknowledgment of her whereabouts? It's taking all my Barb-esque patience not to add a dozen question marks to that sentence, and no, "because horror wouldn't work if the characters didn't do something stupid" isn't enough of an answer.
Second most absurd character was Chief Hopper, who, if you ask me, doesn't have much police chief material in him. When he's this close to uncovering the entire damn operation, he decides to go in by himself, so that if he finds out something crucial but gets caught and buried, he can be sure that the rest of the town and particularly Joyce Byrnes will never find out. To each their own investigation, am I right?
It's Almost As If The Show Needed To Spell Things Out For Us
As if the show itself sensed that his character needed a little more fleshing out, suddenly the show starts throwing pseudo-emotional flashbacks in our faces, just in case we couldn't tell he was helping out because he'd experienced the same kind of loss. (In case you don't remember, two members of the police force commented on the death of his daughter pretty early on in the show.) It's like the images are telling us we should feel affection for Hopper, instead of just letting us experience the emotion as it comes.
By the end of Stranger Things, nothing's really changed. The kids are back at the table playing Dungeons, the crazy mom is still crazy, albeit a little more present, the shy guy is still shy, although he's proved he wasn't a psycho, and the lonely officer is still entangled in his own little secrets. Eleven is a sad but distant memory, and it feels like everyone woke up from a dream — and just like in a dream, nothing made much sense. Until the finale tells you, "Wait! It wasn't actually a dream!" But just like pointing at something and telling me that it's interesting doesn't actually make it that, it'll take more than Will's last flashback to prove that Stranger Things still has something in store for the characters and for me.