Friday, August 26, 2016

Stranger Things, It's Decent

We’re almost living in golden age of television production.  The production costs are lower, the transmission methods varied, and the consumer market fractured to the point that it is easier than ever to allow for quality production of niche programming.  Producers are free to be daring, take risks, and make whatever sorts of shows interest them without the worry that it might not attract a majority share of the all-important 18 to 35 demographic.  If it wasn’t for the hamfisted agitprop crammed into most shows, we might just reach that golden age. 

For the first time in a long time, I’ve watched a show from start to finish and not felt to bad about it.  Based on a review found at somebody’s blog, I took the Netflix Original series, “Stranger Things”, for a test drive and just kept right on watching.  It’s an old school thriller set in small town Indiana during the 1980s.  A young boy and a teen girl go missing and three different teams of investigators slowly uncover the truth of the matter.  Their stories weave in and out as each discovers their own trail of clues leading up to the final confrontation. 
It’s not great, but it’s pretty darn good.  The acting ranges from stiff to overblown – Winona Ryder plays a mother with only two emotions, raving hysterics and mumbling sorrow.  We’re given no real reason at the outset to particularly like any of the characters, other than because they are the ones whose stories we are following.  My favorite characters in the show are all supporting roles – they often show more character than the stars, who take a lot more effort to like than they should given that we are supposed to be rooting for them.  I spent most of the show making excuses for their behavior towards other people, and you really shouldn't have to do that for your protagonists. 

Still and all, it’s a nice slow burn mystery that clocks in at six hours of entertainment.  It has an internal consistency to its mythos and cosmology that is refreshing to see.  None of the main characters acts in a particularly stupid manner just to serve the needs of the plot.  Yes, some do act in stupid ways, but for understandable reasons, he’s twelve years old, she’s a grieving mother, that sort of thing.  And the show spends just enough time showing their normal routine, their normal crises, and how the pressure of the situation affects those day to day pressures.  It’s very Stephen Kingesque in that regard.
The suspense ratchets up well over time.  Six hours is a long time to sustain the mystery and keep the viewers interest, while simultaneously keeping the body count low and the plot moving forward at a reasonable pace, but “Stranger Things” manages that trick.  Interestingly, much of the suspense occurs when two people discuss the crisis and the search of the missing boy, they each hold a piece of the puzzle, and if they could only share those pieces they’d be a lot better off.  At the same time, neither one thinks the other will believe him or her, and so they talk around the subject while the viewer knows both that they should just blurt out the information, and at the same time knows why they don’t.  That’s some solid writing.
The little nods to the era were nice, too.  The 40+ crowd might want to check it out if only for the nostalgic factor of synth music and opening title sequence that could have been sucked through a wormhole straight from the 1980s. Pull tab Schlitz beer, an actual A/V club, a close-enough-for-government-work soundtrack and posters for John Carpenter’s “The Thing” are a few other fun examples.
All in all, “Stranger Things” gets a tepid recommendation.  Despite its flaws, it’s well worth a watch. 

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