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The F*ckin Black Sheep: Stranger Things (2016)

03.30.2017by: Jake Dee

THE BLACK SHEEP is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATH. We’re hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Dig in!

STRANGER THINGS (2016)

DIRECTED BY: MATT & ROSS DUFFER

Let’s be blunt, how many of you binged watched season one of the Netflix hit Stranger Things last summer? Admittedly, I too am guilty of shot-gunning all eight inaugural episodes. And while that sort of unencumbered consumption of a product would, in itself, indicate a certain meritorious quality, I’ll speak frankly. My initial, guttural reaction when the season concluded was a slight inflection above, “meh.” That’s to say, I think Stranger Things was okay, very little more, very little less. Overall, I found the show to be a pretty average endeavor – a derivative, unoriginal, and ultimately hollow pastiche of 80s conventions - with no real statement to make, about anything. But that isn’t the way the show has been received. And while Netflix doesn’t release its ratings and viewing numbers, all indications suggest the show is a massive success that has garnered unparalleled viewership.

Beyond that, the public reaction to the show has been staggering. Consider how the series, after a mere 8 episodes, currently ranks #38 on the list of all time best TV shows. For reference, The X-Files sits at #91. Now, an arbitrary IMDB rating means very little, I realize, but then consider the pop-cultural ascendance the show has enjoyed since debuting last year. A quick season 2 turnaround, a mega Super Bowl ad, star Millie Bobby Brown (who plays Eleven) reportedly in such high-demand at the moment she literally needs to take a break at a whopping 17 years of age (she’s also been cast in the next GODZILLA flick), the Duffer brothers being compared to Spielberg and other Amblin acolytes? Please. A weird infatuation with the frumpy bespectacled character named Barb, who also has since gone on to land subsequent work as a result. So let me be clear, it’s not the show I hate, it’s the unending level of love it’s been garnering that I find incongruous to the quality of the show. A middling, mediocre, highly overrated first season…this how I’ll base my view of STRANGER THINGS as a F*cking Black Sheep!

I’ll start with what I liked; the perspective. The triptych generational POV design of the show is what I think made it standout most. That is, by framing the story through three sets of protagonists – the junior high kids, the high-school teens and the adults – we get three distinctive viewpoints that constantly keep the show fresh. Ennui never tends to creep in by crosscutting between three sets of intergenerational characters. So that, I thought from a narrative design aspect, was really quite brilliant.

As for the characters themselves, some came off far more likeable than others, some more sympathetic still. For my money, Dustin Henderson, the portly little kid with the perm and adorable lisp played by Gaten Matarazzo, was an absolute strong suit of the show. In fact, the youngsters to me is where the show's imagination justifies itself in going to the absurd realms it eventually reaches. Seeing these so-called Stranger Things through the wide eyes of the preteen kids makes the otherworldly aspects feel appropriately scary and terrifying, and as an intended target, makes the nostalgia feel most authentic. It’s through the eyes of the rest of the characters, in particular Winona Ryder as the whacked-out mother figure Joyce, that these things tend to seem really quite a bit silly.

To that point, why what the hell happened that would account for Joyce’s erratic and unstable mental state? Forgive me if I missed a clue or outright explanation, but to me it seemed pretty clear Joyce has had a history with drug abuse or perhaps alcoholism. Her shut-in paranoia, her meth-head wall scrawling, her glaring emotional detachment, as I recall, none of these things were rightfully explicated in the show. Now, I’m allergic to exposition like most of you, but without a simple hint, Rider’s performance feels unjust as bizarrely histrionic. And not to castigate a child too hard, but I actually found Millie Bobby Brown’s turn as Eleven to be poor at worst, mediocre at best. Those shots of her telekinetically moving objects, replete with constipated growls and intense squinting, I found to be nowhere remotely convincing. I’ll leave it at that.

But the single most maddening thing about STRANGER THINGS is how it apes, bites and cribs an entire tableau of 1980s Amblin Entertainment – thematically, stylistically, tonally - and does so without actually advancing the canon past the point of loving and knowing homage. It’s one thing to elicit a sense of loving nostalgia by essentially remixing the best-of-its catalogue from THE GOONIES, THE MONSTER SQUAD, E.T., STAND BY ME, THE GATE, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, IT, and so forth…it’s quite another to do only that and subsequently fail to add or augment the product beyond mere pastiche. Just like the movie SUPER 8 that tried a similar attempt a few years back, despite how well made it is, despite how heartfelt J.J. Abrams’ love of the epoch, it ultimately comes off as a flat retread of far better movies that came out 30 odd years ago. In that sense, STRANGER THINGS regresses, it doesn’t progress material. Seriously, a giant amorphous blob acting as a portal to a shadowy underworld? That’s your primary foe? Yo Duffer bros, you better bring a whole host of STRANGER THINGS than that!

All this to say, I liked STRANGER THINGS okay, but kind of hate the overwhelming amount of love the show is enjoying at the moment. It’s simply unwarranted in my opinion. And like most Netflix originals, the show is overrated. Who knows, perhaps I’m just being a salty grump about it, but if unabashedly ripping off childhood loves in THE GOONIES, THE MONSTER SQUAD, E.T. and the rest without adding anything new or offering something to say, if this equals quality, then we’re all in more grave peril than the Byers and Wheelers themselves!

Extra Tidbit: Will you be watching STRANGER THINGS season 2?
Source: AITH

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