Friday, July 22, 2016

Familiar THINGS

Enthusiastic notes on my Facebook news feed led me to check out the Duffer Brothers' new Netflix series STRANGER THINGS within a day or two of its July 15 premiere. Most uncommonly, my friends were pretty much unanimous in raving about it, at least one in caps, and another boasted that he had blasted his way through the entire eight-hour, first season run overnight, so tightly was he held in its grip. I have done similarly crazy things, watching "just one more" at 4:00 in the morning, which turns out to be two or three more, but I was surprised to find that STRANGER THINGS didn't even tempt me. It was good, passable entertainment, but not much more. In fact, two episodes (or "chapters," as they called it, evidently seeking a literary analogy) per night was as much interest as I could sustain for it. Now that I've finished all eight chapters, I'm trying to make sense of everyone else's unusually high enthusiasm for it.

I keep thinking there must be some underlying sociological reason I'm missing - possibly its ties to Stephen King, whose novels are certainly referenced here (even the title seems to pinion off of King's NEEDFUL THINGS), and whose body of work never held the fascination for me that it has for the rest of the world. It can't just be 1980s nostalgia because STRANGER THINGS borrows ideas and images from films as recent as UNDER THE SKIN and going as far back into the 1960s and '70s as THESE ARE THE DAMNED (with its government-sanctioned experiments on children) and SHIVERS (with its slug-like parasites vomited down bathroom drains). I could point to nearly every scene in the series and find not just a precedent for it but visual quotations in many. (My favorite was in the last episode, a wink at Joe Dante's THE HOWLING.) As I say, I thought it was alright but people had me all but running to my TV set to catch this before the spoilers caught up with me. That's what I don't understand. I can see people getting a kick out of a greatest hits album but not a greatest hits album of cover versions.

The E.T. shot.
The Drew Barrymore shot.
The GOONIES shot.
The SHINING shot.
The SCANNERS shot.
The ABYSS shot.
To which you can also mentally add the ones I couldn't Google: the ALIEN shot, the THING shot, the UNDER THE SKIN shot, the X-FILES shot, the CARRIE shot, ad infinitum if not nauseum. That's STRANGER THINGS, ladies and gentlemen - "A Netflix Original Series."

Possibly, the way this series has been so warmly embraced may have something to do with its familiar, comfort food values. Set in 1983 and allowed to roll out in a manner consistent with that era (which is to say, without the usual attention-deficit editing that has become the norm for Millennials), it's not really a product of its time, but a straightforward, unpretentious Young Adult novel for television that tells us what we all want to know: that government is not just bad but evil, that family (however screwed-up it may be) is good and always there for us, and that the victors in any situation will hail from the Island of Misfit Toys - like the pre-adolescent Dungeons and Dragons players who are the chief protagonists of this show.  

Speaking of this group, I've seen the kids on this show (Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Materazzo and Caleb McLaughlin) compared to the kids in Joe Dante's movies, which begs a few responses. First of all, it's important to remember that Joe Dante invented 1980s Young Adult fantasy in cinema. If you want to see where smart kid protagonists began, the way they still are today (in movies like TOMORROWLAND and GOOSEBUMPS, for example), you have to go back to GREMLINS and EXPLORERS and EERIE, INDIANA. Secondly, people are saying this because... they have one token movie poster on their bedroom wall? And it's JAWS? C'mon. It takes a lot more layering than that to create a Dante picture. And one more thing: kids in a Dante film would never speak to each other, much less their parents and local police, the way these kids do. To yell "bullshit" at your parents, in most families circa 1983, would have invited serious consequences. In a lot of little ways, this film fails the 1983 test for me.

Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven.
Much of what carries the show is the central performance of young Millie Bobby Brown as "Eleven," the telekinetic child who escapes the clutches of Dr Martin Brenner's (Matthew Modine, now at the mad scientist stage of his career) MKULTRA-spawned, CIA-sanctioned, brain-tampering program and taken into our young heroes' protection. Looking remarkably like a pre-adolescent Mary Louise Parker with a buzzcut, Brown has both a calm and a feral intensity that commands even the slipperiest attention. David Harbour's Sheriff Jim Hopper, struggling with his own memories of loss while striving to help Winona Ryder's Joyce Byers find her missing son Will (Noah Schnapp), finds solid dramatic footing in a role whose kind we have seen many times, whose familiarity might have taken a less respectful actor down. Though I know it's a decent part in a series with broad visibility, but I can't help feeling that Cara Buono deserves much better than a bland, carrot-cutting mom role like this after playing Dr Faye Miller, one of the most memorable supporting roles on MAD MEN. My guess is that she could have played the hell out of the Joyce Byers role, but Netflix needed a bigger name. As for that bigger name, the aforementioned Winona Ryder, the script requires her to give what is essentially a wound-up, one-note performance, trying not too well to look like a practiced smoker while saying each of her lines five different ways. As in (paraphrasing) "I'm upset? You're telling me I'm upset? Well, hell yeah, I'm upset! You wanna hear how upset I am? My kid's missing and presumed dead, we just had a funeral for him, and he's communicating with me through the goddam Christmas lights - that's how upset I am!" As portrayed, Joyce is introduced on edge and she stays that way, which means that, in lieu of an actual arc in her energies, we get a flat line - no matter how ramped-up it may be.

We also get - not really because it's needed, but because it's de rigeur in such stories - a teenage sex angle. Mike's supposedly sensible older sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) is hung up on high school bad boy Steve Harrington (Joe Keery - imagine a teenage William Campbell), as high school outsider Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) - the older brother of the missing boy - suffers from a crush on her. This storyline has received some praise because it doesn't go quite the way these things usually do, but that's exactly why it doesn't work. Nancy is, in many ways, the de facto heroine of this piece, because the two mothers are kept to the sidelines and Eleven is naturally desexualized. For all that, she is portrayed throughout as selfish, lying, destructive, unrepentant and, generally speaking, someone we would not want for a friend much less a lover. At an early point in the story, she asks her best friend, a typical Beta female named Barbara (Shannon Purser), to accompany her to a party at Steve's, where he does everything he possibly can to look like a jackass, including knocking the girl who has sneaked out to be with him into a swimming pool fully clothed. Barbara urges Nancy to leave, but she's ready to have sex, so... later, babe. Thus sending her out into the dark where a Monster (Mark Steger) awaits. There is a reversal here of the traditional "If you have sex, you will die" law of 1970s and '80s horror pictures, but it's not replaced by anything more meaningful because Barbara's death is ultimately one too many to mourn in an eight-hour program. Not only is it all but swept under the rug, but Nancy willfully refuses to learn from her mistake, ultimately choosing the minimally redeemed asshole over the quiet guy who actually rallied to her defense when she needed to be pulled back to the rightside-up world from the gaping maw of Hell itself. So, even when the program attempts to do something new, its decisions are meaningless. Characters who do not grow, who do not change, are antithetical to drama. But giving us a scary world in which no one ever really changes, where we can feel secure in our knowledge of exactly who everyone is, may well be one of the aspects that has made this program so popular. 

It's my understanding that STRANGER THINGS was written as a self-contained mini-series, then retro-fitted with a modest cliffhanger or two when Netflix gave the show's creators an order for a second season. I guess we'll see what happens next, but on some level, we probably already have.

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