‘Stranger Things’ is a new kind of entertainment for a smarter audience.
Amaris, my best friend and roommate, is the authority on new indie sci-fi / horror / supernatural media. She binge watches instead of sleeping more often than she’ll admit. So when Stranger Things dropped on Netflix she was already cornering me with “No, Rosey, you absolutely need to see this.” Now this was before the social media explosion the show created (the Barb-pocalypse, as it were), so I didn’t have much to go on other than Netflix’s new promo gifs at the top of the page.
I’m going to start this essay off skipping the experience of pretty much inhaling the eight-episode season and go right to what I thought about it. Like most of the population, I thought it was really damn good. But not just the standard of good. There was something about this show that just nailed me as totally different.
This is going to contain some spoilers.
My initial reaction to watching the pilot, first of all, was “Is this the Twin Peaks pilot?” Because come on, local kid missing due to mysterious circumstances? Soft-core horror vibes? Literally no questions answered but a thousand thrown at you? Aside from that very clear inspiration, the show also pulled primarily from Spielberg motifs like E.T. and horror classics like Alien and The Thing.
And the number of movies it pulls from (and ’80s TV pilots that can pretty much function as full-length two-hour movies) really starts you off wondering how much of a television show Stranger Things is and how much of a film it wants to be.
Anyone who watched it will probably (definitely) agree with me on the fact that Stranger Things didn’t play like a TV show but instead felt like a movie. It was an intensely cinematic experience. Specifically, I mean to say that there wasn’t the Seinfeld-type syndrome where you can jump in at any point or take in one episode as a contained piece. It’s chronically sequential. There wasn’t even a single moment of filler that wasn’t crucial to the plot and the developments of the characters — who were all constantly developing.
Which I’d like to note is pretty substantial, particularly when the show took a village d-bag like Steve and somehow made me feel for him.
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Maybe the thing that contributed most to Stranger Things being a movielike experience is the ability to binge watch a season in a day. The show seamlessly transitions between episodes without any janky recaps or long-winded title sequences (keeping it simple with that ’80s-throwback intro), really only in a way that a straight-to-stream product can execute. It’s like the cinematic writing shone through best as a binge-able stream show very intentionally.
Doubly cinematic were the heady, artistic choices that played like an indie horror film, particularly those Christmas lights and that killer sound track. I haven’t seen decisions like that in TV-like television, if you know what I mean.
What I mean by TV-like TV is the amalgam of cycling network dramas, comedies, dramedies and transparent hype-grabs that saturate cable and beyond. It’s the old-school network buzz that plays while you’re eating dinner with your family, an industry of classic wholesome entertainment driven by big names highlighting big stars.
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Maybe the most obvious way Stranger Things set itself apart from TV-like TV is the lack of stars. The cast was mostly driven by unknown child actors and was led by only one Hollywood name (Winona Ryder, who should clear up some shelf space for that Emmy). The risk to feature a cast of kids was one that network TV just doesn’t take, a step away from the formula of “big names plus marketing equals success.”
And where was that marketing? I didn’t hear about it until it dropped, and I monitor media for a living. I just saw it floating on the Netflix banner and thought the word strange was a good sign.
But did Netflix need marketing? Considering how the show carried itself to success, it doesn’t look like it in hindsight.
But the risk getting there in itself is kind of groundbreaking. This is a production that tried to get the network TV green light and failed over 15 times. The scripts were rejected continually by networks because of how poorly it fit into one defined genre — it’s not about the adults, but it’s not a kids’ show, and so to a network it didn’t feel cookie cutter enough to be a success. Not to mention the lack of big names attached to the show’s production. Cowriters, codirectors and co-brothers Matt and Ross Duffer had only one other known production under their belt, a 2015 horror film called Hidden. These were creators who didn’t have the business credibility that pretty much any director needs to get a network television show these days. Of course that reflects the backward mind-set of an established industry — have cred to create things, need to create things to get the cred — that seems to try everything it can do to keep out new creators with new ideas for refreshing content.
But from the success of Stranger Things, maybe it’s a clear sign that new creators with new content are just what TV needs. And the success of Netflix is showing that maybe it’s not just necessity but it’s inevitable.
Now I’ve seen this before. Specifically, I saw it in 2015, when Netflix premiered Marvel’s Daredevil. I wasn’t full throttle on the Netflix train yet. I knew Orange Is the New Black started as a small production for the streaming service and was now some kind of Emmy vacuum. But I wasn’t sold on the concept of Netflix Originals until I saw Daredevil. Of course I’m a big geek, so I was already partially sold, but from watching that first season I really understood the purpose of straight-to-stream, network-free Netflix Originals.
Yet another spoiler incoming.
I understood it during the infamous car door scene. The audience witnesses a bizarre dinner scene that lasts upwards of 10 minutes before watching Kingpin take out his anger over being interrupted on his date by graphically crushing the culprit’s head in a car door. I was incredibly disturbed and totally intimidated. I may not have blinked for the rest of the episode.
This was the perfect use of the straight-to-stream, non-network medium. No cable network means lighter censorship, and that means perfectly using it to express the mood of the show. Up until the car door scene, Daredevil wasn’t excessively violent. It wasn’t used for gratuity; it was used to really make the audience intimidated. It was insanely clever, and it’s something they couldn’t have done anywhere else. Without the car door scene, Daredevil wouldn’t have been as good, and anyone who saw it will (probably) agree with me.
This was a show that used its format to the greatest extent to better itself. It was never intended for major cable networks like other Marvel shows. Daredevil, like Stranger Things, understood exactly what it was going for and used the format to get to it.
Daredevil and Stranger Things (and Jessica Jones and Orange Is the New Black) are all evidence of how Netflix Originals are best used to make an overall better product than most network-TV-like TV white noise.
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Of course if you look over the generalizations, this argument makes sense. But there’s something about these original, pseudo-indie TV productions that’s higher-brow than cable’s lowest common denominator. Stranger Things is heady, artistic and so focused on plot that if you blink you’ll miss it. It’s risky, and it doesn’t hand you your plot hooks and twists on a silver spoon. You have to think, theorize and experience it personally in order to really get on board.
That’s what I think the future of television is: plot-heavy, censor-defying, thoughtful stories that come from a new generation of inexperienced but creative minds. This may be the downtrodden millennial spirit in me, but it’s about time the television industry changed hands to bigger risk takers who don’t have to patronize their audience with heavy-handed thematic metaphors or beat them over the head with forced writing.
Audiences are growing up. We’re getting smarter and demanding creative, fresh content. So maybe it’s time for naysayers clinging to old-money network TV to start investing in the internet age, because their catering to the lowest common denominator may not last much longer.