My first writing job was as an Opinion Editor at a college newspaper. In the semester I ran the Opinion page at the Eastern Progress, I spat out a lot of stories. Some I’m proud of. Others not so much. The one hallmark of all of my stories at the Progress was that I tried to imbue them with a sense of emotion; whether that be in the form of disgust over a certain restaurant on campus loading my burger down with onions or a mouth frothing rant about whatever horrific thing was happening in politics at the time. Given the time we live in, I got political a whole lot. Be it a defense of Collin Kaepernick that shit on anyone out there feckless enough to be burning a brand new pair of shoes or multiple op-eds savaging Brett Kavanaugh, I spent a fair deal of time writing stories that were more than capable of starting a Facebook war. So why am I so nervous about putting this story out? It has nothing to do with kneeling NFL players or Supreme Court Justices who have quite possibly butt-chugged. For whatever reason, those stories are divisive. Stranger Things has never been close to divisive. I apparently exist alone as the only soul in the world who doesn’t care for Stranger Things. So until I get a biopic in the style of I Am Legend (Surely a riveting yearn depicting a grunt-y Jon Bernthal type as yours truly sitting around in a cave drinking Irish Coffee and watching Community over and over again to hide from the spooky 80’s show.), I’m airing my grievances on Funkhouser.
If anything, I’ve never seen a show more universally praised in my personal life or online than the hodgepodge of 1980’s references and rehashed stories from that era than Netflix’s behemoth. Like, I’ve literally never heard it take any criticism. Even on the fucking internet! Am I just schizophrenic or something? Has my life become a really niche version of The Truman Show that’s just about mocking the only person who doesn’t like Stranger Things?
There’s been a trend in film and television kick started in the last few years to mine the hell out of nostalgia for the decade of the Gipper and hairspray, and it’s sure as hell not exclusive to Stranger Things. IT, GLOW, Halt and Catch Fire, The Americans, Guardians of the Galaxy, Snowfall, and the upcoming Wonder Woman 1984 are just a few prominent examples of that trend. That’s to say nothing of Ready Player One, which was the cinematic equivalent of Stephen Spielberg folding up like a contortionist and giving himself a rimjob to the sound of the best decade of his life. Of all these titles, none have went pickaxe in hand into that mine with as much glee as Stranger Things. There are Eggo waffles in vintage packaging, vintage D&D campaigns, 8 track players, Ghostbusters, bad haircuts, Wynona Ryder, and more. And in the new season, there’s even a shopping mall! (Honest to god, I heard someone squeal about the mall thing in a Kroeger the other day.) It’s always felt so disingenuous. Giving the people who were around during the time a heavy dose of nostalgia, and giving those of us who weren’t an outlet to a seemingly brighter and simpler time (that in reality was still pretty fucked up). There’s certainly nothing wrong with setting a show in this time frame or enjoying that sense of nostalgia. But it shouldn’t be the reason you make the show.
Among other things, Stranger Things is also derivative as hell. Let’s take a look at all the primary story arcs on the show. There’s a group of socially outcast kids who find themselves on a mission of sorts, both fighting one scary supernatural thing and protecting another much more vulnerable and charming supernatural thing. A John Hughes-esque love triangle between a popular girl, a popular guy, and a weird guy. A perpetually drunk lawman with a tragic past on a punch filled quest for redemption, paired nicely with a desperate parent hell-bent on rescuing their missing child. All storytelling is derivative in one way or another, but it’s so blatant here. For every good compelling story beat in Stranger Things, there’s something else that does it better. You want kids on a mission? Go read IT or watch E.T., The Goonies, or J.J. Abrams’ criminally underrated Super 8 (Super 8, for those of you who haven’t seen it, was essentially Stranger Things 6ish years before Stranger Things.) You wanna see a John Hughes style love story? Watch one of his movies. Drunk and punchy cop or desperate parent? Like 50% of all action movies are this. Sure, it’s certainly possible that this is an intentional move on the part of the showrunners to ape these classic films, that doesn’t make it any less lazy.
It’s not to say that I hate every bit of this show. Far from it. I think Wynona Ryder, David Harbour, Charlie Heaton, and Mille Bobbie Brown act their asses off. That’s reflected in the characters they play. Having two younger brothers myself, Joyce and Jonathan’s manic quest to find Will hit home on multiple levels and kept me pretty engaged with the screen. The same goes for the sad, frumpy Hopper. Who, despite being a pudgy alcoholic, still came through to kick ass and unravel the grand mystery back in season 1. Even with my aforementioned criticisms, I still very much enjoyed those parts of the show. I’m not just saying that because I was essentially a louder version of Jonathan in high school and will very likely find myself a louder version of Hopper in 20 years’ time.
What ultimately weighs down Stranger Things for me more than anything else, are those little preteen shits that make up the bulk of the story. Mike, Lucas, and that obnoxious little asshole Dustin make up the most derivative and nostalgia-bating sections of a show that already leans waaay too heavily into that. The trio are paper thin and charmless nerd caricatures. But apart from not being well acted or likable, they commit the greatest sin a fictional character can commit, they’re boring. Eleven, Max, and Will are all a bit more compelling than the rest of the kids here; but like the rest of the show, they get bogged down by these low-rent, screen time eating Goonies knockoffs.
Look, there’s nothing wrong with liking this show. This is made all the more apparent by the show’s massive popularity and the fact that I’m a contrary bastard. Regardless of whether you like the show or not, it’s hard to deny that it isn’t a story that hasn’t already been told about a hundred times over. And if you like stuff from the 80’s, don’t vicariously live in the decade through the characters on the show. Go watch all those movies they reference. Play some D&D and listen to The Clash and Bowie while you’re at it. Odds are you’ll at the very least get a better understanding of the show you love so much, and the decade it loves even more.