14 August 2016

Stranger Things, Season 1 Review

A young boy disappears on his way home in a small American town. A mysterious young girl in a hospital gown is being chased by men in suits. A secret science lab runs experiments that point to a larger government conspiracy. And in the middle of all the terror and cover-ups, there are people who are trying to live their lives.

Stranger Things is a Netflix original show created by the Duffer Brothers and it markets itself as a tribute to the classic1980's sci fi and horror culture.

I finally saw the entire first season, and a few things immediately stuck out for me, in regards to the show's originality.

There is a fine line between paying homage to a book or a movie, and making a blatant rip off. And oftentimes, Stranger Things crosses this line. Some fans and critics have already said, that the writers of this show rely too heavily on nostalgia and on the source material they're supposed to be paying homage to.

While recognising some of the 80's sci fi references, and the plot elements that Stranger Things borrows, I also recognise references and entire plot lines that the writers of this show have taken from the 1990's TV-shows, like The X-files, Twin Peaks and even a lesser known sci fi thriller, The Pretender. There are entire scenes and storylines that look like they have been copied off of the X-files (even season 10, which came out last January).

It's difficult to find a modern show about the paranormal and supernatural that hasn't been inspired by The Twilight Zone, The X-files or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I don't have a problem with that. The X-files was in turn inspired by Kolchak: the Night Stalker, from 1970's, and both the X-files and Stranger Things build their narratives on that "80's paranoia and government mistrust", as Chris Carter calls it.

The problem is that when you borrow too much from older source material, and when you rely too heavily on the homages and nostalgia, you run the risk of compromising your own originality. And the lack of originality is Stranger Things' greatest weakness. This show doesn't break new ground; it doesn't surprise its audience that already knows their science fiction. Instead, it rehashes the plot elements that are over thirty years old and tells the same story that Chris Carter was telling us twenty years ago.

The main antagonist in Stranger Things might as well be The Cigarette Smoking Man, sans the cigarette. The police chief who's drawn into this case, thinking that finding the boy will somehow help him deal with his own tragedies might as well be Fox Mulder or Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks. And the mysterious science lab might as well be the secretive Centre from The Pretender.

Instead of coming up with something new, the writers repackage same old tropes and stories for the younger generation.   

But it doesn't work for me. Because everything that Stranger Things has to show for - I have seen it before. As you already know, I love old science fiction; I love creepypastas and stories about shady government cover-ups (whether they're true or made up), and this show seems to be made for people like me. But while I'm watching that very first scene, I know that I've seen this before. And I can make a qualified guess about what is going to happen in the next scene. And in the next episode. Every plot twist, every development is recognisable and traceable back to the 80's and 90's source material this show borrows from, which only makes the next twist predictable.

Okay, so the show's plot smells too much like microwaved leftovers. But I still finished it. Why?  

I came for the paranormal, but I stayed for the characters. It's the characters that are this show's greatest strength. The way they are written on paper, and the way the actors portray them is what makes Stranger Things worth watching. I'm genuinely surprised by how realistic and grounded these people are. These are real people with real problems who find themselves in a strange and horrifying situation, and I want things to work out for them. It's on the human emotional level that both the writers and the actors make the show appealing to me.

I gave this show  3/5 stars on Netflix and 6/10 on IMDB.

Will I watch season 2 when it comes out? Maybe. There is a small hook in the season 1 finale, that's not exactly a cliffhanger, but it opens up for more opportunities in the upcoming season. And once again, I can almost see where the writers are going with this hook, and what they will be focusing on next. I hope I'm wrong and I hope that season 2 will be have the courage to be more original and innovative than season 1.

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