Sunday, November 6, 2016

You Shouldn't Like Things Because People Tell You You're Supposed To: A Consideration of "Stranger Things"

Unless you've been living under a rock that shielded you from American pop culture for most of this year, you're aware of the fact that a television series called Stranger Things made a big impact this summer.  Produced by and streaming exclusively on Netflix, it's the latest smash hit for the company, which has done much to reshape the way we think about television over the past several years.



  
American pop culture as a whole has been massively redefined during those years, and while Netflix has been an important component of that redefinition, let's have no misunderstandings: that process goes back years, and Netflix has been a beneficiary of it moreso than an instigator of it.
  
I'm not here to deliver a history lesson on all of this.  Even if I were, I'd be incapable of doing so, because my understanding of it is far too imprecise; I've been aware of it, but only dimly, and not to a keen enough degree to do anything more than pretend at being knowledgeable.  I can tell you that it's been around for the entirety of this millennium; I can say further that I suspect its roots extend back significantly further than that; I can speculate that what we are seeing is the technology-aided fruition of ideas that go back at least two or three decades.
  
I've seen this trend most clearly in the artistic realm.  (By this, I refer to "the arts" in a general sense: not merely painting or illustration or the visual arts, but also music and, to a lesser degree, fiction and cinema and television and video games, etc.)  The way I've always thought of it is as "mashup culture," and until writing this post I was unaware that I'm by no means alone in labeling it thus.  It's entirely possible that I stumbled across the term at some point and simply forgot that I'd seen it, but I'm not sure that's the case; I do want to leave some room permitting it to be the case, but I don't know that it is.  
  
Mashups as we know them seem to have begun with music, via people who edited together two different songs in an interesting way.  The first time I became aware of this was listening to an episode of the Rick Emerson Show half a decade or so ago.  The following song began playing:
   





It was presented without introduction of any sort, and I thought Emerson was simply playing a bit of "Imagine" as an outro from one segment to the next.  When the distinctive David-Lee-Rothian shriek arrived, I was startled into a state of slack-jawed amazement.  As I listened to the song, I thought I was hearing a work of unvarnished genius.  I had no idea that this was merely one example of an already-large subgenre.
  
The goddam thing still makes me laugh.  There's a sort of sacred-and-profane juxtaposition that makes it memorable.
  
There are oodles of other examples of this sort of thing.  Just go to the YouTube version and follow the rabbit hole; it's easy enough to do.
  
I think that I heard "Imagine A Jump" a few years after seeing a superficially unrelated, but philosophically similar, video featuring two very different subjects: 
  
  



I saw that around the same time I saw this:





Those two videos work for different reasons that are actually kind of the same: the visual content matches the pre-existing audio extremely well thanks to the process of recontextualization.

The same sort of thing can also be accomplished with a still image:




That image still makes me smile.  Why does it work?  Well, it probably doesn't if you don't have sufficient familiarity with the two series represented (Star Trek and Firefly) to understand that they share at least one crucial similarity.  I don't want to impose my idea of that similarity upon you, so I leave it to you to fill that blank in for yourself.
  
I'd argue that all of these mashups function extremely well as artistic statements in their own right.
  
They are a rare breed in that regard, however.  It's much more common for mashup artists to simply do the exact thing implied by the nickname of their movement: mash things together, often gracelessly and with no sense of larger purpose.  Can you do a Cat in the Hat mashup involving Cthulhu?  Yeah, sure.  Why would you?  Odds are that all you're doing is saying, "I like Lovecraft and I like Seuss."  What more do you have for me?  If it's not more than that, I'm not interested.
  
I don't want to pretend that I know more than I know about mashup culture, but I do have some sense of what this movement is all about, and I've got my opinions on what does and doesn't constitute a successful example of it.  I've been entertained by it at times, and I've been frustrated by its very existence at times.
  
Be that as it may, you and I both need to understand something: it is NEVER going away.  This movement very much has the feel of a box having been opened; perhaps by Pandora, and perhaps not, but either way things have gotten out that are never coming back.
  
There are certain to be interesting times as a result of it.  It seems a near fact that the rise of the Bernie Sanders movement this election cycle was closely tied to similar issues, or at the very least that it was powered by the same sort of attitudes.  I can't prove that Bernie Sanders got to be a big deal by appealing to the same people who might think it was fun to draw a poster for a Marvel movie using Muppet Babies as the Avengers; but I believe it to be the case, and leave you to do your own research if you've got an interest in proving the issue one way or the other.
  
On a less important scale, however, we seem certain to see eventual major cases in which the people who own the rights to various intellectual properties have to defend them vigorously against people who don't understand why they can't do whatever they want to do with them.  It's already begun to happen, in fact; just Google the word "Axanar" and you can find out about it.  What happens ten years from now when somebody with the means to do so decides they want to make their own Harry Potter and Twilight crossover fan film?  What happens when they raise ten million dollars to do it with?  It may not happen at that scale; but then again, it might, and as the technology of filmmaking and effects animation continues to become cheaper and therefore more widely available, it's only a matter of time before something like that happens on a major scale.
  
This brings us to Stranger Things, which is by no means THAT sort of project, but which points the way toward a possible future mode of expression.  Stranger Things is practically crawling with homages to various IP (intellectual properties) from the era in which it is set: the 1980s.  These range from the incredibly obvious (actual references to one IP or the other via onscreen depictions or explicit dialogue) to the moderately obvious (evocations of plot points from one IP or another) to the subtle (thematic parallels, sometimes with meaningful convergences or divergences).
  
Let's be clear: Stranger Things did not invent the homage-heavy storyline, not by a damn sight.  I don't know what did, but I know it's old news.  Stranger Things does seem to have gone farther with it than many properties of the past (Super 8, for example) may have done, but this might be merely a matter of faulty perception on my part.  I've got a friend -- hi, Trey! -- who is quite knowledgeable about the gaming industry, and he's suggested to me that this has been a trend in video games for years.  He even tried to persuade me long ago that I ought to consider Alan Wake to be an unofficial Stephen King adaptation due to the heavily Kingian references throughout.  I didn't brush him off on that, as I recall, but I did tell him that any unofficial work was going to remain outside my purview as a King fan.
  
And that remained true until (arguably) Stranger Things.
  
A quick note about my history with this series: I did NOT make the decision to watch it based on it having Stephen King homages.  I'd heard about it several months prior to its debut, and knew that it was a sci-fi/horror series set in the 1980s about a group of kids.  I knew Winona Ryder was in it.  And that was it.  The next thing I heard about it was that advance critical word on it was very strong; I'd already planned to watched it based on the genre(s) to which it belonged, but the critical reception cemented it.  The Kingian homages did nothing to deter me, but I'd have come to this show without them being present.
  
With that established, let's now move into discussing the reason I'm writing this post.  After Stranger Things debuted and people began to consume it and write about it, online articles -- ranging from professional journalism to amateur blogging (like this!) -- began dissecting the homages and references and Easter eggs.  This tracking of the show's influences became a key part of the narrative of its movement into the realm of pop-culture phenomenon.  Stranger Things arguably dominated the pop-culture discussion at a level no blockbuster movie managed all summer; indeed, it's more than possible to speculate that the series got so much attention from so many people that it actually hurt a few of July's would-be blockbuster movies releases (including Ghostbusters and Star Trek Beyond).  There's no data to prove it, of course, but as speculation goes it seems logical.
  
Either way, Stranger Things was, conversationally, the hit of the summer.  Given that a large number of the articles written about it mentioned (among others) the name "Stephen King" quite prominently, it eventually became impossible for me not to begin thinking about the degree to which I needed to assess it as a piece of Kingian fiction.  It's not a full-blown pastiche, I'd argue; but does it get close enough to count.  I can tell you this: for a few weeks there, if you had a Google Alert set for the phrase "stephen king," you were going to get a Stranger Things article or two emailed to you on a near-daily basis.
  
At a certain point, I felt it was incumbent upon me to consider the issue, even if it was only to vote "no" on the whole subject.  I got quite grumpy about it during the summer.  I felt like it was doing Stranger Things a massive disservice to merely list the homages.  Watching a television series should not, in my opinion, be a scavenger hunt wherein homages are compiled and then waved aloft as proof of having "gotten them all," or whatever.  If that's all a show has to offer (a sin of which I do not believe this one to be guilty), then it doesn't have much; if that's all a fan focuses on, then they are watching for different reasons than I watch.  Just read the fucking Wikipedia page and move on.  So for the conversation about the series to -- in my perception, if not in reality (and I'm honestly not sure which is the actual case) -- focus so heavily on a form of eighties-reference Bingo turned me off massively.
  
Not to the series, mind you; but to the conversation about it.
  
Well, months later, here I am finally weighing in on it.  The issue came up weeks ago, when a regular reader asked if I would be writing about the series.  I said that I would if I could find the time.  After that, one of my oldest friends -- hi, Brian! -- texted me and told me he thought it would be a good idea for my blog, and that he'd be interested in reading it.
  
Who am I to ignore requests of this nature?  I'd intended to knock the project out earlier in October during some vacation time, but got lazy and just didn't get around to it.
  
I remembered it recently, though, while putting the finishing touches on a post ranking King's movies and television shows.  I decided to talk about Stranger Things briefly as an Honorable Mention, and in writing that bit, I decided what I wanted the eventual full post on the subject to cover.  I wrote the following sentences for that Honorable Mention:
  
"Mashup culture is here in full force, and shows no signs of going away.  If things continue down that road, then we could well get to a place where an unofficial inspired-by-the-works-of piece of storytelling like this one becomes considered by many to be just as genuine an adaptation as an actual remake of, say, Firestarter would be."
  
I don't think I'd ever considered the idea in that precise way until I wrote those sentences.  As soon as I did, though, I knew it to be true.  I'm still not sure that I myself will consider it to be as genuine as a "real" adaptation, but if people who grow up within mashup culture consider it that way, then my opinion on the matter will be increasingly irrelevant.  Part of me wants to draw a line in the sand and refuse to cross it.  That line might keep me in, but would it keep anyone else out?  No.  Clearly not.
  
With Stranger Things, then, I had an opportunity: to consider how I truly feel about all of this, and to also begin formulating a plan to handle my critical response.  That response -- to mashup culture in general, I mean, not merely to Stranger Things specifically -- must be willing to evolve, if only so as to be able to properly refute things which I feel must be refuted.  Maybe I'll be persuasive in that regard and maybe I won't, but I know one thing for certain: if I don't try to cultivate at least a modicum of familiarity with the movement, then any exploration of it that I undertake is an automatic failure.  And if I refuse to explore it at all, then I likely cede any ability to be at the forefront of critical thought on King's work.  I'm not in that position, but I'd like to eventually get there; and being stagnant seems like a great way to fail.
  
So, with all that in mind, where I'd like to go now is to a consideration of the degree to which Stranger Things is an homage to the works of Stephen King.  We'll begin by considering the homages that I noticed during my second watchthrough of the series (which I finished in a three-day process of watching with simultaneous screencapping and note-taking).
  
  
  
  
The font used in the title card for the series is very similar to the font used on a great many King books during the eighties.  You can read more about that here, but the short version of the story is that while this font absolutely IS derived from Stephen King books, the font also appeared on other books covers that are germane to a discussion of Stranger Things.
  
So, do we count this as a Stephen King homage?
  
I think so, but only partially.  In other words, if I were basing a decision on discussing Stranger Things as a piece of Kingian fiction purely on the title card, I'd opt not to.
  
  
  
  
One of the biggest Kingian homages in Stranger Things is to Firestarter.  The Department of Energy here serves essentially the same function that The Shop (the nickname for the fictional Departmental of Scientific Intelligence in King's work) serves in Firestarter.  The Shop also shows up in a major role in Golden Years (a King-scripted/created television series), and serves minor roles in The Langoliers, The Tommyknockers, and The Stand.  In essence, The Shop is the representative body for King's distrust of government as it pertains to intervention in the lives of citizens.
  
It's Firestarter that is of interest to Stranger Things.  In that novel/movie, the young girl -- Charlie McGee -- at its heart is born to a mother who was part of a government-funded drug trial that experimented with pushing the boundaries of human ability.  In Firestarter, Charlie is not taken by Shop officials until she is something like seven years old; in Stranger Things, Jane Ives is taken from her mother apparently before she is even born, and lives the first decade-plus of her life with no name other than "Eleven."
  
So really, the similarity to Firestarter is negligible.  A few visual cues -- such as the one pictured above -- do help the evocations of King's work sink in a bit further, though.  Eleven bleeds from the nose when she uses her powers, and while the same cannot be said of Charlie in Firestarter, it is (at least in the movie -- I can't remember as regards the novel) true of Charlie's father, Andy, who bleeds and grows weak when he uses his own powers.  
  
  
Firestarter
  
Andy can cause people to do what he wants them to do by giving them verbal commands; this is a power that Eleven does not seemingly possess, so her similarity to Andy pretty much ends with the nosebleeds.
  
Her actual powers are more telekinetic in nature, and she shares more with the title character of King's Carrie than she does with Charlie.  Eleven does not light one single fire, for example; and Charlie never flips any vans or causes any compasses to deviate from their natural inclination.  Carrie White probably could have done those things, though.
  
There is also a controlled-lab-experiment vibe to Firestarter that is mirrored in Eleven's plotline.  She even wears a monitoring apparatus on her head that is vaguely similar to something Charlie wears in Firestarter.
  
  
  
Firestarter


So, again, the question: how Kingian is this?  I'd say this aspect of the plot certainly evokes the movie adaptation of Firestarter on a few occasions, and Eleven's telekinetic powers are also mildly reminiscent of Carrie.  The plot itself has only marginal similarity with Firestarter, however, and virtually none with Carrie.  If anything, it's closer to Brian DePalma's The Fury than to Carrie.
  
In other words, it's Kingian, sure; but not profoundly.  It's really just Eleven's nosebleeds that make it specifically Firestarter-influenced.
  
Before we move on, a word on vocabulary.  I may slip up and do so at some point without intending to, but I'm steadfastly trying to avoid calling these elements of Stranger Things "references."  A reference would be an actual by-name mention of something: when you see a poster for Jaws on the wall, that's a Jaws reference.  If a character said to another, "Boy, you're being a real Quint right now," that would probably be a Jaws reference.  But if a character got attacked by a shark, that wouldn't be a Jaws reference unless the movie (or novel) was directly mentioned in some way; that would instead be a homage to or an evocation of Jaws.
  
There is a difference.
  
Nowadays, you'll mostly just see such things referred to as references (or sometimes as "Easter eggs," which is also frequently misused in this context).  That, too, is a part of mashup culture: you start using a word incorrectly, and it sticks because everyone knows -- or thinks they know -- what you mean.
  
So be it, I guess, but doggone it, I'm going to try to use the correct terminology, if only to keep myself honest.
  
Moving on...
  
  
  
  
Well, okay, that might count as an actual reference.  After all, "The Body" is the title of the novel(la) on which Stand By Me was based.  Stand By Me involved a quartet of preteen boys who were best friends and who went on an outdoors adventure.  They also sat around and talked a lot of shit, which is true of the quartet of friends pre-vanishing in Stranger Things.
  
Stand By Me is also directly evoked visually (although this happens in Chapter Five, not Chapter Four):
  
  

Stand By Me


Stand By Me
  
  
They aren't direct lifts in terms of the shot compositions, but there's no way these don't count as evocations of Stand By Me.
  
Apart from this, do Stranger Things and Stand By Me have anything in common?
  
A bit.  Bullies are a major presence in both; the kids are able to do things almost entirely absent of parental concerns in both; and a dead body -- or, in the case of Stranger Things, a fake body -- features in both.  These are fairly common plot points in all sorts of stories, though, so I would personally have to say that the connections between the two run shallow.
  
At least onscreen; apparently, the Duffer Brothers used dialogue from Stand By Me as a major part of the auditioning process to find the right kids for the roles.  I've been unable to find a direct source for that, but this piece about Wil Wheaton's reaction to the series mentions it.  Let's assume it's true; it certainly feels true.
  
  
  
  
Okay, that is a reference.  The state Trooper is reading a copy of Cujo; you never quite see the front of the book, but it's definitely Cujo.  Hopper says something about the book having a "mean mutt" in it, and anyways, that's the only King hardback for which that author photo was used.
  
Does Cujo have any other relevance to Stranger Things?
  
Cujo is about Donna Trenton, whose marriage is going bad; in Stranger Things, Joyce Byers' marriage has dissolved prior to its events.  A dissolved marriage isn't much of a commonality, but both Donna and Joyce spend a decent chunk of their respective stories actively fighting to keep their children alive.  The two stories are otherwise very dissimilar, but there is one further commonality:
  
  
Stranger Things

Cujo
  
Those cars sure do look similar, don't they?  Donna drives a Ford Pinto in Cujo, but I was not immediately sure that was what Joyce Byers was driving; I (being no car expert) thought there was chance hers might be a Gremlin.
  
Nope:
  
  
  
  
It's a Pinto.  And this, by the way, counts as an homage; not a reference, and not an evocation, but an homage.
  
Moving on, let's talk about It now.  That novel/miniseries also features a group of preteen kids, and while there are seven of them in It, as opposed to the four or five (depending on whom you include) of Stranger Things, I think this still counts.  The group in It refers to itself as the Losers Club, and while the kids in Stranger Things don't have a similar moniker, one of the bullies who demonize them throughout does specifically call them "losers" on several occasions.
  
Apart from that: the kids have to fight a monster, and use a slingshot to do so; have a diverse makeup, including a girl, a black boy, and (possibly) a gay boy; don't have much success in getting grownups to believe them; and so forth.  There's even a rockfight at one point, although the one in Stranger Things is quite anticlimactic.  Basically, one rock gets thrown, and it hits nobody; I think this is a joke for anyone who knows It and is perhaps expecting something more grandiose, and if so, it worked on me.

Fun fact: Stranger Things came about in part due to the fact that the Duffers tried to get assigned to write and direct the upcoming movie remake of It.  They didn't get the job, but decided to do something that scratched some of the same itches for them.  I'd say that's worked out quite well for them so far.
  
  

  
The last remaining King-written touchstone I'd like to discuss is "The Mist," which involves a government experiment that accidentally unleashes massive chaos on the small town nearby.  It's the result of what is assumed to be an accident at the Arrowhead Project, a military facility that sounds not at all unlike the Hawkins facility operated by the Department of Energy in Stranger Things.  In "The Mist," a hole to another dimension is ripped open accidentally, and all manner of beasties pour out and wreak bloody havoc.
  
In Stranger Things, however, a portal to another dimension is opened, but only one creature comes out, and it seems inclined to go back in and spend most of its time there, only coming out to feed occasionally.  The damage is much less severe, and while there are multiple fatalities in Stranger Things, there is absolutely nothing like the widespread apocalyptic devastation of "The Mist."  The similarities are fairly mild, all things considered.

And yet, this has not stopped some wankers from hypothesizing that Stranger Things is a prequel to "The Mist" that explains how the accident at the Arrowhead Project happened.  This, too, is a lamentable facet of mashup culture: incessant fan theories which typically prove to me that those doing the theorizing are more interested in writing fan fiction than in watching tv shows.  So be it, but please don't expect me not to use the word "idiot" when I see fit.  This particular theory was originated by an idiot.
  
Anyways, the only direct visual evocation of The Mist comes when a soldier is hooked to a retractable cable and sent into the Upside Down.  He encounters some offscreen trouble, and they try to pull him back, but all that comes back is the cable.  It's smeared with some goo that may or may not be blood; it's hard to say for sure, but it looks more orange than crimson to me.  In the movie version of The Mist, a character with a rope tied to him goes out into the mist and gets eaten; the survivors pull the rope back in, but the end of it is soaked with blood.  In that movie, there's no doubt about what happened; in Stranger Things, all evidence points to the Demogorgon using humans for incubation instead of food, so the moment is not necessarily an exact parallel, because I think it's more likely that the solider doesn't die then and there.
  
The only other Kingian aspect left to explore, at least from my point of view, is that the series opens with somebody at a government lab freaking out; this is mildly similar to the beginning of the expanded version of The Stand.
  
And with that, I'd consider the Kingian content explored.  Others have mentioned that the Upside Down is similar to Boo'ya Moon in Lisey's Story, but that's a massive stretch, in my opinion; the two share virtually nothing in common, and if I were going to compare the Upside Down to anything in King's work, I'd compare it to the pocket universe inhabited by the Langoliers.  But I wouldn't make that comparison, either; it's just the comparison I would make if I were forced to make one.
  
So, all that said, how would I rate the first season of this series as a specifically Kingian piece of work?
  
On a scale of 1 to 10, I'd say about a 4.  Personally, I think this aspect of the series has been overhyped.  There are evocations, no doubt about it.  There are even a couple of direct references: the State Trooper reading Cujo is one; the other is when, to try and help give them some context for what is happening, Eleven's aunt asks Hopper and Joyce if they've ever read any Stephen King.
  
But is there really a significant similarity between Stranger Things and these King-written works beyond the surface?  I'm just not convinced that there is.  Even if we do reach a point where mashup culture begins listing inspired-by works on hypothetical lists of adapted-from-King works, I don't think I'll do so.  I just don't see enough similarity to warrant taking that step.
  
The question I'd pose to myself in a devil's-advocate capacity is this: what makes Stranger Things less specifically Kingian than, say, Haven
  
If you're not familiar with Haven, it's a series that ran for five seasons on the Syfy Channel.  It was adapted from the King novel The Colorado Kid, but in an incredibly loose manner that only used a few elements from the novel and then went off into almost-wholly different directions.  The novel featured two elderly newspapermen; so did the series.  The novel featured a "character" referred to as the Colorado Kid, a corpse who was found sitting on a bench and who was never identified; the series took that concept and then explained who he was, despite the fact that the whole point of the novel was that nobody ever found out.  Beyond that, the series settled for doing vaguely Kingian things like dropping occasional references to Shawshank Prison, or having a character in a yellow rainjacket sailing a paper boat down a rainy gutter.  It was an extremely shallow take on King at best; at worst, it felt like a bold-faced lie on the part of the series to even claim to be adapted from King's work.
  
Of the two, I'd honestly have to say that Stranger Things is the more Kingian.
  
Why, then, do I balk at counting Stranger Things while I would unflinchingly list Haven on any list of King adaptations?
  
It all comes down to a matter of legality.  Haven is an officially-licensed-from-King property, whereas Stranger Things is not.  If the latter had some sort of credit that mentioned Firestarter or It, or even if it had an "inspired by Stephen King" credit, then I'd count it.  But that isn't the case, whereas it is the case that the people who made Haven bought the rights to The Colorado Kid, and with them the right to only use what they saw fit to use.
  
What I'm saying, then, is that the issue of legality is my line in the sand.
  
So, then, a question begs itself from the devil's-advocate side of my brain: admitting up front that the likelihood of this happening is minuscule, what would my reaction be if Bill Gates decided to, for his own personal collection, spend a hundred million dollars on an adaptation of The Talisman?  In this scenario, he hires a professional director, professional actors, professional effects companies, etc., and produces the movie, which he intends for nobody to ever have a copy of except for him. But somehow, during this process, somebody leaks a finished copy onto the Internet; pirates get hold of it and seed it to torrent sites, and the end result is that if you know where to look and are willing to do so, a big-budget film version of The Talisman exists.
  
Would I count that movie if it came into existence?
  
It's a good question, if a thoroughly hypothetical one.  Well, maybe not that hypothetical: Indian-language films based on both "Quitters Inc." and Misery apparently exist, but neither are licensed works.  King seems to have opted not to pursue legal sanctions against the distributors of the films, which seems like an odd decision on his part; but for all I know, India has different trademark laws than America, and maybe King could only sue if the distributor attempted distribution outside India.  I've never seen either movie -- No Smoking and Julie Ganapathy, in case you were wondering -- so I have no idea how closely they are based on King's work; that plus the legal issues have prevented me from listing them as "King" movies.
  
But, again, it's worth asking: why are these different than, say, Children of the Corn: Genesis, which has virtually nothing to do with King's work but nevertheless has his name on it.  Seriously: that movie barely has either children or corn in it; it's that removed from the source material.  Yet, legally-speaking, it IS based on King's work.
  
It's a thorny subject, and I think it's incumbent upon anyone doing critical work on it to find some means of staying consistent in their approach.  If you want to not count the fauxquels like the Children of the Corn series, that's fine, and understandable; but you should be prepared to justify why you exclude one title as opposed to another.  So, for example, would you include The Lawnmower Man, which so vexed King in its unrelatedness to his work that he successfully sued to have his name taken off?  Personally, I still include that one, simply because I find there to be at least a modicum of Kingian material, enough so that I feel it still counts despite King's legal victory.  It's no more disconnected to King than Haven is.
  
I could go on in that vein for pages and pages, but I think you get where I'm coming from.  For me, the matter of legality remains front and center.  However, I'd be willing to consider including an extra-legal film if I felt its merits justified it; that hypothetical Gates-produced Talisman, for example.  I'd have to include it.  It would, technically-speaking, count as an amateur film; and I typically do not count amateur films (including King-sanctioned "Dollar Baby" shorts) simply because they tend to be of low quality.  We are in an era now where it is relatively easy for anyone to make a movie.  It may not be a good movie; it may not competent or watchable or have any aesthetic sense, but would it technically be a movie?  Depends on how you look at it, but in a literal sense, I'd mostly have to answer yes.  Counting all of those movies as King adaptations could, theoretically, quickly grow to be unmanageable; so in that sense, I would only count movies that achieved professional distribution ... or were of sufficiently strong artistic quality to be worth consideration.
  
This brings us back to Stranger Things.  The quality is strong; if the actual content was more specifically and directly related to King, then I'd probably lean toward counting it as a King adaptation, albeit an unofficial one.  I just don't think that Stranger Things is a compelling enough example in terms of the specific content.
  
Such a thing may yet be on the way, though.  Stranger Things was a big enough hit that you've got to figure somebody else is going to take a crack at doing something similar before long.  That seems inevitable.  Maybe they'll try to make Stephen King a vital part of their mix, too, and if so, then maybe they'll lean on his work much more heavily than the Duffers did.
  
What I'm saying is this: I'll take it on a case-by-case basis.  I'm not closed off to the possibility of redefining the way I consider these things, but the proof is still in the pudding, and it's up to each specific project to convince me.
  
I don't see that ever changing.
  
Anyways, now that we've hashed that out, let's return to looking at Stranger Things itself.  I've got a bunch more screencaps and notes from my rewatch, and I see no point in letting them go to waste.  I'm not going to do a full episode-by-episode review, but I think it would be worthwhile to step episode-by-episode through what I've got left, and spend a little more time in this world.


"The Vanishing of Will Byers" is a sort of stilted title, but I like it, for reasons I can't quite figure out.  The episode chapter could have been titled differently, something like "Will Byers Vanishes," or "The Disappearance of Will Byers."  I like what they went with, though.

Ludicrously, one site I visited that listed the Stephen King references in Stranger Things listed the town of Hawkins as a reference to Castle Rock.  Why?  Because it's a small town that may as well be Castle Rock.  Bryant calls major bullshit on this.  Bryant thinks small towns existed in Stephen King's work before Castle Rock, and Bryant thinks further that small towns existed in the real world before Stephen King wrote about them.  If I'm expected to feel that the mere presence of a small town is a Stephen King reference, then I'm going to consistently defy that expectation.

This moment (which did not screencap well) of Will looking out his window and seeing a monster in the distance reminded me of Signs more than anything else.  Not only is Signs not an eighties movie, it's a movie from the aughts!  However, Signs is an intentional evocation of E.T.., as is Stranger Things, so we're getting close to snake-eating-its-own-tail territory now.  And yet...this still works for me.

Schlitz and The Old Man and the Sea must be a potent combination.

For the ladies.  The ones who don't like ladies, I mean.  And also, I suppose, for the fellas who like fellas.  Hmm.  Okay, well, this is just for whoever likes this sort of thing, I guess.  Damn, dude; terminology was easier in the eighties.

Part of the reason David Harbour works so well as Hopper is that he's a complete mess, and in that sense he's a hero cast from the Han Solo mold.  Note for the record that I do not count this as a Star Wars homage; I just count it as good writing and casting.  Hopper is a bit further down the hot-mess spectrum than Han Solo was, but I think he's still got a lot of appeal.  I suspect that lots of little boys -- and probably a few big ones, too -- see what he's doing here and think, "I want to be like Hopper when I grow up."  Badass cop who lives all by himself, entertains the occasional ladyfriend, has a stream behind his trailer, cracks jokes on account of not taking anything too seriously, and smokes after brushing his teeth...yessir, that's the dream.  Or so it seems in the moment.  This was a breakthrough role for Harbour, who'd been popping up here in there in significant movies since the early aughts.  I knew him as the odious CIA guy in Quantum of Solace, but he has been in lots of other stuff, too.



This guy is Ryan Reynolds' hulked-out brother, right?

Eleven is played by Millie Bobby Brown, whose agent ought to have insisted she simply call herself Millie Brown.  By any name, she is fantastic in this role.

I took a screenshot of this house because I was convinced that it looked enough like the house in the beginning of Creepshow that I could count it as an homage.  So I checked Creepshow, and ... not so much.  I leave this screencap here as a reminder of my error.

How cute is this little girl?  She's got an appealing I'm-not-acting quality to her that reminds me of both Carey Guffey (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) and Heather O'Rourke (Poltergeist).


More thoughts yet:

  • There's a poster for The Thing hanging on the wall in Mike's basement.  My first thought was, I don't buy it; that's a little too R-rated for these kids.  But then I remembered that a lot of kids weren't pussies like I was, and go nuts for R-rated stuff like that.  And anyways, the kids in Poltergeist have a poster for Alien hanging on their wall.  So it works.
  • When we meet our quartet of kids, they are playing a game of Dungeons & Dragons, which brings E.T. to mind in the first of a very long string of homages to that movie.  And I may as well go ahead and tell you now that while one can debate the degree to which Kingian content is present in this movie, it's less debatable with E.T.  This series has E.T. practically dripping off the walls.
  • Among other E.T. evocations, Will goes into a shed behind his house.  There is a significant difference, however: in E.T., Elliott is scared of what might be in the shed, whereas Will in Stranger Things goes into the shed to get a weapon to use against the thing he's afraid of.  I sympathize with those who feel that Stranger Things is a series of hollow pursuits in the form of Reference Bingo, but I find there to be more going on than that.  More often than not, the homages are turned on their head in some way that makes them interesting.  For example, I think you can probably say that Will is living in the story that Elliott is (during the early part of his movie) afraid he's living in.
  • The title sequence is groovy, as is the music -- not just here, but throughout the episodes -- by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein.  It's been compared to the scores of John Carpenter, but it doesn't sound much like Carpenter to me; to the extent it reminds me of anything specific, it reminds me of Tangerine Dream.  This style of synthesizer-based music has been in vogue for the better part of a decade now, and it's interesting to me that the Duffer Brothers opted for this sound.  They've done so much to pay homage to E.T. specifically that it's almost surprising they didn't want a more symphonic/thematic approach a la John Williams.  Might be because the orchestral approach to film scoring is perceived to be out of vogue; might be because it's potentially an expensive approach.  Who can say?  Either way, I enjoy this music.  It's no John Williams, but then again, what is?

 




  • Speaking of the Duffer Brothers, I suppose I should mention them more explicitly.  Matt and Ross Duffer are twin brothers whose best-known work prior to this was probably the television series Wayward Pines.  They didn't create it, but they did write a few episodes.  They also wrote the screenplay for a short film based on the Joe Hill story "Abraham's Boys," so there's that.  They also wrote and directed a movie called Hidden that stars Alexander Skarsgaard (whose brother Bill is playing Pennywise in It next year), but for all practical purposes, Stranger Things is their breakthrough.
  •  Flo, Hopper's secretary, tells him that "Phil Larson called, said some kids are stealing the gnomes out of his garden again," which brings to mind Chief Brody being told about a problem with the karate-school kids karate-chopping fences.  Like Brody, we will find out that Hopper is in a small town specifically to avoid being a big-town cop (something they both share with Alan Pangborn of Needful Things).  And the name "Hopper" is reminiscent of "Hooper," the Richard Drefyuss character in Jaws.
  • If you take Stranger Things as being merely an eighties mashup, then what function do you see the presence of Winona Ryder having?  Her most notable roles in the eighties were in Beetlejuice and Heathers, and I don't see a huge amount of either of those movies in this series.  Ditto for Lucas and Great Balls of Fire.  Is it merely that she is from the eighties?  That'd be flimsy.  I guess you could argue that the ghost realm in Beetlejuice has a mild similarity to the Upside Down in Stranger Things, but I'd be disinclined to hear that argument.  This is my problem with Reference Bingo: it leads to the viewer straining to make connections that aren't actually there.
  • Having covered Winona Ryder, let's turn our attentions to Matthew Modine, also a prominent figure from eighties cinema.  Not much Full Metal Jacket here, that's for sure.  However, he was in Vision Quest, and I now quote from IMDb's plot description of that film: "A high school wrestler in Spokane, Washington has trouble focusing on his training regimen when a beautiful young drifter takes up temporary residence at his home."  I suppose that has a certain amount of parallel with the story of Mike falling for Eleven while she's staying at his house.  But would I believe for one second that the Duffers cast Modine because he was in an obscure eighties film in which a guy falls for a girl staying at his house?  No.
  • There's a flashback scene in which Joyce talks to Will about going to see Poltergeist.  She mentions it having a scary clown, and I shit you not, one of the Reference Bingo sites I looked at listed this as an It reference, seemingly forgetting that Poltergeist itself has a scary clown.  You'd think that would be obvious considering that Joyce is making an actual reference to the movie in that scene; but some of these Reference Bingo folks are dense as fuck.
  • In that same scene, the password to enter Castle Byers is "Radagast," which is a deep-cut Tolkien reference.  There are also several references to "Mirkwood" throughout the series, and you could argue that the visual depiction of the Upside Down is similar to the wraith world Frodo enters when wearing the Ring in the Lord of the Rings films.  So if we list this series as Kingian fiction, should we also list it as Tolkienian?
  • Going back to the reference to Poltergeist: part of me could live without it.  Stranger Things is also about a mother whose child has been lost in some other dimension and must be brought back via incredible means, so actually mentioning Poltergeist by name seems a bit too on the nose.  However, it's worth considering that Poltergeist itself has been said to be a dark inversion of The Wizard of Oz; Craig T. Nelson's character, confronted by a tiny woman, asks her colleague which side of the rainbow she is working.  So if Stranger Things is being a bit on the nose, it's hardly the first to do so.
  • There is a scene of people looking for a missing child.  This also happens in both Salem's Lot and Silver Bullet, but I've seen neither of those on anyone else's Reference Bingo cards.
  • There is a shot of workers inside the Department of Energy facility listening to phone calls being made by the people of Hawkins.  This calls to mind a similar scene in E.T., in which goons in a van are listening to the phone calls of people in Elliott's neighborhood.  But again, it's no mere empty homage: consider the fact that what's happening in E.T. is seemingly a temporary thing, whereas the permanence of the facility in Stranger Things implies that this could well be a thing that happens all the time.  So again, this is an amped-up and significantly more dangerous version of E.T. 
  • In addition to the throwback synth score, there is a good amount of vintage song choices.  They are mostly period-appropriate, but a few choices are made that don't entirely work.  As Eleven escapes from the government assassins, Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" plays.  Great song, but it's from 1967.  A few theories about why this song was chosen: (1) it's rad; (2) the sixties-drug-trip aspect of it is appropriate to a series that also references MK Ultra experiments; (3) it's permissible because songs from the sixties were, after all, still being widely listened to in the eighties, and in that sense are just as much products of the eighties as of the sixties; or (4) Eleven's journey is meant to evoke Alice's to some degree.  All of this is true, I guess, and I can live with the song being in the episode.

This title evokes "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street," a not particularly apt evocation.  I guess you could also say that it evokes A Nightmare on Elm Street, which is indeed a quintessentially eighties reference point, and one which works somewhat.

Another screencap of the house in case I needed to prove it looked like the one in Creepshow, which it definitively does not.



These guys are pretty great.  I hope they come back for season two.

"Team Problem Solving Champions"!  Is that a thing?  It seems like a good way of rationalizing that these kids would be capable of getting though the perils they face in the series.

A decent portion of the modern world won't understand how frustrating it is to have to plan details of your life around the length of a phone cord.  Little touches like this help make the show for me.  Watching this scene, I was struck that it's possible the cell phone was invented by somebody who'd gotten tired of having to do some version of what Joyce is doing in this scene; that person got tired of the cord on the phone and said, "I've got to do something about this."

There's a quarry with a small lake in Secret Window.  Does that count as a reference?  (No.)



Here's Charlie Heaton, who plays Jonathan Byers.  He's good, and while his British accent pops up on occasion, I did not notice it until the second viewing of these episodes.

Gaten Matarazzo as Dustin and Caleb McLaughlin as Lucas.  I think they're both great.


Shannon Purser plays Barb.  She's good, but I have to confess that I don't quite understand why the Internet went to such hard work championing Barb this summer.  I mean, I like Purser/Barb just fine, and would have been happy for her to come back; but her death is a major part of Nancy's character arc, and will presumably continue to be in the second season.

More thoughts:

  • Mike gives Eleven a different shirt to put on, and she begins to take her clothes off right in front of the boys, all of whom freak right the fuck out.  This is a great moment that has nothing whatsoever to do with making homages to other things; it's just its own thing.  (I think.  If I'm wrong, and this actually is an homage to something else, somebody let me know.  After all, I haven't seen everything ever made.)  "She just went, like--" says Dustin, who incredulously mimes taking his shirt off.  He knocks the baseball cap off his head when he does it; this seems like an accident and not a planned thing, but sometimes, accidents like that are worth their weight in gold.  If they had weight.  You know what I mean.
  • In our latest homage to E.T., Mike gives Eleven a tour of the house, including introducing her to some of his toys.  Do you suppose it's a coincidence that both Elliott and Mike have Star Wars action figures?  Other homages to Spielberg's movie: Mike hides Eleven in his closet; men in biohazard suits enter a house.
  • E.T.'s presence in Elliott's life serves as a symbolic representation of Elliott's distress over not having an active father figure.  Stranger Things makes no attempt to replicate that dynamic, but comes up with its own: Eleven is inserted into an existing group dynamic among friends, and this serves to symbolically deal with the way a group friendship can change if one of the members tries to bring a new member into the fold.  Tension often results, and it certainly does here.
  • "You shouldn't like things because you're supposed to," Jonathan tells Will, who actually is sort of like Elliott; he too is dealing with his father's absence post-divorce.  So that aspect of E.T. is indeed mirrored, I guess.  Anyways, in this scene, Jonathan is telling Will that he doesn't have to pretend to like sports just to please his dad.  Jonathan is also imparting to Will a fairly keen taste in music: he's made him a mix tape of The Clash, David Bowie, Television, and The Smiths, among others.  Star Lord would be proud.  Speaking of which, do I have to count this as a Guardians of the Galaxy homage?  (No.)
  • There is a theory that Will is gay, and on this second viewing, I totally see it.  I think that would be fascinating material for a show like this to tackle, although it'd be somewhat uncharted territory for a show about kids.  (I say that not knowing if that's actually true; I just don't know of any examples if they do exist.)
  • Lucas explains to eleven what a spit-swear is by spitting into his hand and then shaking Dustin's.  Dustin's reaction to this is great.  It's stuff like this that really makes the series.
  • The editing for the series in general is very strong, but a particularly good cut comes after a scene when Barb gives Nancy a lecture about how Steve only wants to get into her pants.  They show up at Steve's door, and he opens it with Trooper's "Raise a Little Hell" playing suggestively in the background.  Cut from his smirking face to a shot of various undergarments on the floor; the camera moves, and these are revealed to belong not to Nancy and Steve, but to Hopper and an unidentified ladyfriend.  It's a clever edit, but it also works in a subtle sense by implying that maybe Hopper and Steve were cut from the same sort of material; this helps to foreshadow that in the end, Steve is going to be shown to actually be a good guy.
  • I will almost never say no to hearing "I Melt With You" by Modern English.
  • In the slasher-movie sense of things, Nancy's sexual confidence is what gets Barb killed.  She coerces Barb into chugging a beer, which causes her hand to get cut; it is that blood which will attract the Demogorgon.  Then, later, she insists that Barb go home, sending her out into the unprotected wild.  Behavior like Nancy's gets people killed in horror movies, but it's typically the person behaving that way who suffers for it, not a bystander; this is an interesting spin, and one which gives Nancy's story lots of weight.  This is another example of the series' focus on exploring the changing dynamics of friendships, too.

Not one of the more effective titles.  Holly is too minor a character to have an episode named for her.

Winona Ryder is great in this first season.  She's got a very difficult job, too: Joyce spends the vast majority of her screentime dialed up to 11 emotionally, and that can't be easy for an actor to do.  Ryder's job was even more complex than that: she has to be manic and shrill enough that you understand why everyone (including her own son) would assume she was just nuts, but she also has to keep her performance restrained enough that the audience never feels she actually is nuts.  It helps that we've seen the evidence that she isn't; but still, Ryder has to walk that line for the better part of eight episodes, and I think she did so like a champ.  Let's hope she gets more varied material during the second season.

Dustin wears a wide variety of hipsterish tacky t-shirts.  Gaten Matarazzo actually has the disorder -- cleidocranial dysplasia -- that Dustin says he has, which is cool; I mean, I wish he didn't have it, but it's cool that he gets the chance to be a huge star in a smash-hit tv show.  Of all the show's characters, Dustin is the one most likely to actually make a reference to some movie that his character's situation parallels.  I cracked up when, in a later episode, he began referring to Hopper as "Lando" due to the fact that he thought the Chief might betray them.

Caleb McLaughlin as Lucas, aka my favorite of the kids who isn't Eleven.  Lucas is kind of grumpy most of the time, because he's got what seems like a more realistic worldview, and is justifiably stressed out by all these events.  but when the chips are down, he grabs his Wrist Rocket, straps on a Rambo-style bandana, and heads on his own to get shit done.  I hope Lucas has a bigger involvement in season two.  I hope nobody thinks his name is a reference to the movie Lucas.

Finn Wolfhard as Mike.  Mike is naive at times, but is also determined and loyal.  Wolfhard is playing Richie Tozier in next year's big-screen version of It, which I suppose counts as an It homage in a foreshadowing sense.

Joe Keery, who has great hair, plays Steve Harrington, who has great hair.

Natalia Dyer, who will be a many a youngster's first celebrity crush, plays Nancy.


Matthew Modine is Dr. Brenner.  He's okay, but he's not actually given much to do.  All in all, he feels wasted.  Maybe he'll come back in season two with more to do.



This scene, in which Eleven straight up murders two guards, is shocking and effective.


Is it spelled "MKUltra" or "MK Ultra"?  I'd Google it if I cared more.  I could have Googled it in the time it took me to type these sentences, but I opted not to.

To the best of my knowledge, this is not an homage to anything else, and it is GREAT.  So I think it's fairly clear that the Duffers have more up their sleeve than their influences.

Or maybe it's a reference I simply didn't get.  I'm not a big fan of having to think this.  A series that was less engaging or had a weaker cast or was otherwise less accomplished than Stranger Things would lose my interest quite quickly if I found myself thinking too much about references.



  • Let's talk about that sex scene between Nancy and Steve.  I found it to be a bit on the gross side.  There's a reason why teenagers in movies and tv shows are often played by thirty-year-olds.  I mean, this scene is fine from a plot standpoint, but it's just a little too far; I don't need to see an actress in her bra if she looks as young as Natalia Dyer; no sir, do not want.
  • The fact that Barb's seeming death at the hands of the Demogorgon is intercut with this sex scene -- which is actually just a making-out scene, to be fair -- gives both real power.  What Nancy is doing has consequences; she may not be aware of them, but they exist.  And ultimately, by the way, it will be revealed that Barb wasn't killed in this moment; she was taken by the Demogorgon to serve as a host for what I assume to be little Demogorgons.  So in other words, Nancy screws Steve and Barb gets pregnant; tough breaks, kid.
  • So, do we think Nancy actually fucked Steve?  We eventually find out that they did, but this episode leaves it somewhat vague, an interesting tactic: it puts us in the point of view of Nancy's mother, trying to decide whether to believe the words Nancy is speaking or believe the feeling we've got in our gut.
  • This episode was directed not by the Duffers, but by Shawn Levy, who also directed such gems as the Night at the Museum trilogy, Cheaper by the Dozen, and the remake of The Pink Panther.  But he also directed Real Steel, which was quite good, and he's apparently directing an upcoming remake of Starman.  No reason that couldn't work, and his work on Stranger Things is solid enough to make me look forward to it.
  • I fully expected the series to go down the road of having Hopper -- and the town -- suspect Jonathan of being the killer when his photos of Barb were discovered.
  • I haven't mentioned this, but how about a brief word on the manner in which I viewed these episodes the first time?  As you probably know, Netflix makes seasons of their shows available all at once.  You want to see all of Daredevil the day it debuts, all you need is enough hours to sit there and get it done.  I myself don't care for binge-watching of this sort, not when it comes to new shows; binging is fine if I've seen the series before, but when it comes to new shows I've decided that I prefer the one-episode-per-week method.  So that's how I watched the first season of Stranger Things.  (I did cheat mildly: I watched episodes seven and eight back to back.)  It worked just fine for me that way.
  • At this point in the series, we're obviously supposed to think Steve is a douchebag in the tradition of eighties movies that featured douchebag antagonists, but I never really felt that way about him.  I always thought he seemed like a genuinely good guy under the surface, albeit one who makes a few crucial mistakes.  Watching the series a second time, this stood out even more, and it's clear as can be that Steve is being influenced poorly by Tommy and Carol.  ("Tommy and Carol" sounds a lot like "Tommy and Carrie," those being characters in Carrie, another movie that has douchebag antagonists, and no I do NOT actually think that's a reference.)  Fan-theory time: my read on this is that Steve and Tommy are childhood friends, and that when Tommy began dating Carol, he brought her into the midst of their friendship.  She began changing Tommy, and Steve has never much liked the results, but has gone along with it because he wants to stay friends with Tommy.  But now, he's finding himself being changed by Nancy, and this is creating major tension due to how dissimilar Nancy and Carol are.  Works for me.
  • Using Joyce's Christmas lights to answer her question about where he is, Will spells out "RIGHTHERE."  Hmm...  Remind me, where did E.T. say he would be?




I think I had an E.T.-related reason for taking this screencap, but I don't remember what it was.













  • This is a good episode, but I didn't have much to say about it.  It's the second of two directed by Shawn Levy; all the others were directed by the Duffers.
  • I continue to feel that Hopper is a bit of a Han Solo figure.  He goes into the morgue with a plan to bluff his way past the State Trooper who is posted there.  It doesn't work, and he clearly has no backup plan of any kind.  He resorts to simply punching the guy out; he doesn't say "Boring conversation anyway" before he does it, but he might as well.





I really had nothing to say about this episode.  Not a bad episode; I just didn't take any notes on it, because nothing jumped out at me.



Somewhere, somebody is probably counting this as an homage to Pennywise from It.  Not me, although since I've forced myself to be in that mode during my rewatch, the thought did at least cross my mind; so in practical terms, since it made me think of It, it might as goddam well BE an homage.  This shit makes me grumpy sometimes.  Sometimes a clown (even one with red hair) is just a clown, and this is one of those times.  Similarly, there's a fight in an alley in this episode, and a few Reference Bingo sites list that as an homage to They Live.  Which it might be, I'll grant you, but if so it certainly doesn't have any actual similarity to the fight in that movie; so if it counts, it counts only as a botched attempt.




  • "Only love makes you that crazy, sweetheart," says Flo to Nancy, assuming that Jonathan got into the fight on her behalf.  He didn't, but Flo is nevertheless correct: it's Jonathan's love for his family that made him crazy in that moment.  That's a subtle moment that works extremely well, in my opinion.
  • Speaking of the supposed love triangle between Nancy, Jonathan, and Steve, it doesn't amount to much, does it?  And I don't think it's ever intended to; for all its familiar tropes, the series does also find ways of subverting expectations, and this subplot is one of the biggies.  Nancy never falls for Jonathan; Jonathan never falls for Nancy.  Any romance between the two is purely in the mind of the audience -- and in the mind of Steve Harrington.  In this manner, the Duffers are able to subtly keep us on Steve's side despite some of the things he does; he stays 100% redeemable.  Nice stuff.
  • "She's our friend and she's crazy!" yells a triumphant Dustin at the backs of the retreating bullies.  This is a great moment, and it launched a thousand memes this summer.


The thing I love about this scene is that as soon as the kids take off on their bikes and the goons in vans give chase, you know you're in for some E.T. homages.  Sure enough, the kids start cutting through backyards and whatnot, just like Elliott and his gang.  So you're expecting some modified version of the moment in which E.T. levitates the kids right over the top of the goons and away to an airborne escape.  And it never quite happens, because Eleven gets to flip a freaking VAN into the air instead, and it crashes into the street, blocking the other goons' path.  The moment comes several beats before it feels like it should on the E.T. timeline, and that approach works like a charm, because it keeps it unexpected.  The Duffers aren't idiots; they know that a sizeable portion of their audience is watching the scene exactly as a I watched it, and they tailored the outcome to keep guys like me surprised and satisfied.


I refuse to consider this a Pulp Fiction homage, because why would there be a Pulp Fiction homage?

Mr. Clarke is awesome.  I was very worried he was going to get killed, but thankfully, he lives to mentor another day.

This, apparently, is a big fat homage to the 2013 (!) movie Under the Skin.  Actually, no, let's call this what it is: theft.  You don't get to "pay homage" to something from three years ago by completely copying the visuals (which this evidently does).  This bums me out, because I thought this aspect of the series was very clever visually.  And it was: the credit just goes to Under the Skin.  Which I really need to see.



  • The series has a decent amount of X-Filesish paranoia baked into its DNA; it originates from early King (The Stand, Firestarter, The Dead Zone) to some degree, but it feels more X-Files to me.  An amusing moment comes when Ted (Nancy and Will's hapless father) is talking to his wife and says, "This is our government; they're on our side."  But Ted is literally a joke for the whole first season: always wrong, and rarely present at all.
  • "You always say we should never stop being curious, to always open any Curiosity Door we find," Dustin says in an attempt to guilt-trip Mr. Clarke into lending advice via telephone on a Saturday night.  "Why are you keeping this Curiosity Door locked?"  Mr. Clarke submits, defeated by his own words.  Audience wins.





Hello, Alien.  Nice to see you.


I hadn't thought of this until now, but Eleven is probably one of the only example of movies/shows like this using a girl to physically save a group of boys on repeated occasions.  I love it.  I bet little girls ate this shit up, and well they should have.  I bet there are also lots of little boys who fell in love with Eleven; and well they should have.  So this series is an eighties throwback, but it's also got some hallmarks of this era of filmmaking, which is nice.


The design of the Demogorgon is one of the least successful elements of the first season.  It's not scary, it's uninteresting, and it never looks like anything other than mediocre CGI.  It gets the job done, but only barely; I don't think it hurts the series all that much, but it doesn't help it any, either.



The utterly worthless Ted Wheeler.

Steve has a tacky Christmas sweater.  Of course he does.


  • I didn't take any screencaps of it because I couldn't find one that satisfied me, but it's hard to say enough about how great the scene is when Steve wanders blindly into Nancy and Jonathan's fight with the Demogorgon.  In a shittier version of this story, Steve would have been a complete heel who gets killed by the monster in this scene.  Instead, he gets to sort of join the gang for a bit, and even gets a big heroic moment when he shows up and wallops the monster with the spiked baseball bat.  Steve is -- with the possible exception of Hopper or Eleven -- probably my favorite character in the series, and I'll be massively disappointed if he doesn't get more to do in the second season.
  • "Mike!" screams Dustin at the top of his lungs.  "I found the chocolate pudding!"  I love that the kids in this never stop being kids, even when in the middle of a life-or-death crisis.
  • What good would an E.T. homage be if the E.T.-surrogate character didn't die?  And so Eleven does, although it seems quite likely that she will return next season.
  • Once they find Will, Joyce and Hopper have to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to bring him back to life.  Hopper gets quite distraught during it, having memories of his daughter's death.  He pounds and hollers.  He does NOT tell Will to fight or call him a bitch, but simply due to it being a resuscitation scene, do I have to count it as a reference to The Abyss?
  • That scene is the emotional climax of the episode, following on the heels of (and, in some ways, putting a bow on) Eleven's death.  It is scored to the Moby song "When It's Cold I'd Like To Die," and this is a major anachronism, since that song did not come out until 1995.  But it works for me, for the following reasons: (1) it is a great song; (2) it is thematically relevant (Will has said how cold the Upside Down is); and (3) the style of music fits well with the background scores for the series.  So is it a cheat?  Yeah; but it works emotionally, so I'm happy to tolerate it.
  • The gross critters that come out of Barb and which Will coughs up in the coda are somewhat reminiscent of Dreamcatcher, but not quite enough for me to consider it a full-blown homage.  Reference Bingo players disagree.

And with that, we are done until season two.

Final thoughts?  As I've said, I think the Kingian elements have been exaggerated.  But even so, the fact remains: this series got a LOT of people talking about Stephen King this summer.  That's a good thing, and if it made a few King fans out of people who might otherwise have never encountered his work, then it's a great thing.

Personally, I think the Spielberg influences are much more profound, and hopefully that will help keep some of his classics in the public eye for a few more years.

Regardless of considerations like those, I loved the first season.  I'm glad it was a big fat hit, and I will hop on season two as soon as it premieres next year...

...and I'll still be watching one episode per week.

Let's close with a look at a few great Stranger Things images.  I'm not really sure which are fan created and which aren't, and that seems appropriate somehow.










21 comments:

  1. "I can't prove that Bernie Sanders got to be a big deal by appealing to the same people who might think it was fun to draw a poster for a Marvel movie using Muppet Babies as the Avengers; but I believe it to be the case, and leave you to do your own research if you've got an interest in proving the issue one way or the other."

    I thank you for this, both as a line of inquiry and as the best thing I'll likely read all day. Perhaps re: Sanders of the whole excruciating campaign season. Well done.

    Interesting stuff re: the question of "Haven"'s weaker-Kingian content and where the line of officially-Kingian stands.

    I've seen "No Smoking" and it has tenuous connections at best to "Quitters Inc." never saw "Julie Ganapathy," though.

    I've been in conversations with people where suddenly it becomes apparent they don't believe dinosaurs ever existed and that paleontology is a lie, or have some other hardcore belief of which I wasn't aware, and I think I have the same reaction (a sense of being momentarily stunned and then backing away as slowly as possible so as not to give alarm but steadfastly) when people say things like "A small town is a reference to King." And it happens more often that I'd ever have believed possible.

    Perhaps I misunderstand the question but as one of the people who see "Stranger Things" as a (perfectly inoffensive) 80s mash-up / Reference bingo, I don't see Winona Ryder as having to serve any sort of fuction other than being Winona-Ryder-from-the-80s. Which is to say I don't think there was any attempt to crib from "Heathers" or "Beetlejuice" (well, shades of the latter but only in the sense that they share genretrope/ghost overlap) but her presence is just another part of the pastiche. Casting her in this role and then surrounding her with such a relentless pastiche of 80s references (again, perfectly inoffensive ones, but relentless) makes it impossible to not see her as walking, talking extension of said pastiche. That doesn't extend to her character, though, just as a meta-part of the Reference Bingo. I see the same thing with Modine. They're just visual indicators whether accidental or intentional - but inevitably - of the general raison d'etre of the project.

    But I for one did not go through the series looking for references, etc. I was just sort of turned off by the endless string of them. Not even really turned off, just prevented from deep connection. For what it's worth, I had the same reaction to "The Force Awakens," so it's a consistent failure-to-launch from me. "Star Trek Beyond" too, I guess. I have nothing against any of them, I just don't particularly groove to them.

    I think a lot of the Reference Bingo stuff is really just Genre / Trope Bingo. It's a mirror maze in there!

    I agree on Barb. Really, there is a significant portion of the internet that needs to seize things (ahem, Ken Bone, ahem, but the list is endless) and go crazy. They can't help themselves. The AV Club threads are good to pick up this sort of stuff. I wish I knew how to make money off this tendency of people, as it's like damn clockwork.

    My main beef with the series is I just didn't connect with the kids in the cast, from Millie Bobbie Brown (my personal reaction is the same as Barb, i.e. internet-seized-and-made-her-a-hero) to any of them, any of their drama (which was so forced and predictable and unbelievable to me) epiphanies ("friends don't lie" has become a shorthand for me for vapid-or-otherwise-unearned-arc-epiphany) or even their D&D playing. All of it rang false to me, like kids cosplaying 80s movies in a museum set piece. Meh. I don't mean it harshly, as harsh as it likely sounds. But that was my main barrier to falling for the show.

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    1. "I thank you for this, both as a line of inquiry and as the best thing I'll likely read all day." -- It made me happy to think it! Knew it was true as soon as I thought it.

      "I've been in conversations with people where suddenly it becomes apparent they don't believe dinosaurs ever existed and that paleontology is a lie, or have some other hardcore belief of which I wasn't aware, and I think I have the same reaction (a sense of being momentarily stunned and then backing away as slowly as possible so as not to give alarm but steadfastly) when people say things like "A small town is a reference to King." And it happens more often that I'd ever have believed possible." -- I've gotten in more than a few online fights over stuff like that, and while I'm steadfastly trying to stay out of scraps like that, your thoughts remind me that I probably ought to feel good about standing my ground. There's a certain level of stupidity that simply ought not be tolerated.

      You're almost certainly correct about Ryder and Modine. But doggone it, reference-sifting like this -- which seems more and more like conspiracy-theory sifting the more I dwell on it -- practically begs me to try to find that deeper layer. I don't like being in that mode, not one little bit.

      "I have nothing against any of them, I just don't particularly groove to them." -- Not hard at all for me to see how that would be the case.

      "Really, there is a significant portion of the internet that needs to seize things (ahem, Ken Bone, ahem, but the list is endless) and go crazy. They can't help themselves." -- Truer words may never have been spoken. Ken Bone. Jesus Christ. Fuck that guy, and fuck everyone who helped give him his fifteen minutes.

      "All of it rang false to me, like kids cosplaying 80s movies in a museum set piece. Meh. I don't mean it harshly, as harsh as it likely sounds. But that was my main barrier to falling for the show." -- I can see how that'd be the case, especially if the characters/actors didn't click for you. I was worried that rewatching the series might tip me in that direction, but that ended up not happening.

      Thanks for sifting your way through this mess of a post!

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  2. Wow, thats one wall of text. Many things that I noticed too (especially the King things). Others I didn't. And yet there is still so much more. For example you only mention Close Encounters of the third kind on a side note, but aside from King and ET it's one of the most referenced works in the series, in countless scenes. In general this video has also a few further ones you haven't mentioned yet:
    https://vimeo.com/175929311

    Dan

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    1. I didn't notice a whole lot that felt specifically CE3K-dervied to me. But I might have been hypnotized by all the E.T. and just didn't notice.

      It did indeed end up being a wall of text. Almost 12,000 words! I didn't intend to write that much unless I did full posts about each episode, but after I sat down with all my notes, this was what seemed to want to come out, so I just followed my inclinations.

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    2. Almost exactly one year later, and here I am again as I am now watching season 2. You too?
      One thing I wanted to tell you back them but seemingly forgot:
      Is it just me, or does Jonathan Buyers (played by Charlie Heaton) look a lot like a younger Version of King himself? Charlie Heaton is not an exact match (and in some other roles he looks far to rawboned), but if there's ever a bio pic about King that needs a younger version of him, that actor is pretty much an auto-cast! :-O

      Dan

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    3. I hadn't thought of it until you pointed out, but yeah, I could see that. I suspect there will definitely be a King biopic one of these days, by the way; seems inevitable.

      I burned through the entirety of season 2 last weekend while I had some days off. Good stuff! Pretty much on par with the first season, I'd say.

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    4. Thinking about it, with the things we heard about him at the series premiere he also has the experience to play certain bad parts (or experiments?) of King's life. :-(

      I try to watch only 1-2 episodes per day. Because for me personally, series that I rush through too quickly don't stay in my mind as much as (and thereby don't have the same impact as) series that have some time to grow in my mind while I am watching them.
      (And yes, I am using that wording about growing in my mind on purpose. :-P)
      But it's giving me a hard time to be patient with those cliffhangers. The last one being hopper digging up the root cause (double-pun intended) of the rotten plants...

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    5. For the majority of the first season, I watched only one episode per week. I intended to do that with the second season, as well, but the new episodes came out right at the beginning of a week of vacation time, so I said what the hell and just burned through them all. I enjoyed it that way, too, although I still kind of prefer the once-weekly thing.

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  3. There is a theory that Will is gay, and on this second viewing, I totally see it. I think that would be fascinating material for a show like this to tackle, although it'd be somewhat uncharted territory for a show about kids. (I say that not knowing if that's actually true; I just don't know of any examples if they do exist. - for an example check Wizards vs Aliens. Near the end of season 2 one of the main kids comes out. This was Russell t Davies show after the unfortunate canceling of the Sarah Jane adventures. You should check it out on Netflix it's pretty good. Brianne of Tarth is in it! Also Luke from SJA was going to come out in the next season but after Liz Sladen died they didn't continue with the show

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    1. I liked that show; I've never heard of "Wizards vs. Aliens," but if it's got that sort of pedigree, I'm intrigued.

      It doesn't surprise me that the Brits would beat us Americans to the punch in this regard.

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    2. Yeah. The stories from wizards vs aliens were updated from unused ideas from the next season of Sarah Jane.

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    3. Really? Very interesting. I'll have to try to track it down.

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    4. If you like Wizards and you like Aliens - you'll love it! :)

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  4. It was apparently announced today that in season 2, Sean Astin will be playing the manager of the local Radio Shack.

    Nice.

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  5. Mr. Burnette:

    I would say that the entire series has been overhyped. I did watch it, and I did enjoy it, but I wasn't spellbound or blown away as many people have been. I'm not trying to take the hipster approach to this and dislike it because it's mainstream, I thought it was good, but that nothing more.

    I will continue to watch though, I'm looking forward to season two.

    I definitely agree with your take on Barb.

    I can almost envision a day in the future when mashup culture won't exist because every form of art will be incorporating some other forms, there will be very little purity of art. Original pieces will be noted for their rarity. Just a thought and I probably didn't explain it very well. Maybe this - everything will be too diluted to stand on its own.


    Glad to see you posting more lately, keep up the good work.

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    1. "everything will be too diluted to stand on its own." -- That's an interesting way to think of it, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if you're right.

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    2. I hope that I'm wrong, but I don't have much faith in originality or creativity anymore.

      Except for this blog and King, of course.

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    3. As with all things, time will tell. I don't want to adopt a bury-my-hand-in-the-sand approach to experiencing my culture, but if it turns out that that is what works best for me, that's no problem. There are too many books/movies/tv shows/musicians/etc. from previous decades to explore in my lifetime, so I could easily begin concentrating only on what has come before me and never EVER run out of material to explore.

      I could live with that.

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  6. Oh man - have you watched any of The OA yet? new show on Netflix debuted last week, watched the first episode last night. I thought it was incredible. If you liked Stranger Things then this is for you. I'm not going to call it groundbreaking or anything only after the first episode. But it is one of the first show to really take the concept of "binge-watching" to its extremes. The cold opening is 57 minutes long...then the credits roll and the episodes 'begins" and continues for anther 15 minutes. Some episodes are 70 minutes long, some are only 30, its like this is how much of the story we want to tell you now, so this is how long the episode is, all killer, no filler. Its basically saying that if you want to watch in one sitting, then this is a 7 hour movie, if not then you can watch it in episode chunks. Highly recommended.

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  7. Here's an article stating that a recent "Resident Evil" game is partially inspired -- directly -- by "Misery."

    http://www.gamesradar.com/resident-evil-7s-bedroom-dlc-started-life-as-a-version-of-stephen-kings-misery-complete-with-a-book-to-write/

    Questions about that:

    (1) Should a game developer be able to do this without paying royalties? Especially considering there are public statements that essentially say, "Yeah, this is based on Misery"?

    (2) Does this mean this game should be considered an adaptation of "Misery"?

    Discuss.

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