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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (11/14/16) 1:31am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:   <none>
Movies:   <none>
TV:  Stranger Things [season 1]

Stranger Things [season 1]
This is Netflix's 2016 cult hit about a group of early-1980s pre-teens who encounter a supernatural monster in their Indiana town.

Generally it's got a monstrous following among my friends, and handily dominated Halloween.  There's been some blowback that it leans too heavily on nostalgia and recognition, and I can see that, though it's nowhere near as bad as Ready Player One in that department.  On balance, I'd say the show does a fine job of gathering up all of these different pieces of 1980s geekdom and using them as inspiration for something that matches that milieu without slavishly quoting it.[1]

But maybe I'm giving the show a pass because it's so good at plot.

This show *moves*.  It knows how to build a story.  It knows how to set up one scene after another where something is clearly at stake, and those stakes are getting higher, and you want to know how it turns out.  In the later episodes, they do a masterful job of pulling their story threads together -- by the time two groups of characters are walking down the exact same hallway, on the lookout for the same monster, under wildly different circumstances, I wanted to stand up and cheer the sheer Swiss-watch construction of it all -- everything has its purpose, and everything fits neatly into place.

Other, non-plot aspects of the show are weaker.

A lot of people have made comparisons to Freaks and Geeks, and the show both invites those comparisons and suffers by them.  It represents 1983 in an interesting, off-kilter way.  For example, you see a town street, and it's lined with bright, shiny, good-as-new period vehicles.  So on the one hand, it's accurate: those are indeed cars from (mostly) the right model year.  But in another way, it's way off: the economy was terrible in the early 80s[2], so *nobody* had bright, shiny, new cars.  They had late-70s clunkers that were held together with bubblegum and packing tape.

And this same mise-en-scène -- technically-accurate set pieces, but with a showroom, un-lived-in quality -- pervades the rest of the show.  Rooms look like sets, with neat, sparse arrangements of 1980s parephernalia.  And the dialog includes some jarring anachronisms, like calling someone "chill" or using "super" as the intensifier du jour.

It's like they looked up all the right props, but missed the *feel* of the era in fundamental ways.  And that's not necessarily a bad thing -- it's just the prettified TV version of my childhood, or perhaps, more accurately (as it slowly dawned on me): Stranger Things is what millennials *think* my childhood was like.[3]

Another weak point: this is not a set of scripts with sharp characterization.  Like I said earlier, the characters are largely 'good little plot vectors' -- from the action and the dialog, we know what they do, and how they serve the plot, but little about who they are.  (Yes, I know Aristotle said 'action *is* character', but c'mon, the man also said flies had four legs.)  It's tough for me to imagine, say, a coffeeshop AU of Stranger Things -- that is, a fanfic where all the characters from the show happen to be the staff and regulars at a small café.  (Yes, it's a thing; no, I don't know why it's a thing.)  I know how these people serve the story, but I don't really know who they are when they're "off the clock".

And that's weird.

To be stupidly reductive, television is a medium where the plots serve the characters, and movies are a medium where the characters serve the plot.  What do I mean by that?  A TV show has a cast of characters, right?  And a typical TV episode's plot is like a flashlight that illuminates some new facet of one of those characters, or explores some relationship in the central cast.  Sure, there may be a season- or show-long story arc that you're curious about, but really the reason you go back to a TV show is so that you can be with those characters again and again, and (ideally) learn more about them.

A movie is a different beast.  A movie is about one guy (stupidly, almost always a guy) going after one thing.  And all the characters arrange themselves around that.  If the guy (*sigh*) is going to climb a mountain, there's the villain who's going to stop him at all costs, there's the sidekick who's always causing trouble on the expedition, there's the old mentor with advice on climbing the mountain -- every character exists only inansmuch as they help or hinder that storyline.  Any further traits are inefficent and counterproductive.[4]

And again, I'm being stupidly reductive.  Just writing the above, a zillion movies that eschew that traditional, commercial format popped into my head (at the moment I'm moviewormed with Gosford Park).  But it's been a good rule of thumb for a long time.  And here in the 2010s, it's been interesting to see television move away from that "plots serve the characters" format.  It's not necessarily a bad thing -- again, I like Stranger Things very much -- but this is clearly a story first, with the characters efficiently pushing the story beats along.  Even when they try for a quiet 'breather' scene -- like Nancy and Jonathan talking about their personalities in their first trip to the woods -- it turns into characters shouting angry exposition at each other, like the show is impatient, wanting to *get this slow stuff over with* so the next *thing* can happen.[5]  There's no room for, say, the quietly poetic Freaks and Geeks scene where the three geeks sit on a suburban curb and muse about whether girls were ever going to like them.[6]

Now, I was very careful to say that it was the *scripts* that lacked sharp characterization.  Many people downstream of the scripts have done very good work building these performances -- they're well-shot, they're well-costumed, they're well-edited, they're well-scored, and they're often very well-acted.  David Harbour comes out of nowhere to give a towering performance as Sheriff Hopper, but the screenplay does him no favors.  Hell, Hopper is introduced passed out in a messy bedroom with an empty bottle close by, which might be the laziest character-introduction cliché in modern entertainment.  But there and throughout, Mr. Harbour finds layers to play on top of the standard procedural beats.  He's able to inform the dullest shoe-leather scenes -- i.e., perfunctory scenes that have to happen to move the plot from point A to point B -- with the sheriff's virtue, competence, and self-destructive misery.

Winona Ryder succeeds to a lesser extent as Joyce.  Sometimes it feels like she's beamed in from a grittier, more naturalistic show than the one everyone else is in, but that does lend an unpredictable quality to the very precisely-arranged series.  Gaten Mazzarado has insane charisma, but we never really learn much about his character besides "he likes snacks".  Caleb McLaughlin, as Lucas, gets stuck with saying, "Guys!  Let's *not* do the awesome thing that the audience wants us to do and which would forward the plot!" over and over again.[7]  The more central characters, Mike and Nancy especially, are kind of cipherous.  Maybe that's intentional -- they're our viewpoint characters -- but it feeds into this sense that Stranger Things is about story beats, with the characters just bobbing along in the stream.

Again, I can't say enough good things about the plotting here, and there is one significant (and rarely pulled-off) way that this feeds into the characterization: they're able to arrange conflicts between characters who are basically good.  Matthew Modine is the sole major villain, and even he gets some signs of concern for Eleven, however twisted they may be.  But outside of that, the show tips its hand when a burly fry cook first encounters Eleven and, after a brief "Stop, thief!" scuffle, takes her in, feeds her, and contacts the authorities -- there's not artificial, sitcom-y conflict, just understandable confusion.  Later on, we see Hopper and Joyce arguing about whether Will is dead, and we absolutely sympathize with both of them.  When Steve Harrington and Jonathan get in a fistfight behind the movie theater, yes, Steve is being a (literal) slut-shaming jerk[8], but we see where each of them is coming from.

Also, I'm really impressed with the show's use of special effects.  It's clear that they don't have an infinite budget here -- it was kind of sad seeing how the moodier scenes inevitably had the artifact-y "crushed blacks"[9] of not-great digital photography.  But they still managed to deploy special effects expertly.  They did great things with practical effects -- hell, the most iconic special effect of the whole series was just some automated Christmas lights.

And they do a great job of judiciously picking their moments.  Most of the genre work we see -- read: most of the tentpole action flicks -- relentlessly assault the audience with special effects, and it feels like an ADD 5-year-old telling a story: "there was an explosion and then there was somebody flying and then they shot laser beams and then the monster came out of the exploding volcano and then there were 3d computer screens and and and".

Everything is special, and thus, nothing is.

But Stranger Things knows its pacing.  It shows us the mundane world, and then lets an individual, special-effect moment break *into* that.  The kids escape on their bikes through the neighborhood, and the vans show up to pursue, and another van comes at them, and Eleven stares down the van, and... *then* we get our one special effect shot, with the camera speed ramping down to slow-mo as the van tumbles through the air overhead.  It's not "crazy chaos happening all the time", so the individual moments matter.[10]

I don't want people to think I'm damning this show with faint praise.  Period drama is difficult.  Period drama for an audience that remembers the period is more difficult.  And writing an engaging genre story, where the plot keeps moving throughout, raising the stakes and putting a sympathetic cast in greater and greater danger, is damn near impossible.  The show may not stay with me for very long, but it was a damn good ride.

For next week: I have so, so many entries to catch up on (I blame the election).  At this point, I need to write about Prime Directive (the Star Trek novel), BoJack Horseman (season one), and, shortly, Agent to the Stars (the John Scalzi novel).  I'm watching season 8 of Good Eats and season 3 of Last Week Tonight while exercising.  I've also finally started in on season one of Key & Peele.

[1] Watching Stranger Things made me wish I saw more narrative improv going in this direction.  i.e., I want us to get to the point where we improvisors can do what Stranger Things does -- so, instead of putting together "improvised <x>" and making sure we're quoting everything properly, instead, look back at what we loved about <x> and using those influences to synthesize something new.
[2] For example,
Indiana had a 9.9% unemployment rate in November, 1983.
[3] That said, I couldn't be happier that they've made that small town more diverse and harmonious than it would have likely been, that year.
[4] This is not to say such movies are bad -- Die Hard absolutely fits this mold, and it's one of my favorite movies, full stop.
[5] And this is often where the dialog gets the most wonky, as it shifts from the character voice to "a 30-ish screenwriter explaining to the writers' room what the character is feeling". 
[6] Add'l side note: we all know the Freaks and Geeks version of this show would have immediately lost interest in the main cast and turned into eight episodes about Barb, right?  Right.
[7] It feels like a variant of the "woman who says 'no'" character we all know from lazy sitcoms.
[8] In a way, I was *glad* that this show understood how much misogyny there was in 1983.  It's been a weird thing for me to look back on, myself, and the show felt oddly reassuring to me, in a "That was really a thing that really happened, right?" sort of way.
[9] By "crushed blacks", I mean shadows that are completely, 100% black, with no details whatsoever.  Usually there's a clear, pixelly edge where the image goes off the cliff into 100% black -- and it looks 'off' because it doesn't match how vision works.  Your eyes accommodate a wide dynamic range of brightness, so even in a shadow, you perceive at least some hints of detail.
[10] Compare this to the "Snyderbation" of Zach Snyder, where he seems to have concluded "breathtaking special effects moments are cool, so let's make movies that are just *all* moments".  Warner Brothers is doing its best with that, but it feels like those movies are meeting with critical (and, in the long term, cultural) indifference.

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