SPOILER ALERT: The following article contains mild spoilers in the form of typed and video content. Beware.
Stranger Things, a mixture of mystery, science fiction, fantasy and horror, debuted on 15th July this year and has gone on to become a surprise sleeper hit this summer. Filling up the void left after Season Six of Game of Thrones, it has avidly captured the attention of both critics and regular binge watching audience.
Created by the Duffer brothers, Matt and Ross, the series pays tribute to all things 80s, especially the films and literature of 80s. It’s an intricate blend of the signature generic treatment we have come to associate with Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, David Lynch, and John Carpenter. It imitates the storytelling style of a time when stories had endings and movies were more engrossing. To put it in simpler terms, the movies were completely worth the money the audience paid to see it. Something very similar is the case with Stranger Things.
It has been praised for evoking the likes of Alien (1979), E.T. the Extra Terrestrial (1983), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Firestarter (1984), The Fog (1980) and The Goonies (1985) in terms of its cinematic quality while in terms of its literary quality its likeness has been found in The Horror from the Tombs (Florence Stevenson), Carrie, Dead Zone and The Stand (Stephen King), The October Country (Ray Bradbury), The Cats (Nick Sharman) and Killer Crabs (Guy N. Smith). It even has a feel of Hardy Boys, Famous Five, Secret Seven and Nancy Drew (surprisingly one of the important characters has that first name). It’s just a simple story where some teens from a small town community meddle in affairs which are bigger than them and they come out with life changing experiences. Along with this, Dungeons and Dragons, one of the most famous American board games of all time, features almost as a character in the plot. The creators have paid homage to their childhood in various ways across the episodes. This has created a narrative of straightforward trials of youth than the twisted observation of adulthood.
The first season, which ended recently and has only eight episodes, is a story in itself and despite its dark (and at times terrifying) moments, the show’s adventurous story and sincere young characters had a sense of optimism that we haven’t experienced much from the many critically acclaimed dramas in TV’s new age. It deviates from other hit TV shows that have ruled the roost in recent times in the fact that there is no mythology attached to the central plot. That is to say, it does not have any overarching conspiracy yet. Still, a conspiracy features very obviously in the plot. However whether that is what will connect subsequent seasons, remains to be seen. Stranger Things is a medley of all the things talked about in the above lines and is much more. Let’s look into some of the key elements of season one which have made this an instant hit and have even created a new fan segment who prefer to call themselves ‘Strangers’.
First of is the title sequence, the title sequence is nearly a minute long and for people who have grown up on Evil Dead, Alien, Poltergeist etc. the font and the stylization strikes a chord instantly. It is hallucinating in the fact that just like the series, the title takes time to unfold and come together to give you the larger picture. The typography of the title in the title sequence is a direct homage to the films and books which have inspired show runners, the Duffer brothers. Even the typeface created in the late 1970s invokes the 80s feeling. And finally the visual of the typography pays homage to how title sequences were created earlier, before digitization happened in cinema and TV. For a more detailed understanding of how this intriguing title sequence was made check out this video.
Secondly, the show follows a style similar to the works of Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, and pretty much every other prominent genre filmmaker and novelist from the 1980s. This works in favor of the series as it prevents the creation of back stories and fan-theory-baiting Easter eggs, as is the current norm. According to one of the show runners, Matt Duffer, “We wanted a simple drive [for the first season] and a somewhat simple mystery with bizarre pops of supernatural horror, and then add a larger mythology behind this rift that we only know and refer to as the Upside Down, because that’s what the boys decide to call it.” The idea of an overarching backstory, specifically a conspiracy, has been a consistent feature nearly in all TV series since The X-Files and Lost. However mythology works in favor of shows which, over the course of various episodes and seasons, unravel this mystery. With changing audience tastes and anthological TV series like American Horror Story or True Detective, this form is changing and Stranger Things is bang on target to capture this trend. Stranger Things works on this aspect as it does not attempt to go into universe building. This is especially reinforced by the climactic episode and its last few scenes. The unresolved elements at the end of the season finale like Eleven’s disappearance at the end in her act of self-sacrifice or Hopper’s new pact with the government agents from Department of Energy or Will puking slug like creatures into his sink or how Barbara’s mom reacts to the fact that her daughter is still missing provides enough elements to propel the show forward in multiple avenues. Most importantly the show does not remotely come close to answering anything about the Demogorgon like creature or the Upside Down.
Another important element of the series is its large number of characters in their pre and post adolescence period, making the series like an elaborate Secret Seven or Famous Five novel. The unfettered childhood free of the digital clutter where afternoons and evening were spent seeking out new adventures and enjoying good times with friends is what forms the crux of the plot. Another interesting thing is how eight episodes are categorized as eight chapters. The feel of the series is like reading through a mystery plot during the summer holidays and living it as one of the characters.
The Dungeons and Dragons game is another key element here. It serves as a metaphor not just for world-building for the series but also for the story and indicates the philosophy behind the story. The four main protagonists, Mike, Will, Lucas and Dustin are seen playing this game in the very first episode. And Will’s wrong move is a forewarning for the future predicament he is supposed to be facing soon in the subsequent episodes.
One of the most important visual elements is how time and again various scenes bring to our memory scenes from films which most of us have seen in our childhood. It is through those scenes that the creators have paid their homage. For example, a major scene where Eleven displays her powers to help Mike, Lucas and Dustin escape the bad men bears a direct resemblance to a famous scene from E.T. the Extra-terrestrial. Even the character Eleven is strikingly similar to ET in many ways. Meanwhile a back alley fight between Jonathan and Steve resembles another scene from The Karate Kid (1984). And most importantly the protagonists bear a very strong resemblance to the lead cast of The Goonies.
However amid all these visual elements, the aural element stands apart very distinctly. The music for Stranger Things is perhaps its secret component, a mixture of cold new-wave hooks, spooky ambient textures and menacing drones. Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, both from Austin who play in Survive, a synth-driven quartet, have composed the music for Stranger Things.
Having said all this, the true fun is in actually going ahead and having the experience of Stranger Things. So go ahead, give it a watch if you have not. Happy binging.
For more interesting information about Stranger Things, watch this video. But beware of spoilers.