Stranger Things has happened. The eight-part supernatural thriller arrived on Netflix in July. In bingewatch terms, that’s like, 2 years ago now. The series – about a boy who mysteriously disappears in a small Indiana town – quickly established itself as a cult phenomenon thanks to its 80s homage aesthetic. The internet fanbase couldn’t get enough of the show’s cultural nostalgia and film references. But while the show is handsomely made with a lot of stand-out moments, it’s a curiously mixed bag of cool ideas, interesting (but often frustrating) characters, and an uneven sense of structure regarding its story. A couple of things stood out for me that I wanted to talk about: how certain characterisation impacts the audience’s expectation, and the episodic structure. BEWARE SPOILERS, WE’RE HEADING INTO THE UPSIDE DOWN.
Barb was a secondary character of the show, best friend to Nancy, one of the main characters. Barb was prim, slightly dorky, with Mr Magoo glasses reminiscent of Martha Plimpton in The Goonies. In episode 2, Barb goes missing, whisked into the upside down realm by the main monster. The creators of Stranger Things, the Duffer Brothers, said in a Variety interview that given the new trend of suddenly killing off popular characters in series drama (hello Game of Thrones), they wanted to keep the audience on their toes, to imply that no-one is safe. However, the disappearance (and ultimate death) of Barb only served as a convenient plot-device rather than anything truly meaningful to the characters and story. Indeed, the characters’ reaction to Barb’s disappearance was far less potent than when Will (the original missing boy) disappeared. As a result, Barb’s disappearance lingered as an unsatisfying element of the show. So much so that the audience picked up on it, demanding #JusticeForBarb. But why so much love for a fleeting secondary character? I think it’s because she created a lot of empathy with the audience. She’s kind, shy and sensitive, and tries to protect Nancy from making a mistake with Steve, the high school jock. Barb does nothing wrong but gets harshly treated. When the bad guys cover up her disappearance, it’s dealt with in a hastily delivered line of dialogue from a secondary cop. When we finally discover what really happened to Barb, it’s another fleeting moment, but doesn’t make much sense in terms of Will’s longer survival in the upside down.
The Duffer Brothers knew they had only eight episodes and yet the pace and structure of the show feels even. The steady intrigue of the first half of the series is put aside for some broad plot-driven elements of the later episodes. A quick snapshot of the episode lengths: ep 1, 48mins; ep2, 55mins; ep3, 51mins; ep 4, 50mins; ep 5, 52mins; ep 6, 46mins; ep 7, 41mins; ep 8, 54mins. Having a show on Netflix means you have the luxury to go beyond the traditional slot lengths (typically 42mins for an American TV hour). It feels like Stranger Things missed an opportunity by not making each of their episodes at least 50mins+ (hello Daredevil). If they averaged 55mins per episode, they could have packed at least 43mins more story in there! The penultimate episode is a paltry 41mins long, acting as a swift bridge to the unsatisfying finale. The finale itself tries to cram in some character backstory (Hopper’s child) that it could have placed elsewhere; the intercutting tension between the monster showdown and his past feels incongruous.
Another curious choice was Matthew Modine’s character. He remains flat and one-dimensional (which is a shame, Modine’s great), and his character choices don’t make a lot of sense. Think of the possibilities with this character, similar to Bennet in Heroes for example, but alas, no, we’ve got a short eight episode run here, there’s no time. And yet, there is time, or at least, the time could have been more effectively divided. Instead, it seems the series indulges in the safe notion that you’ll bingewatch the entire series and be suitable entertained. To be fair, that’s what most people have done, and the show’s been a success, so what do I know.
For me, bingewatching has created a new style of structure where a cliffhanger worthy of an ad break is now used as an end of episode teaser to automatically line up the next instalment. That’s fun to snack on, but doesn’t offer you anything substantial to fill you up. I don’t like to bingewatch, preferring instead to have a think about the characters and story between episodes. As a result, Stranger Things held some entertaining fascination but didn’t fully justify all its praise. Still, another series is already in the works, so here’s hoping the second season finds an even more confident stride.