‘Stranger Things’ random thoughts: Of burgers and quibbles

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Having just finished screening Season 1 of Netflix’s Stranger Things, I’ve got some random thoughts on the ’80s-set saga of a Goonies-style gang of young nerds, a mysteriously powered small girl and a determined mom and sheriff tackling a scary other-dimensional threat in an Indiana town after a boy disappears.

Yes, the reviews are gushy (pushovers), but honest carping counts too, and someone’s gotta play devil’s advocate.

To wit:

Natalia Dyer, as the allegedly alluring (how’s that for alliteration — again!) teen lusted after by a big-haired dude at school, is too thin — make that emaciated — make that nearly skeletal — for the story’s time setting. Her stick-figure form is 2016 talking, and it undercuts the series’ 1980s period-piece veracity. If I’d been the casting director, I’d have told her she’s a fine actress and has the part — provided she eats some burgers.

Speaking of casting directors, this show’s CD sure must like androgynous kids. Or the Kinks’ song Lola. Or both.

And speaking of kids, if the creators are smart they’ve hastened production on the nine episodes (one more than this year’s eight) for next year’s Season 2. Those kids will grow quickly. It happened on Game of Thrones and was awkward. So unless you jump forward in narrative time too, work fast.

As for top-billed Winona Ryder, isn’t she great? Or is she?

For me, it’s sad to see the once beautiful actress in this new light as a pinched, pathetic loser. Her desperate loser character, while played with conviction — in fact, played to a shrill, scene-chewing hilt of hysteria — is painfully pitiable. And how many times has Hollywood rolled out the ol’ fiercely obsessive parent’s “I want my kid back!” plot?

As for the ’80s, this is so much like that decade’s E.T., from suburban kids on bikes somehow secretly  harboring a fugitive (gee, parents are clueless) to darkly conspiratorial government types as heavies. But as they say, borrow from the best, and creators Matt and Ross Duffer make no bones about doing just that from good ol’ Steven Spielberg. (And good ol’ Stephen King is owed a debt, too.)

Not all references are ’80s-based, though. To me, Stranger Things’ icky monster is straight out of 2006’s ever-so-creepy Pan’s Labyrinth.

But borrowing as an homage is one thing. Monotonous cliches are another. I’m speaking of what I call the “ill-timed entrance.”

You know: That’s when a person approaches from a distance and sees their beloved with someone else, and it looks suspicious even though it shouldn’t be, because that moment is the exact moment when the other two embrace — for the one and only time — and innocently enough, but the preposterous coincidence makes it look bad.

Stranger Things‘ ill-timed entrance #7,957,343 was when big-haired groovy guy climbs on the roof and sees his girlfriend on her bed being comforted by weird stalker photog kid and assumes they’re having sex. What are the odds? Filmmakers may say: “I use the ill-timed entrance cliche for narrative economy,” while I say, “Think of something else.”

As for the series’ sci-fi plot, it’s wildly eventful, but often at the expense of narrative messiness that gets out of control. It also irked me that so many disparate characters all uniformly plunge into dangerous situations with a heedless impetuousness that’s foolhardy at best and recklessly self-destructive at worst. (After yelling at the screen “Don’t go there!” 19 times, I finally gave up and said “Oh, what the hell.”) But hey, that headlong rush to hellish confrontation drives the story.

The Georgia locales, standing in for Indiana, and the ’80s production design look real enough, but often in a gritty, drab way, aside from the forests which bolster the show’s Twin Peaks vibe.

Yet all these are largely quibbles, and I’ll say this: Stranger Things sure kept me watching, and I look forward to Season 2.

— Bruce Westbrook

 

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