TV Review: Stranger Things

Stranger things
Stranger Things

I’ve just finished watching the surprise hit series of Stranger Things and it was great. There’s been a lot of talk about why it’s good (Oh look it’s set in the 80s! Wow, it’s like a science fiction Stand by Me!) but I have a feeling people are getting it wrong. I think the story is exciting, but not particularly unusual (girl with magic powers, monsters from a strange world, MK Ultra scientists) and there are plenty of less successful series with similar elements, so I believe it has something else that people relate to, and I will try to explain what I think that is, here…

What’s great about it

  1. The characters aren’t just copies of other TV characters. There are plenty of tropes in there – the dumb jock, the nerdy boys, the weirdo loner, the good girl who falls for the dumb jock – but each character gets to defy the rules and this makes them seem more like real people. Some of the defiance is dramatic and delightful, such as good girl Nancy being kick arse with monsters. Some of it is quite small, such as little comments or expressions, but these small differences help give us a sense of the characters as proper humans. This also makes the series scarier because we genuinely empathise with the characters’ fear and want them to survive.
  2. It has real energy. I think this comes from the three boys, Dustin especially, but all of them to some extent. They charge around on their bikes, they get angry and shout, they come up with many plans, and they do all of it with such genuine enthusiasm that I find myself getting caught up in their excitement. By the time they reach the big monster showdown, I’m giddy with the drama and rooting for them.
  3. It has heart. Or rather, the characters do. I’m not talking the romantic plotlines, which follow predictable patterns, but the friendships between the four boys and eventually with Eleven. Also missing boy’s mum, Joyce (Winona Ryder) not only slings aside all pretence at sanity in order to find her child, but also the heartfelt scene where she reassures Eleven that she will be there for her. None of these moments feel insincere.

These three elements don’t read as particularly significant, but because they tend to be missing from most television, they make the series stand out.

What TV usually does

  1. All characters are unsurprising. TV characters have been copying other characters for decades now, in a process of ever diminishing returns. The result is a gradual simplification through repetition, until we have just a few possible characters with a very narrow range of behaviour. This doesn’t only involve the repetition of personality types that don’t exist much in real life (eg. The pretty but tough female cop who’s vulnerable underneath it all, the unnecessarily macho and wisecracking male) but goes right down to details like facial expressions (people on TV have very few), actions (also fewer than in real life, mostly just running, fighting, kissing and realising stuff) and normal conversations (there are none). Stranger Things only broke a few of these rules, but that was unusual enough to make it stand out.
  2. A lot of TV has a blankness to it. People run about, try to kill each other, cry and so on, but they’re missing energy, the feeling of genuine intent. I think a big part of this is the lack of facial expressions named above. The Killing (Danish version) totally flabbergasted me when I watched it, because of the range and depth of emotions that the characters showed; sometimes several emotions at once, just like real people. It was like listening to a symphony after only ever hearing a kazoo. Stranger Things doesn’t have quite that range, but characters like Dustin and Eleven both shone out. Eleven for the subtlety of what she was feeling, and Dustin for the sheer gleeful abandon that he showed. TV characters never show gleeful abandon, they’re too busy trying to look moody and detached.
  3. Characters have compassion for the other main characters only. I’m not saying that every character should be bursting into tears every time any stranger suffers, but they don’t even say thank you when someone has helped them or show polite sympathy when someone is unhappy. Most of the time they barely interract, it’s as if all subsidiary characters are only there to serve the plot and humanity is irrelevant. Which is fine, it’s TV, but it means that when characters do show genuine heart, it is incredibly effective, it makes us love them.

What is frustrating is that when a series, such as this one, breaks the format and is popular as a result, producers try and reproduce its success by copying exactly the wrong things. They look at Stranger Things and think ‘People want monsters! And 80s pastiches!’ They look at The Killing and think ‘People want a moody female detective and dead people!’

However I think what people want is to see characters that surprise them, that they are able to form a genuine affection for because they actually seem human instead of blank replicas with only the emotional range of smileys.

Story: Henry the Psychic Goat

Everyone loved Henry the goat, he was caramel brown with a centre parting and quizzical slant to his mouth. He never butted or stole. And Henry knew things. Only small things, but impressive for a goat, like how to count to ten (expressed with the tap of a hoof), the sex of an unborn baby (stamp front hoof for boy, back hoof for girl) and when it was going to rain (hid in the shed). He got just enough wrong to prevent cries of witchcraft, just enough right to keep the curiosity going. He could be moody, sometimes he’d simply refuse to play along, like when Gisha got pregnant and Henry just stood and stared while we tried to get him to stamp a hoof. When Gisha’s baby was born, it was a healthy happy girl with a full forehead of hair. We took that as an explanation, Henry hadn’t expected a hairy girl baby.

We all loved Henry and it should have stayed that way, but John ruined it. John was my stupid brother who had a load of posturing friends, who had to act like they weren’t scared of anything. They’d take it in turns to come up with dangerous things to do, trying to outdo one another for who could be thickest. First it was fireworks that they’d throw at each other’s feet, then it was Russian Roulette only with one rock cake out of six containing laxatives. And then it was using Henry like an Ouija board to summon evil.

The night it happened, there was a storm raging, with lightning, a howling wind, thunder. Anyway, my brother’s always at his worst in weather like this. In truth, I think he’s scared of thunderstorms, he always was as a little kid. Mrs Wragg, our Sunday school teacher used to say it was God throwing a tantrum, throwing furniture around and turning the lights on and off. This soothed John, but for me the thought of a ginormous all-powerful being having a tantrum was way more disturbing than stuff about electricity.

Anyway, John, his dumb friends and me were huddled in the shed with Henry. They were pretending to understand poker, I was reading and Henry was having a bit of a bleat. A crash of thunder rattled the walls and my brother shuddered. A couple of his friends looked at him, so he tried to macho his way out.

“I’m bored,” he said, a little too loud to be convincing, “we should do something.”

“Like what?”

“If Henry’s all mystical and shit, then he should be able to get us in contact with spirits right? I saw it on the TV last night. I reckon, we use his hoof tapping to spell out messages.”

“What, like a spiritualist? Those people are phoney.”

“Like a Ouija board.”

His stupid friends gasped, none of them could deny that Ouija boards worked, after all they’d all seen Paranormal Activity. Even out in my pokey little village, where we still carry out the tradition of roll-the-stone to bring in the spring, we’d seen that.

A makeshift board was made with charcoal and the seat of an old chair. I couldn’t see how any spirits would lower themselves to answer to such shoddy workmanship, but they all believed that all manner of demons would soon be summoned.

“Tap the board Henry, tap the board,” said one.

“Nudge the pointer,” said another. Poor Henry didn’t understand, but he tried. He bleated and nudged.

What I saw that day taught me how it can be when a group of people join together to believe in an obvious lie. Because Henry just shoved the pointer any old which way, and it was never clear which letters he was actually picking. Yet my brother and his friends believed they were receiving direct messages from the Devil, or ghosts or some nonsense like that, and in our little town that was the closest any of us would ever get to celebrity. They gasped and screamed at every nudge of Henry’s caramel nose. They wrote down the letters, and then when these didn’t spell out any kind of message, they argued their way into something that did.

“He must’ve said a D then.”

“Yes, you said a D didn’t you Henry? Look! Look! He winked! He knows!”

In the end, the message they managed to piece together was,

“under stairs, fire, brake, lose him, want oof,” and the discussion to what that might actually mean continued long after the storm was over. I sat listening, the little respect I had for my brother fading into nothing. If I had known where it would lead, I would have said something, maybe grabbed poor Henry and dragged him out into the rain. I would  have done something, but it just seemed like some stupid kids doing stupid  things, I didn’t know it would rip our town apart.

 

Note:  I’ve been trying to write this for a while and it’s getting too long so I figure the only way it will work is as a serial. If you think you might be interested to read more, then let me know and I’ll continue it next week…

Short story: Love is odd

Funny how emotion leaps out from the ridiculous, how it falls out unexpectedly. I fell in love in biology class, because no one could slice up a sheep’s eye like Shakti. I watched entranced as her deft brown hands worked without hesitation, her gaze steady, she didn’t flinch. She didn’t squeal like a lot of the girls did. Instead subtler emotions played across her face: the slight furrow of concentration, a twitch of sadness at the corner of her mouth, a pout of determination.

We only shared Biology for a few weeks, while Mrs Short was off, then Shakti returned to being just a face in the halls. Except she wasn’t, she couldn’t ever be again.

The next time I saw her was at the school dance. Her hair was piled up with glitter, and she was trying to walk in stupid shoes, giggling with her friends and going to the toilets in a cluster of perfumed hysteria. I was wrong, I thought, she just the usual, pretty but dull. Then as some sneakily supped vodka (apparently hidden in the cistern of the girl’s toilets) did its thing, she kicked off the shoes and boogied in bare feet, that’s when I saw her again. Unfettered, unique. Now I knew she was the one, my destiny, I just had to find a way of proving that to her…

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Short story: Wall of Shame

To understand what happened, why it happened, you need to know that for three years we worked in a climate of fear. Our backwater branch office was where our boss, Eldritch, got to play at being our torturer, tormenting us for his amusement. On the wall was an A4 sheet on which Eldritch had printed the words:

‘ISYFU’ meaning ‘I see you fuck up.’

There were pictures of all of us on that wall – me on drunken night out, with my pants on my head; Hadely when he started to doze off in a meeting; Butterworth picking her nose. Eldritch always had his phone ready. Each photo was carefully chosen to make us look like dicks. At first we tried behaving at work, but it made no difference because then he started trawling our social media for embarrassing old posts and stuck them on his wall for all to see. Of course, we tried not posting anything, that just made things worse. Avoid his sneering and he sought you out, found ever more humiliating ways to show you up, until you submitted. That’s what happened to Janet, she made all her social media accounts private, so he put superglue on her chair and then livestreamed the results.

It was only a matter of time before someone cracked. Not me, but I thought about it often, enjoying daydreams of revenge. After it happened, people would read the new stories and say: Why didn’t you just leave? but they’re living in dreamland. We stayed because the money was good, we stayed because we’re still in a recession and you can’t just throw away a good job, can you? Everybody hates their job, right? Well, so did we. People have said: Why didn’t you sue? and I don’t get that either, the job might be well paid, but none of us had the thousands necessary to take on a whole organisation and win. HR knew that; when we made complaints, they would smile sweetly, tap at their computers and do nothing.

Up until that day, I only ever thought about the janitor when the vending machines ran out of coffee or chocolate, or  the sink got blocked. But I still knew the photo of him, taken when he was on the toilet. It was also on a poster on the toilet door. Yes, Eldritch had a camera pointing at the toilet.

Being the janitor, he had all kinds of powers I’d never thought about. For a start, it was his job to catch the rats. He was supposed to kill them of course, not keep them in a cage in the basement, but no one went down there but him, so we had no way of knowing that he was stockpiling. He kept them hungry. He also put a bolt on Eldritch’s door one night, on the outside, high up where nobody noticed it. And on the fateful day he found it easy to slip a tranquiliser into Eldritch’s afternoon coffee. It must have taken some planning, but when your anger is all that gets you through the day, when hatred for your job is your only source of energy, planning is easy.

The police asked me: Why didn’t you hear the screams? Well, his office was soundproofed, after all, he wanted to be the only one with the power to spy. They asked: Wasn’t it odd that he stayed in his office all that afternoon? Well, yes, it was; but when you have a boss like Eldritch you enjoy having a bit of peace, you don’t pester the beast, you let him rest. And then the question that really rankles: Did you know you’d get promoted to Eldritch’s job after he died? No, of course not. Although having been here the longest, I was the natural choice.

So, things are peaceful now. Now that the carpet has been cleaned and the story is out of the papers. Now that I am the boss. Of course I took down all entries on the wall of shame and the cameras in the toilets. I let my workers relax; finally they can enjoy their jobs. I do monitor their social media accounts, download any interesting photos or posts; each employee has their own folder, just on the off-chance. Now they think no one’s watching they get up to some ridiculus shit. It’s the work Christmas party coming up soon, I’m looking forward to collecting a few embarrassing snaps then, I may set up a Tumblr account. After all a little fear is useful, keeps everyone focussed.

Flash Fiction: How Much More?

But really, how many designer shoes do we need?

How many more different sizes of technology to connect us to the world?

We’ve already filled up the sky with bricks and lines, splitting the horizon into tiny segments, isn’t it enough yet?

How many new ways to wash your hair? Or clean your teeth?

New ways to excercise, new management restructuring,

Can’t we just leave it all for a little while?

Curl up in the crook of a tree,

And sleep?