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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.