Angela Hicks and Calder Hudson were both Creative Writing MSc students at the University of Edinburgh for the 2015-16 year. As part of their ongoing workshop series, the two sat down and discussed their varied thoughts on Season One of Netflix’s Stranger Things, which was released in 2016 to widespread acclaim.
This discussion contains spoilers for Season One of Stranger Things. The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the authors and not necessarily of The Ogilvie’s entire editorial staff.
C: In anticipation of Stranger Things’ upcoming second season, we wanted to take a closer look at how the show got the ball rolling last year. Unlike most of the series we’ve workshopped, this was the first that we really binge-watched, and that fast pace is probably indicative or our positive feelings towards the show. I, at least, am already excited about Season Two.
A: Definitely. But because we’re curmudgeonly people, and because this is a workshop, we’re still going to look at what it could have done better as well. Should we start with the cool things, or…?
A: I mean, I think the 80s is probably where we should begin. This show has taken a lot of distinctive, iconic 80s films and melded their plots together to end up with a crazy, retro mash-up of ET meets Nightmare on Elm Street meets Pretty in Pink.
C: Sure, yeah. Stranger Things’ 80s aesthetic is very immediate. I had some initial cynicism about the setting–it seemed superficial, an attempt at evoking nostalgia from the 80s without really doing anything new within this genre. Initially the show’s sole aim appeared to be the accumulation of tropes and visuals akin to those which were prevalent in the 80s–and while ST does definitely bank on that quite a bit, sometimes almost to the point of parody, it’s nonetheless very substantive, and it draws you in largely through its characters, who emerge from the 80s woodwork as the show develops.
A: I agree; at first I wasn’t convinced about how well ST juggled its smorgasbord of 80s genres, and, as you said, it felt like it wasn’t doing anything new–it had just harvested parts from other films. But I came round to it over the course of the season, in part because ST really commits to its decisions. They make the 80s work because they were determined to thrust both the positives and (some of) the negatives of that era into the foreground.
C: Yeah, that’s a good point. By the end of the season I was all about the 80s vibe. And they use the 80s aesthetic well and make it work for them. Things like the walkie-talkies fit for the time period but also help to ramp up the drama at certain moments. There is a lot of nostalgia and referencing in the show and it’s very indulgent with regards to the setting and with the genres and tropes which come with it–but yeah, ‘indulgence’ works well here.
A: Right. And it’d be wrong to say that it just steals from earlier shows and films. As you mentioned, it adds a lot of depth to its characters, which in turn adds more layers to the plot and keeps the audience engaged throughout the season.
C: I’d say that ST has very recognizably taken inspiration and ideas from early works. It makes some cool choices which help rework tropes and plots you’d otherwise recognize, but ultimately it’s the mixing of the plots which makes this show stand out. It’s buffet-style cinema–it delivers lots of different things which are pretty standard within their own genre, but what makes them unusual is having them all together. It succeeds as a strong, character-driven story in part because it indulges in a lot of different elements which we’ve seen before while reworking and interweaving them effectively.
A: It’s one of those rare shows where the end result is more than its sum parts. And it does get rid of or subvert some of the more problematic elements in 80s TV and film.
C: Exactly. Would this be a good place to talk about the characters, in particular the show’s presentation of female characters, within its context as Horror, Action/Adventure, and 80s-esque TV?
A: (laughs) With those caveats, I’d say it does great women–but I think it also does well without those caveats. If we look at Nancy and her plotline, for example–I think they do a great job of building her up slowly and developing her character arc. She starts off in a pretty standard teen romance, but as events around her happen, she changes in response to them. ST is excellent at developing its characters so that none of their actions feel unjustified with regards to their original portrayal, but the audience gets to see them develop throughout the series.
C: I wish they’d emphasized her interactions with Barb more–to be honest I feel like Barb is just undervalued throughout–but yeah, Nancy is initially thrust into a pretty recognizable love triangle, but the show tinkers with that narrative in interesting ways, and throughout that storyline, Nancy has agency. It feels like her decisions matter and factor into the narrative, into the larger story… in that respect this show has avoided more uncomfortable aspects of how films and shows from the 80s depict women.
A: And Joyce! Joyce is great. Some of that just comes from the fact that it’s nice to have a single parent portrayed as the responsible, caring adult in contrast to Mike and Nancy’s indifferent parents. But also Joyce is a really well-developed character; she feels so human and motivated.
C: Winona Ryder does a really good job bringing out the drive behind the character. There aren’t really negatives to workshop here. I’d say that other writing and shows can learn a lot from Joyce. The fact she’s shown to be vulnerable and flawed makes her no less compelling and sympathetic to the audience.
A: Yeah; I think when TV shows especially want to create strong female leads, ‘strong’ often tends to mean ‘genius woman who needs charismatic/buffoonish man to humanize her’. ST has three main female characters whom I would describe as ‘strong’ and none of them are in the way that TV shows often mean that adjective. One of the great things about ST is that it takes the risk of actually making its female leads three-dimensional.
C: It shouldn’t be a risk for a show to present women as more than just a handful of character traits, but you’re right that that’s often not the case, and it was refreshing to watch something which bucked against negative TV trends. On top of that, you spoke about ST having three main female characters, which reminds me that we still need to talk about Eleven, or Elle.
A: Um… having just raved about how great the show is for its women, I did sometimes feel like Elle was more of a plot device than a character, especially in the way that the other children interacted with her–Mike and his friends tended to view her as a weapon, or as a slightly dangerous pet, rather than a person. But I think that’s an issue to do with the writing in a wider context, rather than to do with the show’s portrayal of women.
C: Hmm. Yeah. I don’t know if that is intentional by the writing team or not–maybe the kids are just supposed to be dumb kids who don’t really understand how to comfort someone who has been through so much trauma. That narrative gets stronger throughout the season and leads to satisfying conclusions–and Elle stands out there, in a good way. Also, the fact that this show’s gifted hero character is a girl is cool–and as you said earlier, women stand out in a positive way across the board. I love Hopper, but the most iconic characters in this show are far and away Joyce and Elle.
A: One of my favorite scenes is towards the end when Joyce is comforting Elle in the paddling pool; I really liked that moment. We’ve seen in flashbacks that Dr. Brenner hasn’t done this for Elle, so it’s very gratifying when she finally gets a kind parental figure.
C: And it adds to the feeling that Joyce is just this unequivocal force for good.
A: It’s a lovely moment. But from a workshopping perspective, it’s a really great demonstration of the confidence this show has in itself and in its audience. In the moments before and after Joyce comforts Elle, we aren’t subjected to Dr. Brenner flashbacks or anything like that–these happened in earlier episodes, and the show trusts its audience to be engaged enough to remember and understand how important a moment this is. I think I’ve spoken about this in other workshops we’ve done, but it’s just so nice, as a viewer, to not be continually hit over the head with foreshadowing and the like.
C: And to watch a show which doesn’t keep demanding points from you for achieving the bare minimum with characters. That’s refreshing.
A: I feel compelled to mention (as we do every workshop) that the acting in this is great.
C: True. Though at times we’ve brought up acting in part to say “look, these are very skilled actors; they shouldn’t be held accountable for the faults of the writing team”–and in this case that isn’t why we’re doing so. ST’s acting really helps to ground and legitimize the fantastical elements within the narrative. This show incorporates elements from a ton of genres and some of its buildup might not have worked as well without a strong cast. The writers and the cast alike do a good job of maneuvering between emotional tones, not to mention genres and situations.
A: That’s true. Are there any areas where we think the writing could’ve improved? What about the flashback scenes–did they work for you?
C: Yeah, they did. Flashbacks can be a risk–they take away from the action and can be really ham-fisted sometimes–but here they work terrifically. They aren’t overused and they’re always relevant.
A: I agree. They don’t go overboard and they provide very useful depth. Um, what about the cliffhangers then? And the melodramatic moments like finding Will’s body?
A: For me, that was one of the few times where the show is too concerned with being dramatic and in doing so loses sight of the characters. They’re so focused on the suspense within the situation–what are the State Troopers doing at the lake? Is it really Will?–that they entirely miss the human tragedy of the moment. It was a shame that things like Hopper’s devastation were overshadowed by their desire to create a cliffhanger.
C: It is odd how many cliffhangers they inserted into ST. People consume shows like this through Netflix binges, so cliffhangers aren’t needed to bring people back week after week. And a lot of them don’t work because they feel superfluous, unlike most other aspects of the story. For example, Nancy’s brief foray into the Upside Down ends on a misleading cliffhanger which was then resolved about five minutes into the next episode. It was one of the few disappointing elements.
A: Yeah, there’s the sense that they lost confidence in themselves when they put in these overly dramatic moments.
C: And generally the plot is very believable, though admittedly there were a few times that you and I exchanged a look while watching this. After one episode we discussed how the mysterious governmental antagonists have a penchant for the dramatic.
A: They really do. And some of the human villains’ decisions feel very over-the-top and unnecessary.
C: Like shooting the café owner?
A: Exactly. He was sweet but dense. They could’ve lied to him instead of going for this excessively dramatic but ultimately stupid murder. I think that probably all the human villains are slightly too basic; they’re almost pastiches of their characters. We see this especially with the bullies in both the younger and older bracket. Given the lengths ST goes to show how multifaceted the major characters are (and also many of the minor characters, like Scott the teacher), it’s a shame the show drops the ball with the minor bad guys. And that’s true for the main villains too.
C: Yeah, that’s fair. I think we may fundamentally disagree on the nuance, or lack thereof, which is necessary for bullying to happen… actually, I don’t know, I was initially going to disagree, but the more I think about it, there is perhaps a shared lack of depth between the schoolyard antagonists and the big-scary-government antagonists, plus of course the supernatural-horror antagonists. Like many shows and movies, ST (rightly) focuses on establishing its expansive cast of characters first, but as a result they don’t leave a ton of time to build up the first-season villains. The antagonist they spend the most time developing is probably the Demigorgon, who doesn’t really appear that much, especially in comparison to the other villains–
A: Although it is a good monster. I was worried it would end up being a letdown, and that moment-of-reveal would fall short, but actually the weird plant face and everything works well to keep the horror vibe going. And yes, agreed about the human antagonists; as you say, the show mostly gets away with it because they build up the protagonists so well, but they could have given their villains more depth.
C: And possibly some of their minor characters too, like Nancy and Mike’s parents, especially their mother, Karen. She’s this parody of a parent who wants to be approachable but doesn’t understand her children–she spends most of the show telling Nancy either “you can always talk to me about what’s wrong” or “you’re a promiscuous liar”–often in rapid succession… I don’t know, I couldn’t tell if that was intended or accidental, but you leave the season feeling much less sympathetic towards her than you could have, given the show’s circumstances.
A: It was especially annoying because it felt unnecessary to demonize her. I don’t think we’d have felt differently about Mike or Nancy, or even Joyce as another parent, if Karen had a little more substance.
C: To be fair, they do manage to give depth to a lot of the characters. Like Steve–he starts off pretty two-dimensional and you think he’s mainly there to juxtapose with Jonathan, but over time they take the self-centered high school jock trope and develop it into someone with real nuance.
A: Oh my goodness, that scene in Jonathan’s house when Nancy and Jonathan are hunting the Demigorgon and then Steve arrives–it was so stressful! That was not an emotion I’d been expected to feel in connection to Steve.
C: The show does a great job of weaving together the different stories and characters, and of making you care about all of them. To begin with, it matches each of the core casts with a genre: the adults are on this mystery track with horror elements, the teens are entrenched in this high school romance plot, and the kids are in an ET kind of scenario, which contains horror elements intermingled with notions of youthful exploration and imagination. As they bring these casts together, they also bring more horror elements into each of the core stories, which makes it easier to synthesize them.
A: Definitely. ST has a large ensemble cast, which can be tricky for a show to do well, but all the main characters and their plots are engaging, in part because of the way they interact and influence each other.
C: The last ten minutes or so of the season finale are present entirely to set up Season Two. In most shows that would bother me, but here they’ve earned it.
A: Yeah, there are some odd moments in the story where events, fortuitous and gratuitous, save characters from otherwise certain death, but it holds together. It gets stronger as it goes on, too, and whether that’s them finding their feet or just building momentum, I’m not sure, but it works. Unlike a lot of its inspirations and predecessors–particularly horrors and mysteries we’ve seen in the past few years–it follows through and builds on itself well, slowly and steadily. And I really hope Elle’s going to come back.
C: Who can say.
C: Within the context of the shows we’ve workshopped, this ranks high; they’ve absolutely earned a second season, and in many respects I think they’ve gone above and beyond.
A: Also, their allusions to Season Two weren’t frustrating. They concluded Season One well and then sprinkled in more details, unlike some shows we’ve seen, which have been so concerned with setting up Season Two they don’t end Season One in a satisfying way.
C: True. As per tradition we should also mention the opening sequence. It establishes what they’re aiming for; it’s an ominous, deep 80s synth. Works well.
A: It’s also super distinctive, and I think they made the right call to have a pared-back opening which is simple but strong. It’s not overlong, which is nice given how much goes on during this show; we want to get to the characters. It’s like the opposite of the American Gods intro. So, I agree, it works.
C: You think it’ll be different in Season Two? I wouldn’t be bothered either way.
A: They could have… blue writing.
C: (laughs) That’s the change?
C: Yeah. Get it together, Duffer Brothers. Why so much red? That’s the takeaway from this workshop: great show, excellent work, too much red.
A: I meant it’s the blue to red shift–you know, soundwaves? The Doppler effect? And they’re going to go back in time.
A: Have you never watched the opening sequence to Doctor Who?
C: I’m not really smart enough to process what you’re saying here, but I’m sure it’s right, whatever it is. Let’s just end it here and go watch the Season Two trailer. I’m jonesing.