‘Stranger Things’: The Portal Has Opened
July 15th, 2016 — I stayed home from work because I wasn’t feeling very well. I turned on the television to scroll through the shows and films I had saved on my Netflix watch list; as Netflix opened a large banner at the top of the screen caught my attention. The title was catchy, the look of it familiar, and somehow it immediately captured a part of me I haven’t known in a long time; this simple eighties-style banner and trailer created a time machine within my loins and called out to my inner child.
The person I was years ago became inspired to view the show. Not to date myself, but I was born in 1976, and so as someone who grew up in the eighties, the well designed eighties-style graphics and title of ‘Stranger Things’ instantly drew me in. I hit play on the first episode and the nostalgic journey began. About ten hours later, between showering and meals and such, I realized the entire day was gone and I had finished the finale of the show. Ah, the love of binge watching! Right?
After watching the entire series, I was more impressed and intrigued by the story and the characters than I was before I had started. I was captivated enough to allow my kids to binge watch the show; I also went on social media sites to tell my friends to watch it. At first, there wasn’t much of a response, but then as people found the time to watch it, they began replying to my posts, writing me private messages to discuss the show, and I started seeing many posts from other people telling their friends: “You HAVE to watch this!”
But wait a minute… It was summertime. Television shows aren’t supposed to do well over the summer. Against all odds, the show broke through the norm and became an eighties-style supernatural wildfire that fueled the minds of its viewers. But why? Surely it wasn’t just because it was an eighties themed television show. I wanted to know the backstory of the show, how it was created, who created it; and as a writer myself, I wanted to break down the show and think about what makes this series different and why it works so damn well.
Let’s start with who created it and why: Ross and Matt Duffer, known as the Duffer Brothers in the film industry, were born and raised in North Carolina. According to an interview by Rolling Stone magazine, the brothers were born in 1984, a year after the Stranger Things story takes place and they were more into playing Magic the Gathering than Dungeons and Dragons. The brothers grew up watching VHS tapes of wonderful films like E.T. These are tapes that they watched repeatedly that would later become their “point of reference for what it was like in the late seventies and early eighties.”
The Duffer Brothers weren’t interested in creating television shows but an executive producer of the show Wayward Pines asked them to direct a few episodes. Wayward Pines is an adaptation of a book, and the rights were handed over to producer/director M. Knight. The brothers said they learned a lot about creating television content from that experience and decided to come up with a show of their own. If M. Knight can do it, anyone can do it, right?
While brainstorming about what type of show they’d like to make they were inspired by a film Hugh Jackman was in called Prisoners, which is about a man searching for his missing daughter. They used the missing child plot idea to stretch into an eight episode series. They wanted to make it even more mysterious though, and had remembered reading about bizarre experiments that took place during the Cold War. And it’s true; over the years the CIA and other government programs have experimented with mind control, LSD induced telepathy projects and more. The character Eleven (L) came from this idea, and thinking about what might happen if the experiments went horribly wrong and opened a portal to another dimension, one that let unimaginable creatures seep into our world.
Now that we know who created the series and how they got the idea to create it, what else plays into the story? When they wrote their script they knew that the story would be best told with kids as the lead characters. The idea behind a serious supernatural concept having kids as the lead characters got the Duffer Brothers a lot of rejections from Hollywood studios and producers. At one point a producer tried to talk them into rewriting the script, making the center of the story follow the sheriff’s investigation, making it about an adult lead in an adult concept.
Thankfully, the Duffer Brothers knew their own vision enough to tell the producers that if they removed the children and teens as the leads of the story, that the entire idea behind what they were trying to accomplish would be gone. This E.T. or Stand By Me concept is the meat of the meal and is one reason people are compelled to watch the show. In my opinion it’s because of that choice, Stranger Things will prove to be a timeless creation. Eventually, Netflix opened their doors when all of the other doors had been closed. They found a home for their mysterious series and we, the viewers, have a new addiction.
The Duffer Brothers pulled out every weapon in their storytelling arsenal from reaching into real events that help authenticate the ideas behind the mystery to delivering the series with perfect writing. They designed the story in such a way that we immediately relate to the kids: In the opening of the show, the kids are playing D&D in the basement, then they all go home on their bikes which all felt and looked a lot like the opening scenes of E.T. — but then when one of the boys, Will Byers, is chased by an unknown attacker he wrecks his bike, runs home and hides in the shed where he loads a gun. After the lights flicker and we realize he’s SOL, he just vanishes. What the writers have done here, aside from creating a horrific abduction scene, is that they have now presented a question and placed this in the viewers minds. What just happened to Will Byers? It’s created in such a way that we know it wasn’t normal, and your mind reaches for answers.
The one thing that lures the audience into this series and takes them on the full journey, that leaves us asking for more at the end, is that the writers are great at presenting these questions in mysterious ways. They sprinkle new questions and conflicts throughout the entire series, and just as one question seems to have an answer (payoff) then something new is presented that keeps the story motivated. Will is taken, then while looking for Will his friend’s stumble upon Eleven, who’s clearly not normal. By the time the kids find her we’ve also seen that some pretty serious people are willing to kill to get her back, presenting more questions: Who is Eleven? Why are these people willing to kill people to capture her? Does she have something to do with Will’s disappearance? Has she come from a place that Will is being taken to? Then we learn that she has the power of telepathy and has escaped from a military complex where odd programs were exploring the supernatural; weaponizing the mind. We realize she’s not just a little girl, but a government made weapon.
When Eleven explains where Will is, they throw another log on the fire of mystery, giving us more to think about. She picks up the D&D board and says, “We are here.” She flips the board over to the backside and places a piece that represents Will standing next to a monster and says, “Will is here.” Nicely played, Duffer Brothers! What they are doing is constantly providing bread crumbs, conflict, questions and payoffs throughout the show in perfect timing that finally leads to the a revealing showdown, which also presents more questions. Just as Hitchcock would slowly present a story driving home the suspense, the story of Stranger Things has been written and captured in way that keeps the viewers on the edge of their seats and continuously guessing at “what’s next?”
Another ingredient in the Duffer Brother’s storytelling ollio is their ability to raise the stakes. Because Will was in harms way the entire series, something had to be done that would prove that nobody is safe, in our dimension, or in the one Will is trapped in. There was outrage from viewers when Barb was found dead in the underworld. People thought it was unfair to kill her character off and some thought they just decided to kill off the “gay character” —but the facts are that Barb wasn’t ever set as a gay character and it could be said that her entire existence in the story is to show that nobody is safe, especially Will. When we see that even a gentile, loving and caring friend who refuses to partake in drinking at the party and looks out for Nancy can be taken and killed by the monster, then that raises the stakes, which in my opinion was needed. Now the viewer realizes that death is possible in this story.
The storyline of the show is revealed in such a way that it reminds me of watching a wonderful time-lapse video of an artist, who’s working with a canvas the size of a wall. As the artist begins we only know that it interests us, though we still don’t see the full picture. As time goes the artist creates familiar shapes and builds a scene that we think we know, but then as the artist fills in the gaps and provides all of the details the work becomes unlike anything we’ve ever seen and more beautiful than anything we guessed at along the way.
So, concept and the delivery of information are surely two reasons for this shows success, but what else is there? Giving credit where credit is due, the cast was incredible. The concept and writing would be nothing had it not been for the perfect delivery of the entire cast, especially Winona Ryder’s role as Will’s lost and mentally broken mother. She has to maintain a frantic and worried performance throughout the entire series, and experiences some very paranormal and supernatural circumstances in which she realizes her son isn’t really dead. She’s not willing to give up on her efforts to defeat the creature within the walls and save her youngest son.
With that being said, I think the Duffer Brothers will be granted a second season, and I look forward to seeing what questions are presented to us next, and how and why the payoffs will be provided. They have opened a portal and let us in behind the scenes of an experimental military program that can continue in many ways. Season two could keep the same characters if they wish, but they have placed the story in such a position that they could explore other options.
Don’t rule out the idea of moving to a modern time in which the cast may have grown up and would be around my age, once again dealing with the poor choices of failed programs. They could even bring Eleven back as the same age she was when she left, which would bring even more mystery to the story. Just ideas I had… You have your own curiosities and expectations now as well, I’m willing to bet. Truthfully, they could tell another story with a new cast and get away with it, if it’s still as compelling as this one. I hope they maintain a child cast and raise the stakes again! Maybe now that Will is back, he”s not what we think he is.
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Until next time…
William C. Raustler.