Strangely Familiar Things

There’s a lot to love about Stranger Things on Netflix.  If you haven’t seen it, don’t read this.  This is full of spoilers.  Don’t worry, you can go watch it and come back; the internet isn’t going anywhere.

 

Seriously, major spoilers here.

 

I’m not kidding.

 

Okay, fine.

Like many other children of the 80’s, the show hits my nostalgia buttons, from the language to the clothes to the references, it does a great job of calling back to that era, with just a few stand-out anachronisms.  The performances are also really good, and at all levels.  In fact, I love that it has three parallel levels, just like a Shakespeare play, each dealing with the same issues and themes, but from different perspectives.  The audio is fantastic; the editing is excellent; the directing is spot-on.  I don’t want anyone to think I didn’t like the show, or appreciate it; I did and I do.

However, WTF is with Eleven sacrificing herself to defeat the demogorgon?  Sacrifice is heroic, sure, but couldn’t they have expelled the monster without destroying her?  Yes, there’s a circularity to it; she brought the monster into our world, so she takes it out again.  But, if she was powerful enough to bridge that gap without destroying herself, why does she have to be eliminated to destroy the link?  Narratively, there are any number of options available for resolving this (and yes, I know they can bring her back in season 2), but symbolically, what this says is that we should celebrate the sacrifices our precocious, talented, special young girls make to save our boys.

We really need to stop that.

Especially in kids this age, when they’re just starting to come out of childhood and start that journey through adolescence to adulthood, when we lose so many bright, talented girls because of the social stigma of being smart, confident, capable – all things we celebrate in our boys – we need to stop putting the burden on the girls to make way for the boys, to stand aside so that others can excel.  Girls are taught about self-sacrifice and maintaining the good of the group from a very young age, and apparently that applies even to girls who have been raised in brutal, laboratory conditions.

Slight side note – I nearly stopped watching the show in episodes 3 & 4.  The presentation of the brutality that Eleven experienced was so strongly coded in child abuse and neglect that emotionally, I could barely stand to continue watching.  I know kids who have been locked in closets by their parents; I know kids who have been left, isolated and cold and alone, exposed to the elements with no escape.  At some level, the treatment of Eleven has to justify her killing people to get out of the lab and again in resisting going back, but that really could have been done without such strong troping of child abuse.  That’s a kind of horror I have no interest in seeing in any format.

That’s not the only place that the show runs afoul of gender structures.  There’s the brains vs. sex troping of Nancy from the very beginning, followed through with the slut-shaming, and the “who will she choose”, as though her partner choices were the most interesting thing about her.  Barb apparently doesn’t merit a funeral or a family who is bereft at her loss – no journey to the upside-down to save good girls; no frantic search for clues when you’re the less-attractive friend.

The show has a similar blindness around race, it seems.  Lucas at least gets a home space represented (Dustin doesn’t even get that), but what does that house look like?  The show is constantly re-visiting the establishing shots of the Wheeler and Byers houses, and the class markers between them are crystal clear, but the secondary, non-white characters don’t even have a place in this space.  You could argue that this is self-aware irony, that the show presents a token Black character as a critique of the tokenism of the time, except that doesn’t actually advance anything.  That puts us back in the 80’s at best (ironic self-detachment is hardly new), but surely we can ask more meaningful questions about what it meant to be one of a handful of Black kids in the midwest; how being a geek inflects differently; what that Vietnam experience means beyond having military hardware available.

The show sails past all of this.  It tells a compelling story, and it does it well, don’t get me wrong, but we should be careful about nostalgia for privilege and erasure.  “Remember how nice everything was back when we could be as sexist and racist as we wanted to be” is a dangerous politics to enable.  When you venture through the veil, be careful what you bring back with you.

 

If You Don’t Know Steven Moffat by Now…

Season 3 of Sherlock just showed recently in the US on PBS.  Fans of the show are rabid, hardcore.  Part of it, no doubt, is due to Benedict Cumberbatch and his astonishingly otter-like face, and in television, as in film or games, almost all products are the result of great teams, not simply exceptional individuals.  But, if you discount Moffat’s contributions, you do so at your own peril.

A little red-haired Scottish girl solemnly intones, “Dear Santa. Thank you for the dolls and pencils and the fish. It’s Easter now, so I hope I didn’t wake you, but honest, it is an emergency. There’s a crack in my wall. Aunt Sharon says it’s just an ordinary crack, but I know it’s not, because at night there’s voices, so please, please, could you send someone to fix it?”  That’s the opening to Season 5, Episode 1 of the re-launched Dr. Who (credit to Doctor Who Transcripts for the text).  Moffat had written for Dr. Who regularly since the re-launch, but the fifth season was when he took over as the show-runner, essentially the creative head of the franchise.  There are plenty of critics of Matt Smith and especially in the Matt Smith years of Amelia Pond (played by Karen Gillan), but there’s little doubt that the series has flourished and grown under Moffat’s stewardship.

Before any of that, there was Coupling, sort of a British version of Friends, a sitcom featuring three young, generally attractive male leads and three extremely attractive female leads.  While it is, in many ways, a fairly straightforward sitcom, even at this early stage, Moffat was experimenting with television as a medium and storytelling within that framework.  For example, there was the episode that played out in reverse-chronological order, starting with the ending and gradually revealing all the incidents that had led up to that moment; or, the episode where the main character speaks English in the first half to an uncomprehending foreigner, and in the second half, he speaks Italian and the foreigner’s dialogue is in English – for the characters, the same disconnect, but for the viewer, a shift in perspectives that unveils a larger picture.

As a writer, as a director, as a show-runner, Moffat has been pushing the quality bar on what can be done in television for over a dozen years; he’s widely recognized in the UK, even receiving a special BAFTA award in 2012.  The moment to be hiply conscious of him has passed; the fascination with the success of his works has already become a repeated topic for him to tackle in the last year.  But, if you like your television with humor, self-awareness, experimentation, and excellent production values, you would do well to acquaint yourself with his body of work.  The only question left is whether he will stick with television or make the jump to the movies.