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Stranger Things Watch Journal (Season 1)

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TL;DR

A well-written show that appeals to a broad age range. I was a senior in high-school when this show takes place—1984. There is a lot of nostalgia in this for me, although I was, regrettably, never a D&D player. I watched the show with my wife and mother. Both enjoyed the show as much as I did, even though my wife is younger and grew up in China and of course, my mother would have been in her late-30s when this story happened.

What I like the most about the story is its simplicity. A short synopsis of the story would probably sound unappealing, yet the execution of the story with great writing and directing makes this a must-watch.

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Episode 1:

I just finished the first episode and I could totally stay up for hours binging this show. It grabs you right from the start.

The Good

The cook at the diner where the young girl sneaks in is brilliantly written. He’s a big burly dude, and the first time he sees the girl, he yells at her. Right away, the writers want to give us the impression that we’re not going to like this character. Then we go to a different scene, and when we come back, the cook feeds the girl and is very gentle with her. We can see that he is genuinely a good guy and wants to help the girl. They build on this for a few more short scenes until the bad guys show up, and a woman shoots him in the head. That tells us all we need to know. We don’t like these people. Although, my guess is if the writing is this good, then eventually, we might discover that the bad guys aren’t as bad as we think. I guess I’ll find out soon enough.

The Bad

My wife tells me that Winona Rider is excellent in this show and I guess she wins some awards for her acting. But it wasn’t apparent in the scene when she’s in Hooper’s office to report her son is missing. During the scene it was apparent that the Duffer brothers (writers/directors) don’t really know how to write for a mother who is in distress that her son is missing. I can’t be too hard on them, it’s a terribly hard thing to try and deeply understand a character that is far outside your own personal experience. I would struggle with a character in this situation myself. But this is the first episode. Without knowing anything at all about the Duffer brothers I’m going to guess that they were young kids themselves in 1984. They know how to write the young characters, but some of the others might be a little more stereotypical, especially to start out. But writers get better as they work with their characters more. Plus, they are working with great actors who can provide feedback on how to better write for their character.

Episode 2:

I like that the plot is moving along at a pretty good pace and not trying to overbuild the tension. For instance, we found out in the first episode that Eleven has telekenesis. That creates a tension for the viewer, because we know she has it, but the three boys don’t. The writers could have stretched this tension out for a handful of seasons but didn’t.

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Right away, it’s obvious that Millie Bobby Brown is a fantastic actress. I wonder how much of that is due to the character she has to play having such a limited vocabulary. When a character has a lot of dialog they can communicate everything they need. But when a character has very little dialog they need to find other ways to communicate; for instance, with their body language and expressions. Ask yourself this, the best acting roles that you’ve seen: have they been because the actor delivered great dialog, or was it because the actor communicated without using any dialog. I’ll bet you’ll find that in most cases it’s the later.

I’m also noticing that David Harbour, as Jim Hopper, is performing really well. But again, most of his best acting is done when he’s not talking. Kudos to the Duffer brothers so far for top notich writing and directing.

Episode 3:

The writers have done a great job creating dramatic irony. (Dramatic Irony is when the audience knows things that the characters don’t.) It’s a hard thing to get just right and and easy thing to completely screw up. The balancing act that the writers are walking is in creating characters, like Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) who sound crazy to the other characters, but we know she’s not. The same thing goes for the boys: Mike, Lucas, and Dustin. But at the same time, the audience still doesn’t know everything.

Episode 4:

This is the halfway point of the first season and the story is picking up steam. Not so much that the audience knows much more, but more characters are starting to clue in that something strange is going on and they’re starting to take action. Specifically, Jim Hopper ends the episode by breaking into Hawkins National Laboratory Research. I’m guessing that he’s not going to find anything more than trouble for himself, but now he knows there is a coverup going on. Plus, all of the boys know for sure now that Mike is alive, somehow. It feels good as a viewer to see the likable characters begin to grow the circle of support around them. I think the next step is for the circles to begin to overlap and the boys will soon team up with Joyce and then Jim Hopper. I have a feeling that Jim Hopper is going to be one of the few adults that treat the boys like adults and not some kids that can’t do anything more than get in the way.

The acting all around is flawless. Winona Ryder is really growing into her character. Acting frantic and crazy has got to be one of the hardest performances to pull off. I can recall a few roles with Winona where she’s like this so I can see why she was cast in this role. She’s a perfect fit.

Episodes 5 & 6:

We watched these two back-to-back. I can’t remember the details of exactly what happened in which so I’ll join them together.

The first circle overlap was with Joyce and Jim Hopper. That should have been obvious that Jim would go to Joyce as soon as he could and give her the information about her son. And we have Nancy and Jonathan teaming up. There are only three episodes remaining, so the circles will begin to grow.

It’s pretty obvious that Steve Harrington is a turd, but I think some really good writing would be to push Steve and his friends out of the main storyline for the rest of the season, and maybe just keep them in the background in season two, but then have some event in Steve’s life change him to the point that he and Jonathan are working together and have build mutual respect for each other. It’s a classic trope that works well to let a turd character grow into a likable character. In many instances this character ends up sacrificing themselves at the end of their arc.

Episodes 7 & 8:

Here’s what I love most about Stranger Things: it’s a simple story that draws the viewer in with likable characters and great storytelling execution. I really feel that most people who read a one-page character and plot synopsis of this first season would probably take a pass on it. It sounds too fantastic and puerile to be appealing to anyone other than children. But here we are.

I love how the show shamelessly weaves the themes of Dungeons and Dragons into the plot. It it clear that the writers/creators must have been big D&D fans when they were kids and thought of a way to bring their fantasies off the table and into a real-life adventure. I think the real trick to making the story more compelling is by adding the government cover-up angle. Mixing fantasy with realism is the best way to make it realistic. Of course the upside-down world is pure fantasy, but maybe if the government was behind it, and even better if it was an accidental creation by the government and now they’re trying to use it as a weapon. You go from thinking the upside-down world is fantasy in one moment to thinking, of course if the government did create a portal to this world they would try to use it as a weapon. Now you’re justifying the upside-down world in your own mind and it suddenly isn’t so unrealistic. It actually is just as unrealistic, but your mind begins to justify it anyway.

 

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