The Harsh Realities (and Strange Appeal) of Stranger Things

Hey! I wasn’t sure I’d have a post for this week, since I flew home late last night from my vacation and haven’t gotten back to my regular schedule, yet. But, then I came across this review of “Stranger Things”, which I thought I’d share. I haven’t watched the show, but Thomas P. Harmon’s thoughtful and articulate review piqued my curiosity, so I may have to add it to my viewing schedule.

I’m just going to cite a few sections here and there, where Harmon gives some helpful background, observations, and/or assessment of the series. It is somewhat SPOILERish, though no major details are revealed….

“Netflix’s return to Hawkins, Indiana, [for its upcoming second season] should prove a test as to whether the show can maintain what made it a standout in this new media environment: namely that it resisted many of the sentimentalizing or dehumanizing elements of contemporary film and television. It did this without preachiness, without subservience to politically correct pieties or ideological dogmatism. The beating heart of Stranger Things is its moral depth and seriousness, which is the strangest thing about it…. [T]he show stars children but is intended for adults, and [it] neither sentimentally overemphasizes cheap innocence nor wallows nihilistically in degradation, violence, and gratuitous sex….

Stranger Things leans heavily on its 80s milieu. The kids on bicycles, the painstaking attention to period set design, the dated hairstyles, and the 10-hour Dungeons & Dragons sessions are all there. The show slyly cultivates a sense of loss about those things: We have traded the imaginative, social experience of D&D for passive screen time in which the game does the imagining for you. We are also drawn to the unencumbered freedom the children have tearing around the town of Hawkins, and to the preteen-friendly space the boys set up in the basement of the Wheelers’ house. There they can exercise a limited sovereignty appropriate to children on the cusp of adolescence without constant adult intervention and supervision. Still, the sense of loss is not without a healthy critique: We quickly recognize that the children’s freedom is a product of parental neglect….

The show’s fundamental lack of sentimentality is evident when comparing it to the master of self-conscious sentimentality, Steven Spielberg. His films Close Encounters of the Third Kind and especially E.T. were obvious source material for the plot, characters, and look of Stranger Things. The kids on bikes, the realm of children’s freedom away from neglectful adults, the sinister government scientists up to no good, and the elfin visitor from another place who combines touching vulnerability with extraordinary power, are all there. E.T. and Eleven even disguise themselves in blonde wigs and perch on bicycles driven by our boy heroes. But that is where the similarities end. As if they sensed, appropriately, that their Gen-X audience would recoil without it, the Duffer brothers added the realism and perception of modern film sensibility — without the Spielberg touch….

Unlike the scientists in E.T., the adults in Stranger Things don’t characteristically lack feeling or love; they either lack the knowledge of how to act on their love appropriately or the will to do so. They lack virtue, in other words. Their imaginations and desires have been stunted by a soul-sucking suburban existence that demands very little of them outside the very basics. The boys, on the other hand, are capable of helping Eleven because they live more fully relational lives…. [T]heir highly developed imaginations have both prepared them to accept the existence of “stranger things” and to deliberate about what to do in the face of them. They have received an imaginative training in courage, which prepares them to face the dangers of searching for Will in the face of quasi-demonic powers and of protecting Eleven from the adults who wish her harm. This is no sanitized vision of childhood emotional innocence versus the unfeeling reason of adulthood….

Despite the truncation of parenthood we see in the series, it is also true that there are glimpses of better things. When we see fatherhood and motherhood exercised well, it is in remarkably traditional terms…. At the conclusion of the series, even the hapless Wheelers and the distracted Joyce have changed the way they interact with their children. The adolescents’ domain in the Wheelers’ basement is left mostly intact, but now Jonathan Byers appears in it at the end of the evening to find his brother and drive him home. The freedom of the children is fundamentally upheld, but also moderated by the prudent — but not intrusive — attention of their elders.

Stranger Things doesn’t just avoid the sentimentalism and dehumanization of too much popular entertainment; it pushes back against it. The first season was deeply moral without being moralistic. In so doing, it worked against the regular assaults on innocence and human dignity in much of what passes for entertainment today. If this season can avoid those same cheap traps, it will continue to be a standout in today’s “golden age” of serial television.”

I encourage my readers to read Harmon’s full article.

Have you watched any “Stranger Things”, yet? If so, what do you think of Harmon’s review? If not, did this review make you more likely to watch it or less so?


Tributes to Two Genre Giants

I really enjoyed Bill Paxton, and I’m gonna miss him.

Bill Paxton collage

Bill Paxton collage

In case you haven’t been keeping up on current events, Paxton passed away the other day from complications during surgery at age 61. As genre actors go, he was both beloved by fans and, I think, perhaps a bit underappreciated. His resume goes back to the mid-1970s and includes many movies and TV appearances that sci-fi/fantasy and action/adventure fans, along with fans of other genres, will forever remember him for. Some roles were quite brief (e.g., one of three punks who first encounter the T-800 in The Terminator), some were significant supporting roles, and others were terrific starring roles. Good or bad, you could tell he loved his job.

Most recently, Paxton could be seen co-starring with Justin Cornwell in the new “Training Day” TV series. A couple years ago, he did a guest stint on “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”. I haven’t watched everything he was in, of course. But, of those I have seen, probably my top 5 Paxton roles were: Pvt. Hudson in Aliens (1986), Morgan Earp in Tombstone (1993), Fred Haise in Apollo 13 (1995), Bill Harding in Twister (1996), and, yes, “Punk Leader” from The Terminator (1984). He also appeared in Weird Science, Commando, Predator 2, Trespass, Boxing Helena, True Lies, Titanic, Mighty Joe Young (1998 remake), U-571, a couple of Spy Kids sequels, Edge of Tomorrow, and many more.

Paxton may not have been quite the household name as some of his co-stars, but among many aficionados of TV and film, he was a “big deal”. He provided a lot of entertainment to young and old, and I’ll always enjoy his work. He is gone too soon from this world, and all that is left to say is, “Thank you, sir.” Well, that and…

Game over, man. Well played.

Neil Fingleton

Neil Fingleton / Mag the Mighty

The other “giant” I’d like to pay tribute to was not nearly as well known as Paxton but was a giant of another kind. Former basketball player Neil Fingleton was known as the UK’s “tallest British-born man” at 7 feet 7.5 inches (232.5 cm) in height. He was playing professionally in an American minor league in Europe when he decided to give it up and pursue a career in showbiz.

Fingleton’s name and face may not be very familiar even to genre fans, unless perhaps you saw him on one or the other (or both) of two British TV documentaries he appeared in in 2007: “Britain’s Tallest Men” on BBC Four and “Superhuman: Giants” on ITV. The reasons are 1) at his height, there haven’t been that many roles he fit, and 2) the roles he had involved him being covered in a lot of make-up, prosthetics, and/or armor.

His credits include minor roles in X-Men: First Class and Jupiter Ascending. In 47 Ronin, he played a Lovecraftian Samurai who fought Keanu Reeves’ character. He played the giant “Mag the Mighty” in the epic “Game of Thrones” episode “The Watchers on the Wall”. (Other GoT giants, Dongo and Wun Wun, were played by Ian Whyte (7’1″).) In 2015 he portrayed the scary Fisher King in the “Doctor Who” episode “Before the Flood”. He also did a few stunts and motion capture work for “Ultron” in Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Fingleton died of heart failure this past weekend mere days after turning 36.

One last thing… I watched For the Love of Spock last week. If you haven’t already seen it and were curious, I very much recommend it. It’s a touching tribute to both the character of Spock and the man who first brought him to life, Leonard Nimoy. Certainly, it’s a must-see for Trekkies/Trekkers, and particularly for fans of the Original Series.