WARNING: there be spoilers ahead. Don’t come crying to me if those spoilers ruin your day and/or life.
Last night, I watched the final episode of the first season of Stranger Things. I loved it. I loved the entire show. It’s excellent television, and one of the best shows I’ve seen in a long time. There’s no part of the production that I didn’t like: the cinematography is excellent, the casting is near-perfect, the acting is outstanding, the story is completely enthralling and the constant throwbacks to life in the ’80s are hilariously endearing. I mean, come on – the show starts with four kids passionately playing a game of Dungeons & Dragons. How was Stranger Things ever NOT going to be great?
That’s not why I love it, though. I love it because it’s driven by an overall sense of undying optimism that’s sorely missing from most mega-hit TV shows these days. Stranger Things never stops allowing you to be hopeful, and I love it for that too.
Okay, let me explain by comparing it to another mega-hit TV show that’s the polar opposite of Stranger Things in terms of tone: Game of Thrones. To be clear, I’m every bit as obsessed with Game of Thrones as you probably are, so you can put away that scowl. I’m not about to diss your favourite show, clearly leaving you no choice but to shank me with a sharpened hairbrush during yard time in the GoT prison to teach me to know my place or whatever.
ANYWAY. Game of Thrones is where hope goes to die. Every episode is an exhausting exercise in relentless depression. Good Things rarely happen in Game of Thrones, and when they do you’re already so numb from all the beheadings and rapes and incest and assorted shittiness that you’re incapable of gleaning any form of positive emotion from what should be a rare Happy Moment in Westeros. That, and everyone who watches Game of Thrones (or has at least heard about the show) knows that it’s the poster child for “no good deed goes unpunished”, and that your Good Things and Happy Moments are just an episode away from having their limbs torn from their bodies piece by piece, and their eyes plucked from their sockets by an army of angry hell-children.
Put another way, Game of Thrones is a pessimist’s wet dream. And while I’m glad pessimists have something to masturbate to, if you look at the list of big-name, fat-budget TV shows out there, you’ll find that the vast majority of them follow the Game of Thrones method of consistently bludgeoning your emotions to death with horrible, horrible happenings. I’m genuinely surprised that people still whine about how difficult it is to avoid Game of Thrones spoilers. It’s a show where the worst can and will happen. Everything’s terrible, everyone dies, and the most catastrophic events you can imagine will always fall short of the horrors GoT‘s writers can dream up. Just accept that heinous shit’s going to happen all the time, and nothing’s a spoiler anymore.
At this point, the show’s so comically discouraging that it’s practically a verb for when life dicks you over. Someone keyed your car in the parking lot? “Oh man, I went into Woolies to buy toothpaste the other day, and when I walked out some Bolton had Game of Thrones‘d my car.” Bad break-up? “Jimmy totally Game of Thrones‘d me when he banged my sister while his mom watched from the closet.”
By contrast, Stranger Things is endlessly optimistic. It’s playful by comparison. At no point throughout the first season did I feel the sort of heart-wrenching hopelessness that I’ve come to expect from shows of its ilk. It didn’t feel like I was watching the television adaptation of a book called “People Are Shit. Also, Life Sucks and You Should Just Go Home and Stop Trying.” Stranger Things is a non-stop celebration of positive forces like friendship, family, love, hope and the tenacity of the human spirit. It does this while still maintaining its menacing composure. And that’s incredible.
If what I’m saying is starting to make you worry that Stranger Things is basically a glorified, cartoonish sitcom, and you couldn’t possibly take a show like this seriously, maybe stop being such an asshole all the time. Stranger Things is still a dark, mature, threatening thrill-ride. Lots of bad stuff happens. Poor Barb fails at drinking beer from a can The Cool Way and is punished by becoming extra-dimensional fertiliser, a breeding ground for gross, pimply slugs covered in poppy seeds. Benny gets shot in the head for feeding a hungry kid too many hamburgers. Will spends weeks trapped in The Upside Down with a scary monster who shoves gross tentacle things down his throat. At the end of the season, Nancy chooses to go for Steve “my hair is a flightless bird and therefore I’m popular because this is the ’80s, bitch” Harrington, even though he’s wearing that Christmas sweater and Jonathan’s clearly the better choice. That one guy’s movie theatre gets red spray paint on it. It’s pretty rough.
And yet, for all the crappy circumstances these characters find themselves in, the show still feels oddly lighthearted. Despite the constant threat of danger, it’s full of hope that everything’s going to be fine. Not only that, but bad people in this show get exactly what they deserve. Brenner makes out with a toothy monster’s Sarlacc face. Eleven explodes Nazi Lady’s brain. That bully kid is made to pee his pants in front of the entire school, decides this is a good enough reason to become a DIY dentist, and then Eleven breaks his arm for being a douchebag. Steve gets repeatedly punched in the face. It’s pretty awesome.
I guess I just love all the positivity in the face of almost-certain doom. It makes me feel like I did watching E.T. as a kid. And I mean actual E.T., not E.T. as written and directed by Zack Snyder. I love that Joyce never gives up on finding her son, even when everyone’s telling her that it’s not Christmas yet, take down those lights, you idiot. I love that there’s an entire scene devoted to discussing the emotional ramifications of having a best friend, and how it’s perfectly fine to have more than one. I love that stealing chocolate pudding from the lunch lady to recharge your psychic friend’s abilities is just something that happens. I love that these kids think it’s completely reasonable to take on a monster from another dimension with a fucking slingshot, because I would’ve thought the same thing when I was that age.
Imagine if Stranger Things had been written with the same consistently malicious mindset as Game of Thrones. Will would’ve come back to our dimension as a zombie and eaten Joyce’s face while the family dog stared intently. Nancy would’ve gotten pregnant with Steve’s baby and died while giving birth to a savage flamingo-looking bird creature, thereby setting the stage for season two’s monstrous antagonist. Chief Hopper wouldn’t have even made it past the first episode, because he’d have shotgunned himself in the eyeball shortly after Will’s disappearance. Jonathan would’ve become a prostitute, been beaten to within an inch of his life by his first client, and then spent the rest of season one finding victims to seduce and murder. At least two of the five kids would’ve been sold into slavery. Mike would get Ebola and die. Eleven would be so scarred by her traumatic experiences that she’d have just brain-nuked everyone on the planet for being such tools.
I get that the reason shows like Game of Thrones, Sons of Anarchy, and Breaking Bad are so intensely popular is because of their “gritty realism” and the fact that, more often than not, it feels like life and the people who live it are every bit as cruel as those shows depict them to be. Here on Earth, terrible stuff happens every day. Humans are complete A-holes to one another for the strangest reasons. People – even, and often especially, those nearest and dearest to you – will happily shit all over your Happy Fun Times with their selfish disloyalty and callous disregard for the broken place in which their actions will leave you. Sometimes, it’s surprising to be reminded exactly how despicable humans can be. Just last week, I learnt that someone for whom I once held a great deal of respect is basically a low-level word-rapist who’s perfectly comfortable with driving young women to tears because he feels he’s entitled to see their naked bodies, regardless of whether or not they’re okay with it. Not cool. Obviously, I’m not excluding myself from humanity’s tendency towards dickish behaviour. I’ve said and done my share of appalling stuff.
As much as I love the depressing grittiness of “hard-hitting television” or whatever I’m supposed to call it, I don’t need to constantly be reminded how depressing life can be by every new, big-budget show that takes the world by storm. If I ever need to be reminded of that, I’ll just consider the fact that Jacob Zuma has been South Africa’s president for a thousand years now. Or that some genius listened to this emotionally-charged song and decided the best way to visually represent it is to have Rihanna take her clothes off and awkwardly writhe around a giant bathtub, giving her boobs the occasional fiddle.
Stranger Things has brought some balance to things by reveling in its feel-good undertones. It’s a creepy, disturbing show, and yet somehow it’s completely upbeat. It’s really just a fantastic piece of entertainment in every possible way. It’s also a reminder that even the most dire of circumstances can have a (mostly) happy ending, that even the darkest of clouds has a silver lining. It’s fucking brilliant, and I’m so glad it exists. If you haven’t watched it, you really should.