In a summer filled with overhyped sequels and new installments of elaborate film franchises, Netflix’s Stranger Things has proved a surprising hit.
That’s the thesis of Vulture’s Jen Chaney, at least, who compares the low levels of hype Stranger Things received before its July 15 release to that of the hype surrounding the new Ghostbusters movie, which came out the same day and has already seemingly faded from the public consciousness.
But hop down into the comments on Chaney’s post, and you’ll find a fairly common point of view expressed by a user named yellow_king. He writes:
There's one key difference with the latest Ghostbusters and the other works mentioned: Ghostbusters was a remake, a known entity.
The only way to "return" to the wonderful days of excitement, discovery and organic fandom is to produce new, original works.
What yellow_king says is a common refrain among those who discuss entertainment on the internet. "Not another sequel!" goes the comment in its most platonic form. "When will Hollywood come up with some original ideas?"
But of course, as other commenters chime in, Stranger Things is a knowing genre pastiche, an attempt to recreate the feeling of 1980s movies by assembling famous motifs and moments from them as if making a collage. Even the story is largely a riff on Stephen King’s novels of the period. Why does Stranger Things get to be "original" when a more direct remake doesn’t?
The answer is simple: We don’t really want original stories. We want to hear stories we’ve already heard, retold in slightly different ways.
Truly original stories rarely do all that well
Let’s talk about what truly qualifies as an "original" film: The Lobster. It’s a weird comedy that stars Colin Farrell as a newly single man who checks into a hotel where he is mandated to meet and partner off with the love of his life, within the span of 45 days. If he’s unable to do so, he will be transformed into an animal of his own choosing. (The animal he picks is in the title.)
Remarkably, the film has even more originality to it beyond that premise. It’s a real triumph of sustained worldbuilding, as director Yorgos Lanthimos fills out a strange alternate reality where single people are turned into animals. It’s also filmed in a style that proves deliberately distancing, and its performances are filled with weird, muted blasts of heightened emotion that play as extraordinarily funny.
Now, The Lobster did pretty well for an indie film in this day and age, especially one with as strange a premise as this one. It’s pulled in just over $9 million at the domestic box office since it opened in May, which qualifies as a big win for art house theaters in the warmer months.
But still. The Lobster is a cultural outlier. You’re far more likely to have had random friends recommend any number of this summer’s sequels and remakes instead of its weirdo pleasures. It was never going to take over the zeitgeist in the way Stranger Things has.
And that’s fine. Looking at any random frame from The Lobster will confirm that the movie is Not For Everyone. But the fact that it didn’t suddenly start tearing up the box office charts is indicative, I think, of the fact that when we say we want something "original," what we really mean is that we want something familiar, but just different enough to feel novel.
Enter Stranger Things, which has inspired full glossaries of its references and occasionally lifts shots and sequences wholesale from other movies and TV shows. And as I pointed out in my review of the series, the story is essentially a vague remix of elements from movies of the period in which it takes place.
Most of the response to Stranger Things has been cloaked in the idea of nostalgia, in the thought that it really captures the feeling of its '80s setting. But nostalgia is, in and of itself, a deeply familiar emotion. If Stranger Things had been called, say, E.T.: The Series, it would be harder to avoid just how derivative the show can be. But by maintaining half a step’s remove, the whole enterprise can be dubbed an "homage" or a "nostalgia trip."
The real problem for this sort of show comes in season two
The same goes for the surprise success of summer 2015, USA’s Mr. Robot, or even for 2014’s True Detective. Both series were built from homages to other filmmakers and stories, and in both cases, those homages were features, not bugs.
For instance, the most common complaint about the first season of Mr. Robot is that it was more or less Fight Club in TV series form. But the series didn’t really hide as much; indeed, for much of its fan base, the Fight Club similarities were a big part of the fun. And because the show kept viewers so distracted with how obviously not real one of its characters was, it was able to sneak much bigger twists right past them.
In the case of True Detective, a bog-standard police procedural was enlivened by nods toward weird fiction and obscure horror texts, which allowed for viewers to click through Wikipedia for hours after each episode. The mystery and horror elements fed into each other, at least until the finale, when the "solution" proved to have next to nothing to do with the story’s more horrific aspects and was, instead, pretty standard murder mystery fodder.
The response to that finale was reflected in the responses to the second season of both shows, and it might even suggest the tricky road that lies ahead for Stranger Things as it looks toward season two.
Where the first seasons of Mr. Robot and True Detective seemed like heady brews of previous influences, the second seasons have attracted criticism for how empty they feel.
Mr. Robot’s second season, currently airing, has better subsumed its homages (as Matt Zoller Seitz points out in this article) in favor of deeper character exploration. I’m enjoying it, mostly, but many of the show’s fans miss the "spot the mystery" fun of season one. Similarly, season two of True Detective ditched the weird fiction (for the most part) and simply unleashed a pointlessly convoluted noir plot. It didn’t really work.
The thing about artworks based heavily on homage and reference is that they eventually reach a point where they have to stand on their own two feet, because they stop feeling novel and start feeling overly familiar. Now that Stranger Things is a known quantity, the protection it has of feeling new but also familiar will largely dissipate, and the show’s writers will be left with the characters and storylines they’ve already developed. Will that be enough? Maybe, but season two might as well be marked with a sign reading "Proceed with caution."