RIGHT INTO THE STRANGER ZONE
When it came to the Hot Press TV show of the year, there was only one plausible candidate. So put away your Dungeons And Dragons dice, tidy up your Star Wars toys and sit up straight in class as we pay homage to '80s-riffing, sci-fi thriller Stranger Things 2…
"The truth of Stranger Things is it’s a little bit the blind leading the blind."
When I interviewed rookie show runners Ross and Matt Duffer early in the summer of 2016, none of us had an inkling what was coming down the track. The twins were about to debut their new science fiction thriller on Netflix and the company’s PR department was understandably eager to gin up as much publicity as possible.
The two episodes of the series provided to me had been a lot of fun – '80s setting chimed with my childhood playing Dungeons And Dragons and, unlike a lot of modern sci-fi, the Duffers were serious about their characters and the genuinely horrifying monster they had unleashed upon sleepy Hawkins, Indiana. Plus, the show starred Winona Ryder as “the mom”. For ageing Gen X-ers this was both thrilling and also a bit confusing.
Nonetheless, Stranger Things did not scream break-out hit. It wasn’t moody or self-serious, in that fashionable “Peak TV” way. The heroes were a bunch of dorky kids, with a gruff, Indiana Jones-chanelling police chief the closest to a Don Draper/Frank Underwood-style “difficult man”. And at the risk of labouring the point, there was indeed lots of Dungeons
And Dragons – a nod to ET, but also suggesting that this was TV for dorks, made by dorks.
We all know what happened next: Stranger Things became the word of mouth smash of the year and, 12 months later, the Duffers and Netflix did it all over again, with the bigger, better sequel Stranger Things 2.
Thus when it came to the Hot Press TV Show of 2017, the vote was unanimous.
What was so impressive about the second season was that it reprised everything we loved about the first run of episodes without it feeling cynical or exploitative. How thrilling to return to Hawkins, and catch up with geeks-on-bikes Mike, Dustin, Lucas and Will – the last the unlucky victim of the Demogorgon who, in season one, kidnapped the boy and took him to the “Upside Down” alternate dimension.
"We grew up on movie sequels, and whenever there's a movie sequel, you expect a little bit more," says Matt Duffer before his brother Ross jumps in: "But we didn't want it to become some visual effects extravaganza, because I don't think that's what people like about the first season. So there are some things that are more complicated, but honestly all of it was pitched to Netflix long before the show became a success. We said, 'Some of this is gonna be a little trickier, and as a result a little bit more costly', and they were fine with it. It had nothing to do with it being a hit or not. It was just the direction that the story ended up taking, but really, at the end of the day, to us it's still scarier to have our characters in a room and there are blinking lights and they hear noises than necessarily seeing the monster."
Resumes Matt: "We keep reigning ourselves in, actually. We keep pulling back because it starts to not feel like the show anymore. We have sort of a compass guiding us, which is season one. We know when it starts to feel like something that I don't even recognise."
In the sequel, things don’t get much better for poor Will. He continues to be plagued by visions of the Upside Down – and has intimations that a vast “shadow demon” has designs over Hawkins where the connection with the alternate dimension is especially strong thanks to the presence of a top secret military base dabbling in matters occult and transdimensional.
Also back are troubled teens Nancy, Jonathan and Steve, Nancy’s tall haired, douche-with-heart of gold boyfriend. The line-up is completed by Will’s mother Joyce (Winona!), gruff police chief Hopper and Eleven – the shaven haired 12 year old with telekinetic powers.
In the heart-stopping conclusion to the first series, it was strongly implied that Eleven had sacrificed herself to kill the Demogorgon and save her friends. But the Duffers didn’t hide the fact that they were bringing the character back – or that, as movingly and even viscerally portrayed by Millie Bobby Brown, she would continue to be central to the plot.
"You don't really see a lot of women or girls saving people in this crazy '80s world," Brown says of her cult status among her peers. "Thirteen-year-old girls are watching the show probably thinking, 'Wow, it's okay to be a freak like Eleven is, and it's okay to be different.' And I think that's why they related to her."
Far from being freaked about it, Brown loves the obsessive fandom
Stranger Things inspires.
“I went to Manila, which was really fun, and they were so cool and really crazy about the show. And I had no idea; it was like, ‘Oh my goodness, Millie, did you know you have forty-two lines in this specific episode?’ I was like, ‘No’. And they were like, ‘Well you did. And did you know that you ate eight Eggos in eight episodes?’ It's incredible.”
Asked about the family atmosphere on the set, she enthuses: "The Duffer brothers are like my big brothers. They are the best, and Shawn Levy, the producer, is like my dad. I love him. He's amazing and so great to work with and he really connects with the actors. Like, if I needed to cry, he'll put on sad music which is really helpful. And don't forget, Andrew Stanton who's amazing. I love working with him. He's super fun; energetic; he dances! It's really cool. And then we have Rebecca Thomas' girl power all the way."
Eleven’s anguished search for her mother – from whom her baby daughter was plucked so that her extra-sensory powers could be exploited by the government – is one of the twin poles of season two. The other is Will’s battle with the Shadow Demon, which eventually possesses the boy and uses him to lure soldiers at Hawkins Laboratory (presided over by Aliens' Paul Reiser) into a deadly ambush involving larval versions of the Demogorgon (Demodogs).
In other words, it’s everything we loved about Stranger Things – only in greater quantities. As screenwriters who know their '80s influences, it’s clear that the Duffers have envisaged the series as their version of James Cameron’s Aliens – a follow-up to an acclaimed original that doubles down on the best bits even as it finds its own singular voice.
The most impressive thing about the Duffers' smash, it could be argued, is that it has rewritten the rules about how to make a hit series in 2017.
Stranger Things is an old fashioned romp – one that, moreover, was unapologetic about putting kids at the heart of the action.
"The show isn't coming from a place of cynicism or irony," Shawn Levy reflects. "There's a certain innocence to the storytelling, which taps into a collective desire now more than ever for authenticity. Our show means what we say. We as storytellers take it seriously. We aren't making fun of it. We aren't being judgmental about the setting or the characters. We're being sincere and I think people have been yearning for that in stories.
"The truth of Stranger Things," he continues, "is it’s a little bit the blind leading the blind. I know a little bit about producing television. I definitely know a little bit more than the Duffers, they had done some work in
Wayward Pines. I've done some comedy series. But this was new for all of us, and we hooked up because it just felt like the right fit of sensibilities and we're finding our way through it, to be honest. It helped that we always viewed Stranger Things as an eight-hour movie. In the case of season 2, it's a nine-hour movie because we have nine episodes. So the story telling, at least the way we approach it in our hearts, our minds, is long big arcs, the way a movie is."
With plans for up to five seasons, the Duffers are already looking ahead. Their young cast is growing up before our eyes and future storylines will have to reflect the transition from childhood to adolescence. That, say the Duffers, is both a challenge and an opportunity.
“Our kids are ageing,” they told the Hollywood Reporter recently. “We can only write and produce the show so fast. They’re going to be almost a year older by the time we start shooting season three. It provides certain challenges. You can’t start right after season two ended. It forces you to do a time jump. But what I like is that it makes you evolve the show. It forces the show to evolve and change, because the kids are changing.”