But what is it that makes Stranger Things so great? It doesn't do anything especially new or groundbreaking - in fact, a huge chunk of the show’s appeal is trading on 80s nostalgia - and there's no strong hook that pulls the viewer in from the start (a boy goes missing in the woods has cliche scrawled all over it). I guarantee that if you're an avid fan trying to get a friend to watch and they ask you why they should, your response is usually “seriously, just watch it”, because to describe the synopsis of Stranger Things makes it sound quite boring. The odds were stacked against Stranger Things from the start.
But anyone who has completed the first season will tell you that it is indeed a huge success of a show. It beats all odds, and yet if you were to ask me or most fans why it's a success they probably can't tell you why. So let's take this Showcase to throw Stranger Things upside down and put it under lab surgery to dig out exactly what it is that makes it so good.
And what we find should encourage any would-be writer out there. Because Stranger Things works so well not from any clever concepts, big ticket set pieces or mind-bending plot twists, but from taking a straightforward story that's been told a thousand times and simply doing it well. Very, very well.
Because, despite what many will tell you, ideas are cheap. New writers horde their clever ideas and concepts for stories like they’re something precious, laboring under the assumption that they're rarefied artifacts, meal tickets to fame and fortune that others would steal in a heartbeat.
But the truth is that ideas are everywhere. For every novel in the bookstore there’s hundreds of thousands of ideas that get shelved, cannibalized, rejected or just plain forgotten. The famous mantra of “There's no more original ideas left in the world” is nonsense, serving to perpetuate this myth that finding an original idea is the equivalent of finding Atlantis. There's plenty of original ideas out there. If you were to sit down and concentrate for an hour you'd come up with at least one original idea for a story.
No, the saying should be “Original ideas are like pollen: they're everywhere, really, and you can reach out and grab them at anytime. But originality is not quality. Very few pollen will survive to grow into tall trees.” Doesn't roll off of the tongue as easily, granted, but it's true: while anyone can have an idea, the rarity comes in great ideas. If you're an experienced writer you already know what I'm talking about: those great ideas that basically write themselves.
No, most ideas are either out there ridiculous and will never come to fruition from lack of practicality, or the idea is pretty mundane.
But here's the thing: mundane ideas are fine! In many respects, a writer who can take average ideas and massage them into something of quality is streets ahead of the writer who sits on great ideas, doing nothing with them because they can't decide how to do them justice.
This is what Stranger Things does. It doesn't have an original bone in it’s body - it's a pastiche of Stephen King, John Carpenter, E.T. and The Navigator - but it takes these tried and tested storytelling formulae and quite simply uses them well. It doesn't try to introduce any clever twists or brain-melting ideas. It knows the cake it wants to bake from the beginning and sets about baking it to the best of its ability, with no crazy ingredients or wacky recipe in the mix. It's a tried-and-tested formula that it executes to perfection.
It is a show that is very comfortable in its own skin. Because it knows what it wants to achieve from the beginning and how it will get there. It doesn't wrestle or struggle with those clever, high-concept ideas or complicate itself to the point that it needs to backpedal or hit a big reset button like so many shows do these days (see my showcase for Sherlock for a prime example of this). So the pacing is on point: no episode feels like filler or rushed. At no point do we need to have the story stop and have characters explain what the hell’s happening to each other (i.e. The audience). The most mysterious aspects of Stranger Things - the monster and the world of Upside Down - are not over explained and are barely glimpsed until the latter stages of the season. This is a smart move from the creators. Not only does this maintain the sense of mystery and suspense and put you firmly in the shoes of the protagonists who are as unsure of the facts as you are, but it takes advantage of just how...well, unoriginal the monster and the upside down are. Sounds harsh but it isn't meant to be - we’ve already established that originality isn't quality. Instead, because it is thick with the DNA of the many shows that came before it and inspired it, the audience can paint a picture in their own minds of what they believe the monster or the upside down are.
Complementing the smooth pacing is the fact that there is no flab or excess in the 10-episode running time. There is no character who serves no purpose, nothing set up that receives no pay-off (notwithstanding questions deliberately left hanging for future seasons), nothing that doesn’t serve the story. The way the multiple sub-plots dovetail together in the final stages of the story is handled with deft skill, without feeling tacked on or ham-fisted. It all flows naturally
And this is why everybody should take note of Stranger Things’ success, especially would-be writers. Because here we have a TV show that aims to do nothing more than tell a darn good story. No outlandish ideas, no ‘ultimate stakes’ with the end of the world looming, no competing with other media for who can shout loudest for the most attention from viewers’ eyeballs and eardrums. No. It instead quietly sets about telling abou the story it wants to as well as it can, regardless of whether it's tropes are cliche or not.
Isn't it wonderful to know that simply great storytelling can still champion everything these days?