Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Rulebook Casefile: The 13 Member Ensemble in “Stranger Things”

The “Stranger Things” pilot has a lot of work to do. First and foremost, it has to introduce 13 main characters (really 14, because we assume the cook will be a character as well) and get us to like/love most of them. Let’s look at them and why we like them:
  • Mike Wheeler, amusingly serious about his dorkiness
  • Lucas Sinclair, shares out exasperation with the other nerds
  • Dustin Henderson, sweet-natured
  • Will Byers, touchingly innocent
  • Eleven, bad-ass, stuck in a harrowing situation
  • Jonathan Byers doesn’t really make an impression yet.
  • Nancy Wheeler is less sympathetic, but we empathize with the thrill/confusion/fear of a new relationship.
  • Steve Harrington, a witty cad.
  • Barb Holland, touchingly dorky.
  • Sheriff Jim Hopper, amusingly boorish.
  • Joyce Byers, we empathize with her horrible situation and economic struggles.
  • Karen Wheeler doesn’t register, she’s just a hectoring mom.
  • Dr. Martin Brenner, an intriguing psychopath
To make things harder, the pilot eschews the easiest and most traditional way to introduce a large ensemble: We could meet Mike first and then meet the other twelve from Mike’s point of view, sharing his limited perspective on their lives, but instead we get several separate introductions:
  • First Mike, Lucan, Dustin, Will and Karen get their shared intro scene.
  • Then we discover Nancy from Dustin’s POV, but only a glimpse, so the scene with Nancy and Barb (and then Steve) essentially serves as its own independent introduction scene.
  • We meet Joyce and Jonathan in the context of Will, but they essentially get their own independent scene.
  • Hopper, Eleven, and Dr. Brenner each definitely get their own very individualized into scenes.
So how does the show cram all this into 45 minutes and still have time for a plot? It relies a lot on well-worn tropes. This isn’t just a show set in 1983, it’s a loving pastiche of books, movies and TV from that era, so it introduces most of the characters using the types of scenes we know well.

The Nancy/Barb/Steve storyline is a total cliché, but it gets away with it because we get the sense that it’s all kind of a joke that it’s so familiar. We’re half-identifying with the characters, and half outside of the show, thinking, “They really nailed the pop culture of that era.” This gives the show access to shorthand characterization that allows it to quickly set up its world.

This show is a testament to the fact that audiences love familiar tropes as long as they’re re-contextualized in an interesting way. Every storyline is derivative here, but they’re derived from an interesting mix of sources (“Akira” meets Pretty in Pink meets Stand By Me meets Alien meets...) and recreated so lovingly that we’re delighted, not offended.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

In rewatching the series I was struck by how well Mike, Dustin, and Lucas fit into your "head, heart, and gut" polarized ensemble framework. Dustin is the gut, no doubt; Lucas, the skeptic, is the head; and Mike is the heart. In the second series it almost feels odd when Will rejoins the group because he doesn't have a strong personality or a clear purpose in the group aside from being in distress.