Stranger Frustrations

If you’re American and you have Netflix, odds are you’ve watched Stranger Things. And I am no exception. Most people love Stranger Things and it’s not hard to see why. The pacing in Stranger Things is intense. Most episodes whirl you through a series of slowly building stakes along two or three parallel stories culminating in a blockbuster finale that puts a cherry on top of it all. And, perhaps most impressive of all, the show does this twice.

There’s a lot to like about Stranger Things. Long time readers know this means I’m about to switch gears and tell you everything I hate about the show. So let’s get down to it.

I enjoyed my time with Stranger Things. But I also didn’t enjoy it as much as many other people I know. I didn’t count down the days until it came out and I didn’t binge the entire series as soon as it was available. Part of this is because I have a life that makes demands of my time. Most of it was because I wasn’t highly invested in watching the series. The pacing of Stranger Things is one of its strongest points hands down. By whirling the audience from one new revelation to another the Duffer brothers keep their audience breathless with excitement and anticipation, never really thinking about things that have been but rather focused on things that are coming. That’s a huge accomplishment. On top of that there’s some amazingly strong character writing and acting. Every award Stranger Things won it deserved.

Problem is when I wasn’t watching Stranger Things I was thinking about things. So, while I want to praise Stranger Things some next week, I hope you’ll indulge a bit of griping this week as we discuss the details that keep Stranger Things off my list of great TV shows – at least for now. In order to do that, though, we’re going to have to discuss


so please stop reading if, by some chance, you haven’t watched Stranger Things yet and that kind of thing bothers you.

Let’s start with blood.

You know, the stuff that lured the Demogorgon out when Jon and Nancy trapped it, that led it to the deer which brought Nancy into the Upside Down, that attracted it to Barb leading to her untimely demise. Stranger Things makes it seem like blood is very important to the Demogorgon somehow. Except that it’s not.

You remember Will Byers? Y’know, the kid who’s disappearance starts everything in Stranger Things season one? He isn’t bleeding when the Demogorgon attacks him. More than that, season two establishes that Demogogons in general will follow food that has no blood in it at all, like Three Musketeers candy bars or bologna. In fact, none of the Mind Flayer’s influenced entities seem to react to blood in any special way in season two.

So why the random blood imagery? The only reason I can think of is to make the viewer uncomfortable, as seeing injured people is want to do. It’s blatant emotional manipulation. Now manipulating audience emotions is the job of a writer but if you get caught doing it that’s generally bad. Worse, it makes the monster inconsistent, almost as if the Duffers are writing the monsters in whatever way they thought would be creepiest, rather than as actual menaces to the cast with their own inscrutable goals.

Season two has another case of this when Bob Newby dies. Monsters that had been vigilantly patrolling the halls, ignoring dozens of dead bodies, suddenly stop hunting active targets to devour his body after killing him. Gotta let those main characters escape, right? This makes even less sense when, a few episodes earlier, we see that the Mind Flayer can make Demodogs ignore easily available prey in favor of its own priorities when they leave the kids in the junkyard alone. Again, these inconsistencies make the emotional manipulation at work clear and make it harder to stay immersed. We watch Bob get eaten because he was a kind, caring, upstanding person and we’re supposed to be sad and angry at his death. Watching his body desecrated pushes us in that direction.

The biggest question of all is why the solution to the Mind Flayer in season two was so… simple. The original Demogorgon pulled open holes between the upside down and Hawkins on a semi regular basis. But, even with a huge presence in Hawkins and far more intelligence and power at its disposal than the Demogorgon, the Mind Flayer only ever relies on one gate to maintain its hold. Why didn’t it open at least one other gate and secure its power base that way? It managed to widen the primary door easily enough.

There are other, minor, moments of frustrating decision making on the part of the writers. In season one the only reason for Nancy to crawl under a tree into the upside down after a something that ran off with the body of a deer while she knows there’s something in town abducting people is so the story can ratchet up the tension. If Will was so sensitive to heat that Joyce had to keep the front door open why wasn’t the Mind Flayer purged from him over the summer? It routinely gets into the 90s outside. If that’s not hot enough how hot does it have to be? The human body can only take so much. Or did it just survive so we could have a second season? Again, it’s just so much disappointing and transparent audience manipulation.

Look, none of these things a dealbreakers. They don’t make Stranger Things a bad TV show. But they do kind of chip away at immersion and disappoint people who like consistency in their fiction. Stranger Things is good TV, and if you get hyped for the inevitable season three then by all means watch it. But that’s not to say the Duffers couldn’t do better on some fronts and I hope they will. But even if they don’t I’ll still check it out just because they are so good at what they do. Drop back next week and we’ll unpack that a bit more too.

Another Kingdom – Murder in the Arcane

Every writer wants to write about writers. It’s a weird obsession we have. Stephen King has made a career of it (not entirely but a large part of it). As an author of thrillers Andrew Klavan has steered away from this cliché, at least in those books of his I have read, as most writers are not the athletic, rush towards danger, survive and thrive types. But, as a clever, scheming, determined author Klavan found a work around and, honestly, it’s a pretty simple one. Many thrillers just throw normal people into a situation where they have no idea what’s going on and are in mortal danger then let things unfold from there. Klavan uses the same formula in his new story Another Kingdom, except he’s replaced the normal person with an aspiring Hollywood writer.

Another Kingdom is an interesting experience, taking the form of an audiobook in podcast form, read by actor Michael J. Knowles with some decent sound design to add atmosphere. Knowles has a decent vocal range and the good judgement not to try and force himself too far out of his comfort zone to read the voices of some characters. His emotional range is a bit of a question mark as the story hasn’t pushed him in very many directions yet. He does do dazed and confused quite well, but he’s also an actor so there’s that.

There are three big mysteries in Another Kingdom. First, why does Austin Lively keep going from L.A. to a mysterious fantasy world? Second, who murdered the woman found dead at his feet on Austin’s first trip to said fantasy world? Third, why did Austin read a book by the title “Another Kingdom” that mentioned said fantasy world a few months before his trips there began?

We don’t get any of the answers to these questions quickly, which is to the story’s credit. Austin keeps flipping from our world to the other at least once a chapter so the answers to all questions are pursued at a similar rate, which is fast enough to satisfy but not so fast as to give us answers too easily. In short, waiting to find out what’s going on with Austin is pleasantly frustrating, which is what any good thriller author should want.

There are a number of scenes that caused me to raise eyebrows scattered throughout the tale so far, in particular a video call with Austin’s younger sister which doesn’t seem like it will be directly relevant to the story beyond generally expanding our understanding of Austin himself. These kinds of scenes are common in storytelling but rare in thrillers, which try to keep a very brisk pacing to keep audiences hooked. This has the unfortunate side effect of making every scene of this type look like it could be a hidden flag for something important later on. Such scenes can be distracting for some in the audience, myself included, as we try and place them in the grander scheme of things. Still, Klavan manages to make everything else interesting enough that our interest isn’t always drawn to a single out-of-place moment. And it is a problem more for authors than general audiences.

The best part of Another Kingdom is the sense of purpose everything has infused in it. Austin’s world weighs on him in a way that drives him always to the next thing, as if some greater destiny is calling him from point to point until he discovers the truth behind it all. Not a shy truth, reluctant to be known, but a truth that is calling to him, laying out every step, every clue in the hope he’ll discover it. Lending weight to that sense of destiny is Klavan’s excellent portrayal of the strange, emotionally taxing life of the average aspiring Hollywood artist giving a creditable, tangible, real point of reference amidst all the fantastic elements of Austin’s predicament.

Another Kingdom is not a fantasy story for everyone. It doesn’t have much in the way of magic or even well explored mechanics to it (at least so far). No time passes in one world when Austin is in the other, a strange take on the world crossing conceit, especially as Austin has vague memories of what he did in the other world before his first visit. This is such a point of confusion for him that I’m sure it will be addressed later, but this kind of obfuscation will undoubtedly frustrate some scifi fantasy connoisseurs. Likewise, the murder mystery premise, quite well trod in any number of genres, will probably be a turn off to some readers as well. But if that kind of thing does pique your interest and you don’t mind some harsh language and mild violence Another Kingdom might be a story for you.

Franchise – Expectation vs. Vision

One of the biggest struggles between translating an existing media franchise into a new incarnation is balancing what the existing audience wants and what the creator hopes for. As you’ve probably guessed, I think of this tension as a spectrum of “expectation vs. vision” and sorting it out is pretty important. In fact, avoiding it is one of the reasons I frequently express my desire not to write in Hollywood or for comics companies when people ask me if it’s something I want to do. This week we’re going to dive into what this tension is and what happens when you go too far to one end or the other.

Simply put, expectations are what audiences want when they sit down to another episode with Dr. House, the CSI investigators or the officers of Star Fleet. Vision is where the creators want to go when they set out to write a story. When a franchise is new, say no more than two or three years old, all the cards are in the creator’s hands. The audience doesn’t have too many solid ideas about what’s going on in their story and tends to be forgiving of major changes to the format, direction of the story or role of characters. Star Trek: The Next Generation has a lot of shake-ups in the cast in the first couple of seasons, with Geordi and Worf moving up in the command structure, Tasha Yar departing and the ship’s doctor changing and then changing back. No one really minded those decisions. Similarly, although Monk having to transition from the title character’s assistant going from the saucy Sharona to the prim Natalie due to difficulties with Sharona’s actress, the show survived and thrived.

But once a franchise is older it can be harder to survive these changes. MASH did it a couple of times and many people even found the show better after the changes. But each time a change takes place it can be harder and harder to please fans – the incessant bickering over each change in The Doctor when Doctor Who brings in a new lead is testament to that. The fanbase has clearer and clearer expectations of what the direction and tone of the story should be, and are going to react worse and worse if they’re disappointed.

Creators naturally feel that, as the ones putting in all the money and effort to produce entertainment and as the ones with the large scale picture of what’s happening in the franchise, they should be free to go wherever they want with their media. There’s a lot of truth in that – they do have their hands on all the buttons, they’re taking all the risks, they’re free to go wherever they want. But the audience is free to go wherever they want as well and leaving what the audience wants is a dangerous proposition because if they don’t choose to go with you then as a creator you’re sunk.

I’ve already written extensively on how Star Trek managed this in its latest incarnation but it may not be the best example of what I’m talking about as Discovery had a lot of what its audience wanted replaced with other things they typically like as opposed to things they aren’t interested in. The darker, grittier scifi that Discovery sells is a kind of scifi many Trekkies will watch. They just don’t want it wearing the skin of their favorite franchise.

A better example is the way Marvel Comics transformed it’s entire line of comics over the last three or four years or so. Since about 2014 – editorially much earlier – Marvel began replacing its existing line-up of characters with all new characters bearing the same hero names as the old. At the same time the focus of Marvel stories shifted drastically from wild action-adventure stories with clearly defined heroes and villains to murky social commentaries where heroes fought heroes and villains watched on the sidelines snarking about how silly it is.

Now there’s a place for those kinds of stories and they serve a real purpose in our cultural landscape. But the catch is that the audience for the old Marvel Method and then All New Marvel have very small overlaps. Worse, the parts of the audience that don’t overlap tend to actively dislike each other. The result for Marvel has been long time fans abandoning Marvel’s offerings in droves while few new readers have materialized, that potential audience viewing Marvel comics as a poor fit for their tastes. The result has been Marvel sales plummeting and their long term rivals, DC Comics, dominating the Top Ten in sales week after week, with Marvel usually taking one or two places thanks to perennial fan favorite Spiderman.

In contrast DC, who started a new style of storytelling with their New 52 some six or seven years ago and abandoned it with their DC Rebirth event last year, has pretty much solved the storytelling problem. Superman and Batman are their old familiar selves and their flagship titles, Action and Detective Comics, are pushing up to their 1000th issue. But new takes on old characters are also strutting their stuff and winning over audiences. There will be a discussion of great stories like Super Sons and the truly staggering work that is Mr. Miracle at some point in the future but suffice it to say DC has managed to expand the kinds of stories it tells and the way it tells them while still appealing to their core audience.

There are two real problems with writing a franchise. One is believing the franchise can tell any kind of story and keep its audience. Franchises come with things about them baked into the crust. They were originally the vision of a handful of creators and that vision caught on with thousands or millions of people who loved the vision of those creators enough come back to it again and again. If you try and use that original vision as a way to draw attention to your own, different and unique, vision then you show that you don’t have confidence in your own vision and have to slip it into something with more cultural weight in order to have it succeed. This is going to be most obvious to the core fans who resonated most strongly with the original creator’s vision. Now you can build on existing visions to expand them but if you try and supplant them with whatever you find most appealing then don’t be surprised if the old audience turns on you and no one else is interested in the ideas you couldn’t make stand on their own.

The other is letting the franchise get stale. You can’t always be topping yourself. Either your franchise will go over the top and jump the shark or get stuck in a loop with any new story you tell stuck in the shadow of older, better loved stories that were much the same.

There’s no solid solution to this paradox. But it’s easy to tell when you’ve gone too far one way or the other. If your franchise hasn’t picked up a new landmark story in five years you’re not innovating enough. If huge parts of your fanbase rebel you’ve innovated too much. Learning to keep your finger on the pulse is part of learning to be a franchise writer.