More Culture:

June 17, 2019

South Jersey 'Stranger Things' star criticized for new Netflix prank series

Upcoming hidden-camera show targets part-time jobseekers with unexpected tricks

Less than a month remains before the return of Netflix's megahit "Stranger Things," whose summery third season drops on the Fourth of July.

The sci-fi drama has been pretty flawlessly executed thus far, thanks in large part to a cast that perfectly gels to create the believable fictional community of Hawkins, Indiana.

One of the show's most beloved and important characters has been Dustin, played by 16-year-old New Jersey native Gaten Matarazzo. 

The Little Egg Harbor Township resident, who recently took prom photos on the Ocean City Boardwalk, has even parlayed his success into a string of Verizon commercials, where he plays the same smart aleck we see in "Stranger Things."

Late last week, Netflix announced that Matarazzo will executive produce and star in a new hidden-camera prank show called "Prank Encounters," described by the network as follows:

Each episode of this terrifying and hilarious prank show takes two complete strangers who each think they're starting their first day at a new job. It's business as usual until their paths collide and these part-time jobs turn into full-time nightmares.

The response to the show's premise was less than enthusiastic over the weekend. Critics feel that a 16-year-old millionaire — Matarazzo reportedly earns north of $200,000 per episode of "Stranger Things," up from $30,000 previously — probably shouldn't be toying with people who are out there looking for part-time work.

Many have tried to redirect blame for the new series onto Netflix and Matarazzo's agents, sparing a teenager public hostility that could have been avoided had grown men and women thought better of the concept. 

Matarazzo, Netflix notes in its press release, recently launched a foundation to benefit those suffering from cleidocranial dysplasia, a rare genetic condition affecting the development of bones and teeth with which the actor has been diagnosed.

Others have argued critics need to lighten up and understand that the show is intended as simple entertainment. If the job-seeking participants are compensated for their appearances — that has not been confirmed by Netflix — then is it really so bad? 

No matter where you stand on "Prank Encounters," it doesn't make much sense to roast a 16-year-old for being the face of a questionable idea that only 16-year-olds would find funny. The show's premise is undoubtedly tone deaf, stupid and tasteless, but so is a lot of great comedy. Sometimes it works in the right dosage. Netflix is betting on its talent for that — consider the shock value of "American Vandal" —  but there's no question it could have come up with something better for Matarazzo. 

How this lands with audiences will come down to its delivery and whether or not the people being pranked are able to take it all in stride. 

For now, there's no indication that Netflix plans to back off "Prank Encounters," and Matarazzo has yet to respond to his critics after tweeting about the announcement of the series. 

Unless Matarazzo takes some kind of heel turn in Season 3 of "Stranger Things," he should be able to redeem himself enough for people to give the new series a chance.