Premise: It’s November, 1983, in a quiet little Indiana town. Something nasty has escaped from a nearby research facility working on top secret projects for the federal government. Meanwhile, a local boy goes missing just as a peculiar traumatized girl with no discernible origin appears. The boy’s frantic single mother works with the local police chief to find her son and his twelve-year-old friends mount a similar effort of their own – bicycles, walkie-talkies, and all. Oh, and there’s a love triangle brewing between a good girl, a jock, and an outcast. Hey, I said it was 1983!
Details: Eight episodes. Stranger Things was created by Matt and Ross Duffer, twin brothers with a fairly empty résumé to their name (2015’s Hidden, a few episodes of Wayward Pines). It’s an homage to the 1980s, and in particular to Steven Spielberg and Stephen King. Winona Ryder is the biggest name here, and she stars as Joyce Byers, whose son Will disappears one night. Chief Jim Hopper is played by David Harbour, a guy who’s had his fair share of bit parts here and there, perhaps most notably and recently as Elliot Hirsch on The Newsroom. Carla Buono plays a friend of Joyce’s and the mother of the two main kids, and if it weren’t for Google I’d never have recognized her as Dr. Faye Miller from the fourth season of Mad Men or Christopher’s wife from The Sopranos. Beyond those three, the only major characters are children and teens, none of whom have done anything noteworthy prior to Stranger Things. – but be on the lookout for Millie Bobby Brown, the show’s likeliest breakout star. She plays Eleven, the mysterious new girl in town, and she absolutely owns every scene she’s in.
Discussion: Let’s start with what works, which is just about everything. The 1980s movie references are numerous and blatant, but they’re never forced; when a group of nerdy kids meets an alien newcomer with superpowers and then sets out on an adventure, on bikes, along train tracks, to rescue their friend, that’s ET meets Stand By Me meets The Goonies meets plenty else. But thanks to the investment we have in the unbreakable friendship between Mike and Dustin and Lucas and the budding one between Mike and Eleven, none of the references feel like unearned gimmicks. When a monster from another dimension can bend through walls in order to abduct a child, and when that child then communicates with his mother using flickering electricity, that’s Nightmare on Elm Street meets Close Encounters of the Third Kind meets Poltergeist. Tack on Winona Ryder’s bug-eyed state of permanent panic (and let her hack away at the walls with an axe) and it’s also The Shining. But it’s also really effectively scary! And so is the monster, even if it feels like a hybrid of the monsters from Alien and Pan’s Labyrinth and, yeah, sure, even Under the Skin. It works! Even the Breakfast Club-esque teenage love triangle – the show’s weakest arc, and the closest it comes to just sort of phoning in a cliché for the sake of including another ’80s trope – just plain works, thanks largely to the actors involved.
The acting is adequate all around. Brown is, again, fantastic. Joe Keery gives asshole jock Steve just enough dimension to let us both hate him and accept his minor redemption arc. (Plus he looks just like Jean-Ralphio from Parks and Recreation, which probably helps him get away with being a little obnoxious.) Natalia Dyer sells Nancy’s rapid evolution to “pretty and prude” to “monster-hunting badass bitch” so cleanly that I barely noticed the abrupt personality shift. And Gaten Matarazzo’s Dustin is, of course, the heart and lisping soul of Stranger Things, more concerned about finding the school’s hidden pudding supply than he is over having his baby teeth taken out by a bully.
But there are plenty of issues here, too. Most fall into your standard “people would never do that thing under these circumstances in real life” bin – the type of things you don’t always question in the moment, but maybe catch a day later when thinking back on things. Like, why would Mike’s mom let him stay home from school, unsupervised, with Mike’s best friend missing and presumed dead? Why would Hopper cut into Will’s recovered body in order to determine that it was an elaborate dummy? (And did the morgue not notice that this body was slit from chin to stomach, with stuffing coming out of it? What exactly did they bury?) When the government agents convened on Mike’s house in several vans in order to capture Eleven, how were Mike and his friends able to reconvene at Will’s house, and then their school, without being caught? Why did a montage explicitly show Nancy loading multiple six-shot revolvers with bullets immediately before Nancy shot at the monster eight times with one such gun? Why did the government agents blow away the diner cook in the first episode, no questions asked, in their pursuit of Eleven, but then allow Joyce and Hopper and Mike’s parents to walk away free after briefly detaining them? That’s some pretty thick plot armor! And how did the middle stretch of the season consist of Mike and his friends, Joyce and Hopper, and Nancy and Jonathan all investigating different aspects of the monster’s arrival without ever talking to each other about it until the seventh episode? This is some weird shit you’re all seeing. Why not talk to each other about it and compare notes?
These are, of course, all very minor beefs. My least-minor beef can be found by contrasting two dead children. In one corner, stinking to high heaven of cheese on cheese on cheese, is Hopper’s little girl. Briefly referenced once in the previous seven episodes, she appears in the finale, via flashback, simply to get cancer and die. No one needed this development. Not the audience, not the writers, and least of all Hopper’s character. It’s as if, at the eleventh hour, someone in the writers’ room decided that there had to be a reason Hopper was so determined to help Joyce find Will, and then someone decided that the reason should be that he lost his own daughter in the vaguely recent past. It just had no place in the series, let alone in the otherwise suspenseful, thrilling, and emotional finale. Now, contrast this unnecessary backstory to the total lack of a follow-up on the death of the show’s most poorly-treated character, Barb. Poor Barb! Barb was Nancy’s best friend, and then nancy met a boy, and then Barb got dragged to that boy’s party, and then Nancy ditched her, and then Barb was abducted and devoured in short order. And that’s when Barb stopped mattering. Will, twelve, disappeared in the first episode and everybody cared. The police looked everywhere for him. The school had a memorial service. The show let us see his mother and his brother grieving, providing comfort to each other. Will’s friends spent the ensuing week trying to rescue him. Barb, sixteen or seventeen, disappeared in the second episode, and nobody aside from Nancy – for like one day – gave a fuck. There was no search for Barb. There was no memorial. There were no tears, save from Nancy, who might have felt more guilty than sad, really. Barb apparently had no family and no other friends. She existed solely to die, just like Hopper’s flashback daughter, but even Hopper’s daughter’s death meant something to someone, which was the whole reason it was written into the show at all. It’s the one time Stranger Things really showed its ass, I think. Ham-handedly shaking us over the Hopper child – “you have to understand what such a tragedy would do to a man!” – after kicking Barb’s corpse under the rug for the year and hoping we’d forget about her in short order. Gah! Barb deserved better.
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Verdict: Stranger Things is great. A trope-laden love letter to Spielberg and King is a tough act to pull off – ’80s nostalgia is as played out as the ’80s themselves by now – but the Duffers completely nailed it. There are plenty of nits to pick as far as the plotting is concerned, and some botched big moments left me shaking my head, but the show’s flaws are almost completely overshadowed by its familiar tones and memorable characters. This is the rare new show that knows right off the bat exactly what it wants to be and ends up being exactly that. So check it out!
Outlook: Netflix and the Duffer brothers have wisely chosen to let these eight episodes breathe a little before publicly entertaining a second season pick-up, but it’s hard to imagine that the surprise summer hit won’t return in some form in the near future. I’d love for that to happen, but I’m cautious; the success of this whole project kind of feels like lightning in a bottle, and it’d be very difficult to continue with these characters in this setting without losing a whole lot of what made everything work out so well the first time. Perhaps an anthology approach is best? It’s done wonders for Fargo so far.
Streaming: You can find Stranger Things exclusively on Netflix.