Warning: If you haven’t finished Stranger Things there are some light spoilers.
The land of #PeakTV is also, thankfully, the second golden age of TV. Mr. Robot, The People v. O.J. Simpson, Game of Thrones, The Americans; these are some of the best shows of 2016, and it’s very, very hard to compete with them. But somewhat surprisingly, a small, 8-episode series from Netflix, Stranger Things, is making a case to be named among the best.
Set in the 1980s and created by the Duffer Brothers, Stranger Things follows the story of the citizens of Hawkins, Indiana as they deal with interdimensional monsters, superpowered children, and a menacing government agency looking to bury the entire thing, as a dark conspiracy forms. The series is a love letter to horror and science fiction genres of the 80s, paying clear homage to the best movies of its timem such as Goonies, Nightmare on Elm Street, and all things Stephen King. The mystique and appeal of this series isn’t just based on nostalgia, which it has in spades, but its story, its characters, and pacing, where it squeezes the most it possibly can into the time it’s given. While a second season seems like a given, the first could stand on its own, and we’d still be left with something amazing all the same.
Stranger Things deals with a lot of moving pieces, but that’s OK because there isn’t one aspect of the series that’s boring, or that doesn’t have you clamoring for more. While other shows can sometimes be weighed down by the need to create a certain number of episodes or run for a certain amount of time, Netflix’s strength recently has been allowing showrunners to run with whatever they need to tell the story they want told. By running just 8 episodes, Stranger Things manages to be lean and mean, feeling almost more like an exceptionally long movie rather than a series of installments. The show was made for binge watching, the kind that you can knock out in a weekend.
The series starts off by introducing viewers to the small suburban town of Hawkins, Indiana. Crime doesn’t happen here, folks get along (aside from some bullying), and there’s a general sense that everyone is looking out for one another. This makes things especially complicated when, after a spirited game of Dungeons and Dragons, a young boy named Will Byers goes missing. Though we know that Will’s fate has been determined by an otherworldly sinister entity, but for the townsfolk of Hawkins, it’s frightening and confusing. Over the course of its first season, the show manages to present us with a lot of otherworldly and supernatural elements, but at its heart, it’s the characters and their trials that manage to take us along for what is a fantastic ride.
Stranger Things is split into essentially three different age factions whom we follow: the kids, the teenagers, and the adults. The kids, harkening back to a collection of dreamers in the same vein as the Goonies and Monster Squad, attempt to find their friend Will, but instead find themselves face-to-face with an idiosyncratic young girl named “Eleven.” Thinking her to be a mental patient at first, the three boys (Mike, Lucas, and Dustin) hide her away in their basement to help her, only to discover that she has super powers — specifically telekinesis — which gives her a nasty nosebleed every time she activates it. The casting is incredibly on point here, as this group of friends always seem like real kids, which means the horrifying situations they find themselves in while trying to protect Eleven and discover their lost friend Will make it all hit home that much harder. There’s also the fantastic humor that comes from the casual conversations the trio have. Seeing how the characters interact with one another makes one, conversely, also want a solo series for each of them.
While most of the series’ references come from the 80s, the teenagers (Nancy, Jonathan, Steve, Barb, and the malicious couple that are Tommy and Nicole) feel directly ported from Freaks and Geeks. That means that we have characters here that are uncomfortable in their own skins, attempting to navigate high school while also dealing with the looming threat of the “Upside Down.” What makes these characters work is not only their true-to-life actions, but some of their unorthodox ones as well. These are young adults, prone to mistakes and growing as characters in front of the audiences’ eyes, but they also break free of stereotypes. Nancy (the “brain”) walks on the wild side and embraces it, while Jonathan (the “outcast”) stands up for himself with a bite to match his bark. Even Steve (the “jock”) has more than two braincells to rub together. Their mistakes are such that we may question them at first, but eventually come to relate to them. It’s refreshing to say the least, and mimics the kinds of teens you might see in a John Hughes film.
Finally, we have the adult cast, with Winona Ryder as Joyce Byers and David Habour as Sheriff Jim Hopper. Ryder portrays a grieving mother who is simultaneously trying to hold onto her sanity following the disappearance of her son, while also juggling bills, a horrible ex, and the needs of her older son, Jonathan. Eventually, most of these give way to her desperate need to find the truth behind Will’s abduction, but her personality makes for a riveting watch. Joyce is always one small step away from falling into despair, and chain smokes while she nervously attempts to make contact with Will using Christmas lights. As crazy as things get, Joyce remains a rock for the audience, but not as much as Habour’s Hopper. The Sheriff of Hawkins is something of a mess, waking up littered in half burnt cigarettes and empty beer cans, but his steadiness and charm shine through. Though at first he doesn’t believe Joyce, when he realizes the truth in that is happening, more layers of the well-meaning Jim and his depths are revealed. Habour brings a true humanity to Hopper that makes him a stand-out among an already talented cast, and if there’s a dry eye in the house during his moments in the finale, I’d be shocked.
The supernatural elements of Stranger Things have gotten a bad rep, and truth be told, they’re not as great as the the other aspects of the series. But there are shining moments; the “Upside Down” — the alternate reality which harbors the series’ monsters — for example boasts some fantastic design work. Looking like something out of a nightmare, the creature walks into our reality, and is like a combination of an alien and a venus fly trap. The creature’s world — shifting between that of something from Under the Skin and the video game Silent Hill — is never boring, and supplies plenty of scares. Granted, you don’t necessarily get a lot of explanation as to the monster’s motivations or what the inner workings of it are, but I feel that kind of runs with the overall theme of the show. Did we ever truly need to know the intricate origins of Pennywise to realize how terrifying he was? Did we need to see the Thing’s home planet to get the best understanding of its motivations?
Out of the supernatural realm, the government agency (lead by Matthew Modine) is cool, calm, collected and ruthlessly efficient. In the very first episode, Stranger Things unites viewers against these antagonists by killing a character who had perhaps less than five minutes of actual screen time. Like something right out of E.T. the Extraterrestrial, the agency is exactly what it needs to be: an autonomous cog in the machine that will do anything to achieve its mission. It doesn’t need to have nuance or go into the intricacies of its operations, it simply needs to be an enveloping threat for our characters to overcome, and it achieves that in spades.
Ultimately, Stranger Things is able to harness the power of 80s media in a way that I haven’t ever quite seen before. Its strengths are more than just it taking elements from these movies and joining them together — it’s that it does it so flawlessly. The series is up there with some of the best the 80s had to offer, and somehow manages to fit fit seamlessly both in that era and in our own. It’s worth experiencing this show and going back to your childhood, or just experiencing the childhood of that day. It’s nearly pitch-perfect television.