A hybrid of The Goonies, Stand by Me, and The X-Files, Stranger Things is a thrill ride of a series that takes what could be a boring re-tread of tired source material and instead delivers a fresh, complex viewing experience that dares you not to binge-watch through all eight episodes.
Stranger Things (2016)
Netflix Original Series
Season 1 – 8 Episodes (48 minutes/episode)
In my experience, one of the creepiest places in the world for a child to explore is an empty school. This is probably because my mother was an elementary school teacher, and during the summers, when she would go to the school to set up her classroom for the next year, she often took me with her. While she worked, I wandered down the long, dark, empty hallways and into the seemingly cavernous modules connecting them. Each doorway was a portal of discovery, of adventure and terror. Inevitably, the stories conceived in my mind were vastly more exciting than the dusty desks and dry shale boards that slept untended for months at a time, but I still remember the quickening of my pulse and the throbbing silence that filled my ears as I scraped across what seemed like miles of empty indoor-outdoor carpet. Sometimes, I even followed the janitor—whom I knew only as “Big Sam”—around during his rounds, darting behind corners and water fountains whenever he looked over his shoulder. I’ll never know what Sam thought about the strange six year old who followed him through the supposedly empty elementary school, but I was fascinated by the man, mainly because he was insanely tall and bald, and he bore a striking resemblance to Sloth from The Goonies.
The nostalgia I feel when recollecting this simpler time is exactly what Hollywood has attempted to monetize over the past few years, with mixed results. ’80s and ’90s remakes and sequels have been all over the box office, often unasked for and even more often of low quality. Listicles of “Top 10 Things Only Kids from the ’90s Remember” have covered the internet, and even “Ecto Cooler” Hi-C made a comeback with the Ghostbusters remake. Millennial nostalgia has become a business in itself, but there’s more at work here than a simple desire for the shows, toys, and experiences of our pasts. On some level, it returns us to a time before student loans, and Donald Trump, and global economies, and the permanent leash of technology; to a time when people could fall off the grid in the middle of town and adventure could be found literally around the corner or in the woods out back, which always eventually turn out to be so much smaller than they seemed at the time.
It is in this stream of Millennial nostalgia that the new Netflix series Stranger Things puts out its oars, but as a pleasant surprise, it manages to avoid the rapids that have sunk so many other projects of its kind. A hybrid of The Goonies, Stand by Me, and The X-Files, Stranger Things is a thrill ride of a series that takes what could be a boring re-tread of tired source material and instead delivers a fresh, complex viewing experience that dares you not to binge-watch through all eight episodes.
As a testament to its overall quality, Stranger Things excels first and foremost in exactly the way it could most easily falter: casting . After all, when a large chunk of your show has to be carried by actual child actors (not simply teens or even adults who look much younger than they are), settling for anything less than genuine talent won’t be enough. In this case, all of the child actors were convincing and complex, and they demonstrated a surprising emotional range. I want to point out Millie Bobby Brown, who plays 11 (about whom I will say little here, to avoid spoilers) for particular praise in this respect because most of her acting must be conveyed only in small changes of facial expression, which she absolutely nails. Gaten Matarazzo, who plays the young, somewhat toothless, Dustin Henderson also delivers a particularly strong performance and often brings comic relief to the show’s relentlessly intense moments. Overall, however, what makes the child actors so convincing is that they are allowed to be children in the show. They scream at one another and act out and generally behave like children would. This is as much a testament to the show’s writing as the acting, but it’s still refreshing to see a creative work that allows children to behave as such, rather than as reasonable little adults, who can always think through every action they take with a calm, rational demeanor.
Yet, to claim that the show focuses only on children would do it a deep disservice. Stranger Things follows a small group of teenagers and another group of adults, and even with such a broad focus, the show maintains nuanced and complex portraits of these characters and the concerns they have their various stages of life. Wynona Rider is convincing as an overworked, overstressed mother who must eventually find an inner strength to defeat the demons that haunt her; David Harbour, as Sheriff Jim Hopper, follow a similar trajectory, though his wounds are much older, and deeper. Even high school and sex, which are often grotesquely mishandled by television shows, are treated here with a forthright delicacy that is refreshing and intelligent.
Stranger Things also shows us what happens when writers and directors take tired genres, tropes, and stock characters and breathe fresh life into them, instead of simply running the printing press once more for good measure. Much of the show begins with familiar character types or situations, but it just as quickly undermines our preconceived notions of where the show is headed, often before viewers even have the chance to realize they were expecting a certain act or outcome. Even when the show doubles down on stock types, it does so with such a tongue-in-cheek flair that these scenes come across as charming, rather than lifeless. For example, the local science teacher who understands quantum mechanics and knows how to build a sensory deprivation chamber would, in almost any other show, be a cringe worthy moment up there with Joel Schumacher’s bat nipples, but here, I found myself smiling at the connection as the show itself seemed to wink and nudge me that it too was in on the joke.
The cherry on top of all these stunning examples of nostalgia done right, however, are the surrounding set, lighting, and sound design. The show’s theme is an eerie mix of ’80s synth music and something akin to the Mass Effect galaxy theme, while the lighting (which I can’t talk about in detail here) supports the plot and acting in such a way that even its more noticeable usage seems organic to the given moment. And the set itself is fantastic. From the rotary phones with curly-fry cords to the wood paneled station wagons to the cheesy Coca-Cola commercials, everything about Stranger Things screams late ’80s early ’90s authenticity—a construction which perfectly augments the show’s themes to seeming perfection.
In the end, Stranger Things stands as yet another example that creative talent has abandoned Hollywood and instead shifted to the television studios of the world. The big screen of 2016 has been dominated by lifeless remakes and lackluster sequels, which no one asked for in the first place. Meanwhile, shows like Game of Thrones, Mr. Robot, The Walking Dead, Orange is the New Black, House of Cards, Master of None, and now, Stranger Things, indicate that television may be the way forward for new and creative forms of viewing entertainment. If you’re looking for a nostalgia blast or simply a great show, you would be foolish to miss out on the newest Netflix original.
Now, let us all pray to the Netflix gods for a second season. I mean, if Marco Polo got one…