Sometimes fate intervenes and sends you down the right path. Sometimes it tells you “Don’t go out tonight. Stay in and watch that new series on Netflix everyone keeps raving about”.
Well, that happened for me on Saturday night as I decided to stay in and put on “Stranger Things”, the new Netflix series from The Duffer Brothers. I originally was only going to watch a couple episodes and finish the rest on Sunday. Those plans changed, though, because I stayed up through the night and binged all eight episodes.
I binged them all because “Stranger Things” is everything I’ve ever wanted from a TV series. It’s a series set during the 1980’s but also invokes genre elements from some of that decade’s most memorable cinematic works.
For those who aren’t aware of the show, “Stranger Things” takes place in Hawkins, a small Indiana town during November of 1983. After leaving a friend’s house, young Will Byers vanishes while trying to escape from a mysterious figure in the shadows. As the town deals with Will’s disappearance, a young and mysterious girl appears in the town, and she’s seemingly connected to the “stranger things” that are happening.
That’s the bare bones description of the plot. I don’t want to give too much away because, well, one of the beauties of this show is discovering all the little intricacies in the plot that tie together and form the overall story.
What makes this show work, though, and what’s causing everyone, including myself, to rave about it is the attention to detail, the setting, the pacing, the acting, and the overall presentation.
Everything about this this show hit all the right buttons for me. I’m a child of the 80’s and 90’s so that shouldn’t be a surprise. Watching this show transported me back to the times when I watched the likes of “The Goonies” and “E.T.” and “It” for the first time. All those memories came back, and it was wonderful.
Even the title card brings back great memories. It’s a more sinister looking take on the grand and happy “Amazing Stories” logo from that 1980’s anthology series. The simplicity and “noise” present will make you think you’ve just picked up a VHS from your local video store. It’s a great feeling to open each episode.
“Stranger Things” is what you’d get if you mixed the best parts of early 1980’s Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, and John Carpenter, among other bits, such as “Twin Peaks”. This is the end product J.J. Abrams wanted “Super 8” to be but just came up short on final delivery.
In terms of Carpenter, the electronic score invokes memories of several of his famous scores. It’s moody and eerie and pitch perfect for the show’s presentation. The actual song choices are also fire. “Should I Stay or Should I Go” by The Clash plays a key point in the overall plot. “A Hazy Shade of Winter” by The Bangles is used to close out an episode, and I couldn’t have been happier because that song is pure fire.
In terms of King, well, this show is like watching an 8 part Steven King miniseries done incredibly right. There’s a wonderful layer of creepiness bubbling beneath the surface in “Stranger Things”.
I want to focus on that creepiness bubbling below the surface because that’s really the main theme of the show, and that’s the biggest draw they get from the works of Spielberg.
You get the best of Spielberg and Amblin films through the analysis of small town suburban America via Hawkins, Indiana. This is a normal small town that suddenly gets turned upside down. Spielberg was a master of presenting the uniformity and exterior charm of suburban America while showcasing the problems and absurdities that existed in the interior of all those quaint little neighborhoods.
I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of small town America hiding and being the source of crazy out of this world problems. It’s such a rich subject to explore, and Spielberg did wonders with it via films like “Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind”, “E.T.”, and even the ones he produced but didn’t direct, “Poltergeist” and “The Goonies”.
Think of the shots from “E.T.” when Elliot and his friends are riding bikes in the neighborhoods. Spielberg presented rows and rows of near identical homes. Each of them, though, had a story. A probable weird story. In that movie, we got Elliot’s story. In “Stranger Things”, we get the story of Will, his family, and his friends.
Spielberg also showed immense talent in working with child actors and letting them be children on the screen. He let them swear and act like normal 11 and 12 year old kids. The Duffer Brothers do just that with the young child actors in “Stranger Things”.
Finn Wolfhard carries a lot of the show as Mike, one of Will’s friends and the leader of his group of outcasts. He is their dungeon master, after all, so he carries rank. His other two friends, Gaten Matarazzo’s Dustin and Caleb McLaughlin’s Lucas, also do a great job of preventing their nerdy characters from being one dimensional. Both have several great moments in the 8 episodes available.
As good as the three main child actors are, they don’t hold a candle to what Millie Bobby Brown does as the character of Eleven, or El for short. She’s the mysterious girl that appears in the town and is quickly befriended by Mike, Dustin, and Lucas.
I really don’t want to give too much away about her character, but you’ll instantly be rooting for her, her relationship and friendship with Mike, and her love for Eggo waffles.
Just don’t ever get on her bad side or hurt her friends. Trust me on that. The interactions of Mike, Dustin, Lucas, and El will instantly bring up memories of “The Goonies”, “E.T.”, and “Cloak and Dagger”. The “E.T.” references flow heavily when Mike finds El, hides her in his home, and even shows him his “Star Wars” toys.
E.T., though, was never as dangerous or as bad-ass as El.
While I’m talking about the acting, I can’t ignore what Winona Ryder does as Joyce, Will’s frantic single mom. She keeps Joyce from being a one trick pony of a parent suffering a meltdown by retaining a strength and method to her madness. The town think’s Will’s dead, but Joyce isn’t buying it. Joyce goes through a near literal hell to try and get Will back, and Ryder does wonders with the role.
You’ll see a lot of Richard Dreyfuss and, especially, Melinda Dillon from “Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind” in her character.
Ryder is mainly supported in scenes by David Harbour, who plays Hopper, the town’s police chief. Hopper has been through a devastating personal tragedy, and the disappearance of Will serves as a trigger for him to pour everything into finding the kid.
Hopper also has a history with Joyce, and that adds to the complexity of the character. He’s not just the standard stock police chief character. There’s a lot more to Hopper that gets revealed as the series progresses.
The other group of actors and actresses working together in the series are Natalia Dyer and Charlie Heaton, who respectively play Nancy, Mike’s older sister, and Jonathan, Will’s older brother. There’s a bit of a love triangle going on as Nancy falls for a character named Steve while Jonathan has feelings for her.
This portion of the series definitely goes into the realm of 80’s teen movies in early episodes, but the relationship of the three evolves into something else by the end of the show. Nancy, specifically, experiences a lot of growth from episode 1 to episode 8.
In terms of antagonists, the main human antagonist is portrayed by Matthew Modine. His character, Dr. Brenner, has a deep connection with El and has knowledge of what exactly happened to Will. As another reviewer put it, he’s “Keys” from “E.T.” but a lot more sinister. A lot more sinister. His associates are also rather nasty.
Then there’s the non-human antagonist. Again, I don’t want to give a lot away in regards to what it is, but the design and feel of the creature and his “habitat” definitely references the work of King, Carpenter, and even David Cronenberg. I will say, though, “The Upside Down”, the name of the creature’s realm, is something straight out of a King novel.
I could go on and on about this show, but, frankly, it’d serve you best to just fire up Netflix and watch it. Give it a repeat viewing after you get through the 8 episodes. I know I’m planning on doing just that. There’s probably a lot of references I missed, and I can’t wait to catch the smaller details available.
Netflix and The Duffer Brothers hit a grand slam with this show. I can’t stress that enough.
You can check out “Stranger Things” on Netflix by visiting https://www.netflix.com/title/80057281.