Stranger Things (Season 1)
Release Date: July 15, 2016
Netflix Original Series
Written and directed by: Matt and Ross Duffer
Starring: Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, Cara Buono, and Matthew Modine
Let's take a moment to talk about how wonderful Netflix is. Netflix has been revolutionizing television and viewing for years now, but with the launch of the Netflix Original Series, they have changed one of the fundamental concepts of television. Namely that you watch a show at its time slot, during specific times of the year, and only catch the episodes again if they're recorded, DVD/streaming, or syndication. No longer do shows need to worry about viewer ratings or competing for time slots just to stay on the air. Writers don't need to bloat storylines with filler to reach 20-plus episodes for a season. Netflix doesn't release each episode once a week, or care whether a show in one time slot is hurting some other mindless sitcom. Netflix knows what people want. If the audience is there, they will watch a show, and at their own pace. The nature of streaming has given rise to à la carte television, and it is my hope that traditional cable networks will soon evolve or die out like the Blockbusters and 8-tracks of yesteryear.
What's crucial about the Netflix approach is that it's working. Stranger Things, for example, is one of the most talked-about shows since its release in July. DragonCon was only a month and a half after the show's release, and people were already selling art or wearing outfits from the show. The show is a hit. Meanwhile, I don't see anyone getting excited about any of the time-traveling shows that all the networks are trying to launch this fall (also, what's up with that?).
Stranger Things is a loving homage to the 1980's science fiction/horror stories of the era. There are implied and explicit references to a wide body of work by creators including Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, John Carpenter, and Amblin Entertainment's film fare. It is a wood-paneled love letter to a time when monsters wore rubber suits instead of motion-capture ones, and music was more electronic than kitchen appliances.
The premise is that a 12-year old boy named Will Byers mysteriously disappears from his home town of Hawkins, Indiana. From there, the story splits its time between three different points of view. Will's mother Joyce and Police Chief Jim Hopper conduct the official investigation for Will while also uncovering a possible conspiracy by the ominous "Department of Energy." Meanwhile, Will's buddies Mike, Dustin, and Lucas conduct their own search for their missing friend, and instead find a scared girl in a dirty hospital gown out in the woods. She calls herself "Eleven" after the tattoo on her arm, and begins to demonstrate incredible powers. She also says she knows where to find Will. Finally, Joyce's teenaged son Jonathan and Mike's older sister Nancy think there's a connection between the disappearance of Will and Nancy's friend Barb. What follows is eight glorious episodes of parallel dimensions, government plots, Lovecraftian horrors, and Eggos.
Despite all of the show's references and shout-outs, at no point does the story seem derivative. There are several twists and turns to keep the viewer guessing, and the different story lines give us a variety of view points on what is essentially the same overarching mystery. Only by coming together at the end are the characters able to piece together what is rotten in the state of Indiana, and while there are enough answers to keep us satisfied, there are just enough loose ends to keep us speculating until season two (announced August 31st!).
The acting in the show is fantastic, especially considering the range of ages and experiences amongst the actors. Winona Ryder has been praised for her performance as Joyce, which at times I felt could get too frantic, but she channels it well. Her moments of despiar, triumph, and failure are some of the most powerful and compelling, and I know the scenes where she sets up the lights under letters or tries to talk to her son through a glowing tangle of Christmas lights will become classic scenes akin to E.T. on the bike or the rippling water from Jurassic Park. David Harbour's Chief Hopper has a great arc and gives a commanding performance, and I wonder why we haven't seen him in lead roles that much before this. All of the teenaged actors do an excellent job as well, with a special shout-out to Joe Keery who plays Steve Harrington, the sometimes-awful sometimes-awesome boyfriend of Nancy. The character was designed to be an outright asshole, but Keery brought so much charm to the character that he actually gets a full arc and some great moments.
The kids especially do a stand-out job. It's difficult to talk about any of the performances when comparing them to each other, as they all work as a mini-ensemble throughout the series. Special mention does need to be given to Millie Brown as Eleven, a character that has very few speaking lines and yet commands the scene whenever she's on screen.
While the actors give life to the story, the show's development of atmosphere fills in the rest. Stranger Things is not a straight work of horror like a King or Carpenter story. Rather, it balances out the horror a sense of hope, much in the way Spielberg's work combines terror with optimism. There is a theme of light vs darkness that runs through the series, and the show teeters between the two to great effect. Hawkins is cold and dark, and the rural isolation of the town combines is used to great effect. Similarly, the world of the "Upside Down" is perfectly surreal and terrifying. I know there will be people who disagree with me on this, but I believe that Stranger Things is a perfect example of Lovecraftian Horror in a modern setting. HP Lovecraft was an inspiration for many modern horror writers, and the idea of bizarre beings right outside the veil of reality fits perfectly within Stranger Things.
There are a few moments that don't work as well: the CGI for the monster looks cheap in a lot of the earlier scenes, and the use of the costume in later episodes is a big improvement. There's also some clunky exposition attempts in the first couple of episodes, namely one police officer who takes it upon himself to be "backstory guy," spewing out random character facts that I felt could have had smoother introductions. Minor quibbles aside, I highly recommend this show. Stranger Things is a delight and an instant classic. It offers us something that we didn't even realize we were missing, something that works just as well in 1983 as it does in 2016. Just writing about it makes me want to watch it all over again.