What happens if you take some of the great Hollywood adventure films of the ’80’s, and mash them up with a good dollop of Stephen King and a bit of Twilight Zone? You get Stranger Things, the new series from Netflix.
Oddly, I hadn’t been paying too much attention to this one until I saw the “Coming Soon” alert when I went into my Netflix account. I say oddly because if this show was aimed at anyone, it was aimed squarely at me. ‘Me’ in the sense of someone who:
1) Spent their teenage years in the ’80’s;
2) Watched a lot of sci-fi, and horror, and Spielberg (well, who didn’t?), and;
3) Read Stephen King (well, not me, but I watched the movies and TV series).
I watched the trailer, nodded to myself, added it to my Watch List, and waited for the alert. Finally, on July 15, the series dropped and we fired it up. And didn’t stop until it was done.
Stranger Things is set in the typical ‘Spielbergian’ Midwest Indiana town of Hawkins – with perhaps the important addition of impoverished Byers family and their neighbours – where, indeed, strange things begin to happen: in a nearby ‘scientific facility’ something has escaped; soon thereafter, an odd young girl in a hospital gown wanders into town; by the end of the first episode, one of the young boys that form the ‘Goonies’ quartet has disappeared. Clearly, something scary and unexplained is afoot.
Almost immediately the ‘perfection’ of the series is evident. By ‘perfection’ I mean its ability to both mimic a certain type of movie or show or book that came before it, as well as add a little post-millennium, 9/11 paranoia (which kinda vibes a little ’70’s conspiracy thriller anyway). Stranger Things is first and foremost an extremely well written love letter to all those things. When viewed through this prism, the two outstanding features of this new Netflix series are clear from the outset: 1) the perfect capture of the ’80’s ‘feel’ of the genre, particularly from a writing and design perspective, both of which immerse you in the story rather than pull you out, and; 2) the superb performances across the entire cast.
I can feel it…somewhere in the air tonight…
A peon to the ’80’s it may be, but the reverse is also true: as a time period, the 1980’s is crucial to Stranger Things, and understanding that fact, as well as the period itself, is important in appreciating the series. If there’s one thing ‘modern period pieces’ almost always get wrong it’s, well, the period. Too often the period is little more than an excuse to dress characters a certain way, and licence certain music. Rarely does is speak to the themes or narrative of the show or film. Not so Stranger Things.
Few shows have hit the meaningful period heights like Mad Men, but like Deutschland ’83 and Halt and Catch Fire, Stranger Things is both thematically informed by the 1980’s, as well as nailing the period from a writing and design perspective. No inappropriate music tracks, or on-the-nose references, or overdone styling. Everything is appropriate and done with great subtlety to keep you in the story, not throw you out with it’s heavy handedness. Scripting, too, is kept within the limits of the period. No overuse of ‘Rad’ or ‘Gag me with a spoon’ here (pretty sure neither was uttered during the whole 8 episodes). Even little things like kids on push bikes. On push bikes! And how they just dump them on the front lawn. Not to mention the hair and clothing design – brilliant. Some stand outs:
Okay, it’s not perfect, but you can forgive the the odd over indulgence – the shot of “Dungeon” board game being hauled out in a box by ‘the Feds’ (“Dungeon” was incredibly rare even at it’s release, and it was released probably 10 years prior to the events of the show) and the teacher watching a VHS copy of The Thing and explaining the practical effects to his girlfriend (which dates the series to 1987 or later, yet some of the other cultural references would seem to date the series much earlier) – because everything else is done so well. In particular, the story itself. Both a reflection of story-lines of the 1980’s (in particular ET, Goonies, and The Thing), as well as drawing on more timely structural and narrative notions, Stranger Things keeps you binging through the episodes until, sadly and all too soon, its over.
The other key contributor to the series is the cast performances, and in particular those of the younger members. Yes, Winona Ryder is the first name on the credits, and she’s certainly a major player in the story (who, along with fellow cast member, Matthew Modine, was an ’80’s staple). Her character, Joyce Byers, who could easily have devolved into the prototypical grieving mother, is a powerhouse of unwavering love and loyalty, but also plain common sense. She knows how she sounds, she doesn’t care because she knows what’s going on. And she’s right.
Winona, however, was very much amongst equals in the acting stakes.For all of her emotional commitment, the true protagonist of the story is the town sheriff, Hopper, played by David “that guy you know from so many roles” Harbour. Harbour’s wonderful ability to balance pathos with humour, combined with the characters proactive journey from confused, incompetent, and often hungover sheriff, to a man possessed with uncovering the truth – push Hopper front and centre, narratively speaking.
However, it really is about the kids. The four younger cast members, especially Millie Bobby Brown who plays the mysterious “Eleven” and Gaten Matarazzo who plays Dustin, are just outstanding. Incredibly appealing without falling into saccharine cliche, as well as mature performers well beyond their years, they are fundamentally why you keep watching. Even the teenage leads deliver. Like Joyce, Nancy Wheeler (ably played by Natalia Dyer), the older sister of Mike, is much more than she initially appears. She’s both self-aware and aware of what’s occurring around her. And, for all apparent ‘girlishness’, in the end she kicks arse. Even the ‘bad boy’, Nancy’s uptown boyfriend, is more than he seems. These are very well drawn characters, who move beyond their 1980’s prototypes into fully realised individuals.
And I forgot about Barbara! Oh Barbara, I loved you so much. The voice of reason. Nerdy? Sure! But fully accepting of who she is and what she’s about. Barbara could have had her own show.
If this hasn’t convinced you to commit to an easy 8 episode run of Stranger Things, then there’s little more I can say. However, I will underline it by saying that this show, along with Orange Is The New Black and House of Cards, is easily one of the best that Netflix has produced. I felt palpable sadness upon watching the last episode, and immediately went online to confirm a second season for next year. I cannot wait to get back to Hawkins, or wherever the Duffer Brothers want to take me next time. I’m putty in your hands. Mysterious, alien, secret government experiment putty.