I’ve just now cleared the emotion from my mind and the tears from my eyes. Stranger Things arrived with little fanfare or promotion. The original trailer promised an E.T.: The Extraterrestrial-esque experience. The title sequences are literally borrowed from the font on most Stephen King novels. And the show features very literal homage to John Carpenter (via The Thing posters and film clips). In short, Stranger Things is an homage to the ’80s. It taps into that mystery and other-ness and uses it to relate to how we feel in 2016. One of the greatest testaments to the show is that I completed it in one day. I suffer from a very interesting form of PTSD and anxiety, and it usually makes shows like this hard to handle. However, the show kept pushing me forward, and I’m glad I completed it. In the same way that Super-8 was J.J. Abrams’ love letter to ’80s Spielberg, this show manages to take that concept and run with it.
This review is as spoiler-free as possible. There are very light spoilers sprinkled throughout, but nothing that I think will ruin your experience.
That Small Town Feel
The show is clearly built on that Carpenter-Spielberg-King DNA. The Duffer Brothers take painstaking efforts to recreate the feeling left behind by those predecessors, and their influence is very clearly felt over the course of the season. The characters seem to be built from that cloth: Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard) is the charismatic leader of the losers, and his best friends vacillate between the obvious rival Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and chubby reasonable everyman Dustin (Gaten Mazarazzo). Their best friend Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) goes missing in the first episode. And as is the case in every ’80s period piece, they’re joined by their older siblings, played perfectly by Natalia Dyer as Nancy Wheeler (a dead ringer for Linda Cardellini’s Lindsay in Freaks and Geeks) and Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton), the older brother to the missing boy who is seen as a creep by the rest of the town.
Perhaps the most enjoyable characters are the only real adult characters in the series. Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) is the mother of the missing boy and it afford Ryder the chance to chew scenery. The local town sheriff (David Harbour) is able to position himself as a reasonable law enforcement officer, something that is certainly a relic of the ’80s and a refreshing character given today’s grievous division between law enforcement and citizens. The show also does a great job at reinventing “Small Town America” as it would be seen in the mid-’80s. I grew up in a very small town myself, and in the 27 years I have been alive, I’ve seen that small, community feeling almost evaporate. Plenty of films have recaptured the spirit of the USA around that time but Stranger Things might be the first TV show to do it so well.
Probably the biggest feat of the show is the way in which it presents itself up front. Nobody is confused after its opening sequence: this is a show that deals with the supernatural, and it doesn’t shy from its premise. There’s a monster, and there’s a special girl, and there’s a boy that has gone missing. No matter the details, you’re very aware from the start that the show cannot be explained in simple terms. The show’s sometimes-less-than-compelling monster kills someone in its opening moments, which sets the tone. When Mike’s group meets up with Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), we know that it’s something different. And yet, these relationships and worries feel familiar.
The most incredible — and yet dissonant — part of the show belongs to the mystery surrounding the elusive Eleven. She’s a young girl with supernatural powers of telekinesis, telepathy, and more. But the dissonance comes in the way that this seemingly supernatural child is presented. At times, she makes sense as the blank slate character. The audience can agree with her as an E.T. substitute. She has trouble understanding what “friend” means, or what a Lay-Z-Boy recliner does. She doesn’t understand the word “promise”. Mike has to tell her what it means. And yet, we see her speak other words — most notably, the first advanced word spoken by Eleven is “pretty”, used to describe Mike’s older sister, Nancy. In this, it begins to feel cheap, because the story seems to say that the writers get to pick and choose what logic applies to Eleven, based on the emotional impact needed at the time.
Stranger Things also heavily features a story line involving an otherworldly ghoul. And in some respects, the show’s representation of this other world is genius. I struggle to think of a time that I loved a sci-fi concept as much as I loved the idea that things on the “under side” could only communicate via electricity. Very few scenes in science fiction have left as much of a mark on me as Winona Ryder stringing up Christmas lights in order to communicate with her missing son. It helps that those set pieces don’t fade away and play into the season as it evolves.
Flawed, But, Really, Who Cares?
I could probably sit here and type out countless things that drive me crazy about the season. Winona Ryder plays a very one-note character. Certain character backstories are withheld until it is convenient to reveal them via flashbacks. Child and teen actors make it hard to relate and tend to drag stories on for too long past their expiration date. But in the end, those complaints pale in the face of what turns out to be a very enjoyable show. It is refreshing to find a TV series that pulls no punches. Stranger Things is less concerned about renewal, and more concerned about being a love letter to those grand old sci-fi mysteries of the ’80s. It recaptures that spirit of togetherness. It reminds you what it’s like to be a child again.
Even I found myself creeped out by the show in ways nothing has achieved since The X-Files. There are moments that are genuinely creepy. There are moments that exist solely to make you feel for the characters. And perhaps the best compliment I can give the show is that no scene is wasted. Upon reflection, every single scene meant something to the story or character arc. This isn’t Lost, where you’re going to spend 45 minutes learning about the meaning behind Jack’s tattoos. The show takes great advantage of the binge-watch format and by the end of it, you’ll probably be wanting to go back and watch it all again.
I laughed. I cried. I pissed my pants. And maybe that’s enough.
Series Rating: A-
Will Hare is a web marketing and digital media professional residing in Durham, NC. When he’s not on the job, he likes to consume and critique board games, video games, films, and television.