Now on Netflix: Stranger Things
Warning: Spoilers follow!
Ever since I saw the trailer for the Netflix original series Stranger Things, I was pumped about it. It had everything that I loved about films growing up: Weird, unexplainable goings-on! Mystery! Suspense! Middle school students on bikes fleeing pursuing adults!
That last one, in particular, reminded me point-blank of one of my all-time favorite films, E.T., and set my excitement over the roof. And that's certainly no accident, because the series - eight one-hour episodes streaming now on Netflix - is influenced strongly by the works of Spielberg, right down to its middle-America setting and children protagonists. The show creators, Matt and Ross Duffer, have made no secret of their love for 80s sci-fi, inspired by everything from the novels of Stephen King to the films of John Carpenter to shows like the X-Files.
Due to this, Stranger Things plays exactly like an 80s sci-fi nostalgia romp. The show is set in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana. In the pilot episode, Will Byers, a middle school student in the sleepy town that hasn't seen a murder in years, goes missing. While the town's sheriff, Jim Hopper (David Harbour) starts to lose the conviction that they will find Will alive, Will's mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) becomes increasingly convinced that he's still out there - in fact, she believes that he is talking to her through the lights and the walls. As the adults desperately search for the missing boy, Will's friends - Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin), a trio of Dungeons and Dragons-playing fellow nerds - mount their own investigation into his disappearance. Before too long, the boys discover an odd girl with a shaved head and an arm tattoo of the number 11 roaming the back woods close to where Will vanished. Mike offers "L" (Millie Bobby Brown) sanctuary in his basement fort, and it's not long before the boys discover L has some connection to Will. They also learn that L has powers - things she can do with her mind that the boys can't quite explain. There's also Will's older brother, Jonathan, a high school student who teams up with Mike's older sister Nancy to investigate not only Will's disappearance, but also the disappearance of Nancy's best friend, Barbara.
Stranger Things puts many of its cards on the table early. From the opening, we know that something monstrous is loose in Hawkins and that it took Will. It also routinely flashes back to the laboratory experiments in which Eleven is treated like a lab rat. That may sound like it ruins the mystery, but on the contrary, it only heightens the drama. When Joyce insists to a skeptical Hopper that her son is speaking to her through the lights, her desperation is palpable and we feel her frustration, because we know she's telling the truth. And while we are aware that Eleven is imbued with powers, we aren't sure just why or how, and her connection to larger events is a mystery that is very cleverly and slowly revealed over time as we get to know her as a character.
The best thing about Stranger Things is that relies heavily on nostalgia, and it makes no apologies for it. Nostalgia can sometimes be a double edged sword, as it can work against something that is often remembered as being much better than it once was. I'll never forget getting DVD of my beloved Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon from the 90's and being shocked over how campy and just plain silly it was. But Stranger Things survives because it doesn't wallow in a longing for a bygone era in the same way that, say, Ready Player One does. It firmly sets its characters and its story in a time and a place, not to serve a whimsical fantasy but just because somehow, it makes sense.
It could have been easy for a show that is so obviously influenced by so many different works that have come before it to fall into the trap of copycatting, but Stranger Things finds its own voice and narrative early on, mostly thanks to the power of its performances. Dave Harbour and Winona Ryder are magnificent as the anchored and somewhat unhinged adults, and we get just enough background into their lives to make them compelling. But where the show really succeeds is with the child stars, in particular Wolfhard, Matarazzo, Sinclair, and Brown. Watching these young people interact, fight, be scared and brave and smart and funny all at the same time is a real treat. I work with middle school students every day, and I say the world would be a better place if we had more stories that put young people in that fascinating time of life in the center of them.
Stranger Things is by no means perfect, and there are a few tired cliches in an otherwise refreshing narrative. The bully that eventually gets his comeuppance is still, as satisfying as it may be, one of the most boring stereotypes in the history of nerdom. And there's a love triangle between the older set of young characters that didn't feel exactly necessary, although the way it resolves is rather satisfying considering the obvious alternative. But it succeeds in many more places than it fails. There's also been much made of the fact that it's only eight episodes, which forces the narrative to get tighter and not waste any time. It's definitely more refreshing than sitting through 23 hours of a network series that often fills time with unnecessary backstory and side plots just to fulfill their airtime, and it causes Stranger Things to feel more like a long, drawn-out movie. It works, and I certainly hope that more Netflix (and for that matter, Amazon, Hulu, HBO, NBC, ABC....) creatives take note. While they definitely set it up for a second season, which was only mildly disappointing given the way everything resolves at the end, I'm interested to see where it will go. While I feel the show could have been stronger if each new season was an entirely new story, I'm certainly interested in revisiting these characters again. Let's hope they can keep the same tightened storytelling and compelling character development as alive as the 80s nostalgia.
All episodes of Stranger Things streaming now on Netflix.