by Andrew Collins
The way Stranger Things creators Matt and Ross Duffer tell it, they pitched the idea for their freshman television show without a storyboard or written synopsis. Instead, the brothers stitched together clips out of dozens of films from the 1980s.
That sounds about right. The opening scene of Stranger Things finds four boys confronting the dreaded Demogorgon in the board game Dungeons and Dragons, debating fiercely over whether to flee from it or try to fireball the S.O.B. It’s not long before references to Middle Earth regions, Star Wars characters, and X-Men follow. Other boyhood staples like ham radios, Eggo waffles, a Panasonic boombox, and banana seat bicycles also make appearances.
It’s an effective play at nostalgia for the older end of Netflix’s top age demographic – millennials – but Stranger Things isn’t a show that panders. Instead, it is concerned with execution. It recreates the eighties that suburban Americans experienced, setting a backdrop of realism in smalltown Indiana against which a series of unbelievably bizarre and fantastic events unfold.
Stranger Things is an extension of the imagination and fear of childhoods spent peddling around the neighborhood, checking in with friends on high tech walkie talkies, making secret hideouts in the woods, staying up late playing games in the basement.
Divided into eight chapters – one per episode – the story begins with the mysterious disappearance of the young Will Byer (Noah Schnapp) and the simultaneous appearance of a traumatized young girl with a shaved head and telekinetic powers (Millie Bobby Brown), who says her name is “Eleven.” When Will’s three best friends find this girl and discover her powers, they soon make the connection that her appearance and Will’s disappearance are somehow linked, and the search is on.
These strange events also coincide with the appearance of secretive government agents operating out of a Department of Energy facility in the area where Will disappeared. The happenstance raises the eyebrows of local sheriff Jim Hopper (David Harbour), a lawman with a nose for fishiness who is haunted by a troubled past.
Completing the trinity of searchers for the missing boy is Will’s mother (Winona Ryder), a divorced grocery store clerk driven to hysteria by the loss of her son. In her manic hope that Will lives on, even after his funeral is held, she becomes the object of equal parts pity and sympathy among the townsfolk. But in a delightful twist of events, she soon becomes a living rebuke to anyone too quick to relegate her to the loony bin.
The ensuing capers amount to a wonderful mashup of The Goonies and the Twilight Zone that is full of conflicting emotions arriving all in a jumble – panicked fear, endless curiosity, reckless bravery. It’s a mix that works because, well, that’s what life is like – at least from the perspective of an adolescent boy. The world is full of grown-up conspiracies and wars, bullies and monsters, shadowy forests, and forbidding fortresses. It’s terrifying. Yet these fiefdoms are also full of wonder and beauty and realms yet to be explored. Every blow the show strikes for horror is followed by one for imagination, every fearful moment coupled with wonder and mystery, and each detail is full of nostalgia without stooping to sentimentality.
Each episode opens with the Lucasfilm-esque logo and soundtrack, a standout element of the series that wavers between harmony and dissonance like some freaky radio frequency picked up from outer space. It’s hard to ever be sure what it’s foreshadowing. Will a mother experience an intimate moment of communication with her son, or will a monster come through the wall? There’s no way to anticipate, and so the music draws you in. You have to keep watching.
The symbolism is simple but powerful. Will’s mother manically tacks up Christmas lights around her house as a means of communication with and illumination of the world beyond. A road the boys nickname Mirkwood turns out to be a much more deviously enchanted place than they ever could have imagined. Even the use of Dungeons and Dragons offers poetic parallels – the Demogorgon, after all, styles himself as ruler of the Abyss, a realm of demons intent on spreading destruction and chaos to the world. Standing up to this foul creature is a fellowship of heroic children who exemplify several of the game’s classes: the good and orderly paladin, the stealthy rogue, the diplomatic bard, the independent and skilled ranger, and the magical sorcerer.
The series is so full of dynamic characters and top-notch acting performances that it’s hard to identify the locus of the story. It’s stretched between the appearance of Eleven and the search for Will, but that’s not a bad thing. The Stranger Things cast doesn’t have a weak batter in the lineup, and they stroke extra-base hits across the board. The characters sell the story by embodying their roles and taking each part seriously. This is due in large part to the fact that they aren’t perfect-10 Hollywood heartthrobs superimposed on a different context. They actually look like awkward high schoolers, deadbeat parents, and frazzled mothers. In particular, the acting performances of the quartet of boys and their telekinetic companion are as good as it gets. Don’t be surprised to see Millie Bobby Brown’s performance as Eleven routinely make lists of top child acting performances in the years to come.
Perhaps the most commendable virtue of the story is its pacing, which is remarkably restrained and deliberate. Nothing about Stranger Things is rushed or contrived. There are few “gotcha” or “jump” scenes. It’s revelations come across slowly, as dawning realizations. The pieces are impossible to miss, but they aren’t presented so obviously that the viewer doesn’t have to work to put them together.
In other words, Stranger Things isn’t your little brother’s monster flick, but it isn’t your weird cousin’s art-house sci-fi either. It finds that rare combination of depth and accessibility, telling a story dense enough to pay dividends on the eight-hour investment of the deliberate, focused viewer, but not so nuanced and subtle that the casual binge-viewer won’t be able to follow along. And like a good Twilight Zone episode, it never shows all its cards. The story’s resolution is satisfying, but leaves room for doubt, hinting that there’s still more to be revealed.
Once the viewer accepts the premise of inter-dimensional monsters and telekinetic children, the only glaring plot hole is the experience of Sheriff Hopper. Why did the nefarious government agency let him go scot-free after he broke into their lab? They proved early on in the show that they’d just as soon shoot someone as look at them, and yet Hopper, after finding his home bugged, continues his investigation without much of a hitch. It smacks of an easy-out.
Could it be that there is more to this promiscuous, pill-popping small-town sheriff than what meets the eye? With Season Two in the works, I wouldn’t put it past the Duffers to have some interdimensional tricks up their sleeve to fix the plot hole. We’ll have to wait and see what the next chapter of the story has in store.
Stranger Things is rated TV-14 for graphic horror imagery, some language and serious intensity. It is available on Netflix.