Stranger Things is a rare thing among plenty of series bombarding viewers of streaming services. It would never get accused of trying too hard. It’s good but not great. It features no major actors. It has developed a cult following yet it is not produced by J.J. Abrams (think Lost, Fringe, Almost Human, Believe, Westworld). And for all these things, it’s just what we want. We’ve had enough of CGI and big budget explosions and special effects. Low budget is just fine–for now. It’s that movie you are looking for late on a Saturday night, but stretched to eight episodes long.
More series like this will make Netflix survive despite all the competition from other services. Stranger Things is good enough–good at sci-fi and horror and coming of age retro fun–to get you to sign up with Netflix for your next binge watch session. More important than its storytelling is how the story is told, and the efforts taken to make the series, the characters, the setting, the dialogue, all look like it was filmed in the early 1980s. Several artists have even mocked up the series marketing material into VHS tape packaging. Were it a movie-length feature it would probably fool many. It’s in the same vein as Disney’s Watcher in the Woods. Like Stephen King’s Firestarter, Stand By Me and Silver Bullet it features kids in a coming-of-age setting. Its monster/alien horror and soundtrack (available here) reflects the look and vibe of John Carpenter movies. The marketing screams Stephen King, especially that red-on-black title font. And it will no doubt gin up nostalgia to spur cassette tapes of its soundtrack like Guardians of the Galaxy.
It’s Steven Spielberg’s E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial, if the story had taken a darker turn, and very similar to Spielberg and Abrams’ Super 8 (Super 8 poster artist Kyle Lambert even created the poster for this series to further lock in the look). Critics have picked apart odds and ends found in the background of scenes–this item didn’t exist then, etc. But ultimately the overall feel is very right. You’ll point to a pitcher on the table, a rug on the floor, a poster on the wall, all that you had back then. And the season one wrap-up is as satisfying as you’re going to find in a TV series.
The writers, brothers Matt and Ross Duffer, carved up enough for all the cast to have key moments. The finest role went to 12-year-old Millie Bobby Brown, already a star from BBC’s Intruders, as Eleven, a precog girl often mistaken for a boy who is discovered by a group of three boys after their friend disappears, and whose past is the thread that holds the show together. The three boys, played by Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo, and Caleb McLaughlin meld well, with Matarazzo as the standout playing a missing-toothed Samwise Gamgee of the trio. For the obligatory teen subplot, by season’s end you’ll find yourself cheering on older siblings of two of the boys played by Natalia Dyer and Charlie Heaton.
As for the adult roles, Winona Ryder has probably scored her finest acting performance as the unrelenting mother of the missing boy, as did Matthew Modine as one of the story’s villains. Most fun to watch is David Harbour (Quantum of Solace, The Equalizer, Suicide Squad) as an angry cop, and Randall P. Havens as a science teacher who saves the day more than once in true Twilight Zone style.
And it may make Dungeons & Dragons have a rejuvenation of players.
It’s sci-fi television you’ll not want to miss. Was it a bit over-hyped? Probably. But compared to similar story lines like that found in Wayward Pines, Stranger Things is a breath of fresh air. Watch Stranger Things now only on Netflix. Season Two has been greenlit and is in the works.