With all the big-budget theatrical releases and sequels hitting one’s local cinema, who would have guessed that the best bit of entertainment this summer could be found right at home on your TV? If you’re not a Netflix subscriber, you might just want to sign up for a month in order to binge watch one of the best new shows of the year. The name of the series is ‘Stranger Things’, and if you haven’t seen it yet, you’re missing out on something really special.
The story takes place in November of 1983 in a small town in rural Indiana, and the first episode sets up the mystery that will encapsulate the season. A 12-year old boy named Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) is heading home one night after playing ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ with his three nerdy friends – Mike, Dustin and Lucas – when he suddenly gets the feeling he’s being stalked by a strange creature. The next morning, Will has vanished and no one can find him. His three friends decide to investigate the disappearance on their own. When they do, they run into a young girl approximately their own age, whom they soon learn has special telekinetic abilities. The girl has no name, just a tattoo of “11” on one arm, leading the kids to call her “El” for short.
Viewers will also be introduced to Mike’s older sister, Nancy, who’s attractive, smart, and unfortunately in a romantic relationship with fellow student, Steve, whose primarily mission in life seems to be to get into her pants. Unbeknownst to her, she’s also caught the eye of Will’s older brother Jonathan, a quiet loner with a love for photography, who winds up semi-stalking Nancy when he’s out in the woods with his camera. Jonathan is looking for evidence of what may have happened to his brother and runs into a private party Steve and Nancy are having, resulting in Jonathan taking a few snapshots of her. This proves to be a bad idea – although he also manages to snap a shot of the mysterious creature responsible for Will’s disappearance in the process.
The series’ adult leads are played by Winona Ryder, Matthew Modine and David Harbour. Ryder stars as Will’s divorced single mother, Joyce, who gets more than a little frazzled over her missing child. When everyone else around her tells her that her boy is dead, Joyce isn’t buying it for a second – and she has good reason to doubt. She’s been receiving mysterious phone calls that appear to be from Will, and someone… or some thing… seems to be trying to communicate with her via the lights/electricity in her house. Watching Joyce freak out in almost every episode about her missing son is part of the fun of this series, and proves to be a real acting comeback for Ryder, who will almost certainly see a career resurgence thanks to her role here.
When we first meet Harbour’s character, Jim Hopper (everyone calls him by his last name), he drags himself out of bed, treats himself to a breakfast that consists of a can of beer, then lights up a smoke. Before we can ask “Who’s this schlub?” he puts on his police uniform and we realize that this guy is not only the town’s sheriff, he’s the show’s main hero. In my opinion, Harbour (whom many viewers may remember as one of the reporters on HBO’s ‘The Newsroom‘) is the best thing about this series. The performance might be a career-maker for the actor, and he’s the guy that most viewers will immediately be drawn to and relate to throughout the span of the story.
Modine doesn’t have a whole lot of dialogue in the show, but gets to have fun playing the silver-haired scientist who was performing tests on El before she escaped the local government facility holding her. What would a science-fiction story be without evil government agents? Modine manages to be menacing here without ever letting on whether he’s truly evil or has his own purposes for the actions he’s taking.
Most of the excitement and buzz over ‘Stranger Things’ has less to do with the story – believe it or not – but in the way the episodes are presented. Although shot in 4K, each entry is a nostalgic homage to the 1980s, not just in the show’s set dressing (which is so loaded with an ’80s look and feel, you’ll find yourself rewatching episodes just to pick up on things in the background), but in the way the episodes are written and directed. The series makes obvious nods to 1970s and ’80s movies like ‘The Goonies‘, ‘E.T.‘ and ‘Alien‘, and even not-so-obvious nods to films such as ‘Jaws‘. Additionally, each episode has a look and feel reminiscent of a movie directed by someone like Steven Spielberg or John Carpenter. Even the show’s soundtrack (which is also loaded with ’80s tunes) has a synthesized sound similar to a Carpenter film, and the visual effects are a bit cheesy to remind viewers of those fun ’80s flicks.
This eight-episode season is the brainchild of the Duffer Brothers (as they’re credited here), twin siblings who weren’t even born until after the year in which this series is set. Considering how much of the period they get right, that fact is simply amazing to me. It’s not just that they’ve captured the look of the 1980s, but the feel of it as well – something even a talented director like J.J. Abrams wasn’t quite able to pull off in the similarly-themed ‘Super 8‘.
‘Stranger Things’ isn’t perfect. Between a strong opening and an equally strong ending, the show lags a bit in the middle – almost as if the creators didn’t have quite enough story to stretch out over eight episodes. (Six may have been better.) Some of the nostalgia that is so heavy in the first few (and last couple) episodes also isn’t emphasized nearly as much at the season’s mid-point, which may be another reason the show feels like it’s treading water in a couple entries.
I have to confess that I’m the perfect audience for this series. Not only do I love the old movies that are paid homage here, I was the same age as the young kids in this story during the year the events of this series take place. I’m not sure how anyone who didn’t grow up during the ’80s will feel about ‘Stranger Things’, but it made me feel like a kid again, and I can’t wait for these characters to return for another adventure.