I’ve seen stranger things, but few TV shows as good as Netflix’s Stranger Things. (Sorry, I had too.) I enjoy watching movies and TV shows and since coming back from my two year service in the Peace Corps I have been trying to catch up on some of the entertainment I have missed, and I have missed A LOT. Not sure if I have never noticed the plethora of cinematic options before, because I was so immersed in its omnipresence- but my lord there is an absurd amount of movies and TV shows being produced. Every channel and now service provider is creating new content that it is hard to decide what to watch. There is so many shows, so many options and yet so much trash that it’s a wonder how anyone finds a worthwhile show, and even more impressive when a show creates devout fans. My job of catching up on entertainment and pop culture has been difficult. Countless shows-like Narcos, Marco Polo, Mr. Robot, BoJack Horseman, Penny Dreadful, Master of None, and all zombie themed shows- have been started but never completed. Too many have been stupid, tacky, and unoriginal. Too few have been able to retain my attention. All these shows appear to blind together, few are able to stand out and reach a wide diverse audience.
However, there are a few exceptions. The one show- out of all the ones I have watched- that got me hooked was Stranger Things. It should be and is the hit of the summer and the best (new) show I have seen in the past two years. Stranger Things is fresh, original, fun, all-encompassing drama/thriller nostalgic series that will keep you in a nervous fit but wanting for more.
Stranger Things is unique. A period piece set in the 80s follows the script of a teenage/buddy movie, a coming of age tale, similar in feel to movies of that time period like The Goonies, E.T. and Stephen King’s Stand by Me. In fact the creators, the Duffer Brothers, seem to be making a nostalgic tribute series to 80s specifically to the king of thriller Stephen King; however by combining cinematic themes and adding new elements and plot twists it makes the series original. The series centers around four middle school friends until one of them mysteriously vanishes, the main conflict in the first season. While they go out looking for him again they mysteriously discover a girl- named Eleven around the same age- who is lost and confused. The boys help her stay hidden and in return for helping Eleven helps them find their missing friend. Little do they know is the Eleven escaped a secret government research facility with dark intentions that desperately wants her back. The story quickly picks up pace, intrigue and complexity; which involves a sheriff seeking redemption, a mother craving closure, an official wanting power, and a corporation wanting control, and more. With all these different plot-lines diverging and converging Stranger Things succeeds by making the story meticulously coherent and cohesive. Everything has a logical place and a purpose behind its existence. This makes the story and characters so interesting and dynamic. Even when a parallel universe with demonic creatures emerges the characters drive the story and you’re hooked to every likely and logical outcome. That is the secret. The series is character driven and simply follows the characters through their world as reality crumples around them. Like the characters and actors who played them the audience becomes completely immersed and lost in this fantasy world so close to home.
More simply put Stranger Things is a 80s nostalgia piece with substance. It combines elements and themes from 80s classics like E.T., Alien, Altered States, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Lost Boys, The Golden Child, and Poltergeist. Though as mentioned above it really is homage piece to Stephen King’s work taking ideas and components from Stand by Me, It, Cujo, and The Shinning. (I could go into detail into how the series relates and takes themes from all these movies, but that would take too long, so you’re just going to have to trust me, or… see the show.) All these films in some way inspired and influenced the series, but the show is able to become its own by combining all these ideas and twisting them into an original piece. Unlike the new Star Wars film there is substance- ideas about growing up, accepting oneself and others, family, life and loss, government and corporate ethics, redemption, forgiveness, and more all are woven into the story. Still, it is not just elements taken from 80s movies that make it nostalgic. Most importantly it is a period piece, set in the 1980s. From the clothes, buildings, cars, appliances, technology, entertainment, to the social norms and expectations all are meticulously presented to create the 80s feel. Also, the music is from the 80s or sounds like it with a dark eerie undertone. The atmosphere, setting, and soundtrack all add to the nostalgia. All help the audience immerse themselves and believe in the Stranger Things world.
The acting also assists in making this fantasy thriller piece real and personal. The performances by the actors are spectacular and allowed the audience to easily suspend their disbelief. This point is especially noteworthy as the stars of the series are all kids. Doing a coming of age piece starring children is risky because child acting can be hit-or-miss. Oh, but what a hit it was for Stranger Things! All the performances were amazing and believable. The creators and writers didn’t have to hide the kids, instead leading them grow with the show. The characters are all unique and dynamic allowing the actors to shape their character, and in a way be themselves. This is incredibly important since the show is character driven. My favorite performances and therefore characters are Gaten Matarazzo as Dustin Henderson (who adds comic relieve to the intense scenes), and David Harbour as Jim Hopper (the hero cop whose strong presence supports other characters as well as the audience through the fog). However, some of the credit has to be given to the directors who not only allowed the actors to succeed but filmed the show in a style that matches the plot and atmosphere.
Aesthetically the series is beautiful and is shot in a similar fashion to those films in the 80s. The film cuts are diverse ranging from really short-cuts lasting less than half a second during intense actions scenes to long-cuts lasting minutes to immerse the audience in the setting and to create suspense. The cinematography also uses diverse shots from long to short, but from basic angles to give the series a character perspective. All these techniques are combined together to capture the world in and match the sentiments of the scene. The series is also edited with dark and grey hues to match the dark and eerie subject matter, similar to The Shinning. Together it all adds to the atmosphere and aesthetics that make the show believable and appealing.
I would recommend Stranger Things to everyone. It contains copious themes that can be enjoyed by a wide audience. It is fun, suspenseful, sweet, scary, dark, funny, edgy and thoughtful. It is a sci-fi action adventure driven by dynamic characters. Everyone should go see it even if they hated the 80s or were too young to know it, or you’re missing out!
(PS- There is two other shows that I just started watching that I think deserve praise as well. First is WestWorld on HBO and the other is Rick and Morty on Adult Swim. Go watch, otherwise you will be left out of all your friends cinematic gossip- God knows I was…)