Stranger Things is the next big Netflix show to completely light up on everyone's radar recently, following in the footsteps of shows like Orange is the New Black and House of Cards. It's eight-episode first season was briefer than most other shows available via the streaming service, but it's brilliant characters, captivating horror-sci fi tone and pitch-perfect writing completely hooked audiences and had everyone talking. After finishing re watching the entire first season with my parents, my dad made it pretty clear that I should write up a review of this series to go along with the rest of my Halloween month. Yes, the series has been out for several months, and has spawned so much discussion that pretty much everything there is to say about it has already been said, but think of this as a fresh take or perspective. Besides, since when have any of my reviews been even remotely on time?
Due to the fact that I'll be dealing with nearly eight hours of content, I have decided to eschew my standard “blow-by-blow” style of analysis and go for a more broad spectrum exploration of this show, it's themes and what makes it so damn good. Let's try and see how Stranger Things happened.
As always, my reviews get pretty spoilerific and I'll be mentioning plot points throughout. But honestly, if you haven't seen the show already, it's not hard to access. This article will be here when you get back.
Whenever you ask someone what makes Stranger Things such a great show, the initial answer I usually get is “The Nostalgia”. While it is true that the series is firmly rooted in the time period and style of the 80's, I feel like it goes much deeper than just that. Stranger Things has been described as “Stephen King through the lens of Stephen Spielberg” and it's clear to see the influences of both artists at play here. Everything from the warm colours of scenes, to the extra-dimensional terror pressing at the boundaries of our sane world, to the very adult fear of losing a child that kicks off the conflict of the whole series speaks of classic Spielberg and 80's films in general. Hell even direct narrative tributes are present through out, such as a flight by a group of bike-riding kids from a descending mob of government officials being assisted by their telekinetic friend, or the fact that Stephen King himself is mentioned both by name and reputation at several points throughout the story. Hell, we even have a mysterious girl with psychic powers showing up in addition to the initial supernatural threat!
But there are still differences. I believe that Stranger Things tackles the issues of missing children, paranormal forces, government conspiracy and even psychic children with a level of unflinching maturity that did not quite exist in the 1980s. We've seen these tropes before, but the absolute honesty on display is captivating. This is something that a post 9/11 world demands from it's fiction, to a certain extent. The pain of characters enduring loss, the people confronting the bizarre to such extremity that they begin to doubt their own sanity, and the very real of threat of what comes from beyond and within our own government is all very tangible, to an extent that I feel could not exist back in the more escapist 80s.
Stranger Things deliberately invokes a sense of the time period it takes place in with the ever-so-slight colour filter that the entire show is shot through, the reference heavy dialogue, the “Cold War Paranoia” story line that intersperses the piece, and of course, the kickASS soundtrack, both the licensed songs and the heavy synth beats. I have mentioned in the past that the beating, slow electronica of Stranger Things works in direct opposition to the films that it is trying to emulate. If this were actually an attempt at making a Spielberg movie, then John Williams would have composed the score. But Stranger Things is looking back on an era as opposed to trying to stand out from it and thus, aims for a very specific tone as opposed to going for a more timeless feel.
These traits have been seen before in other films that have also called back to the time period, most recently in the J.J. Abrams film Super 8. But that film is largely forgotten while Stranger Things is still the toast of the town. What sets these two similar works apart? Well, for one thing J.J. doesn't really have much of an artistic SOUL, but we're going to try to find some more concrete, factual answers.
I believe that the true strength of Stranger Things is that it understands that any truly great work of science-fiction or horror is character driven. The setting and rules of the story might be outlandish, but so long as you have well-developed, interesting characters to revolve that story around, the audience will be able to connect and appreciate the intricacies of what is being presented to them. The Thing knew this, Firefly knew this, and Stranger Things knows this as well. The story centres around the basic concept of a lone child being spirited away into a hellish alternate dimension by a carnivorous abomination that was loosed by a government project gone wrong, that initially intended to use a psychic girl who was the product of LSD experiments to spy on the Russians but ended up opening up a portal to the aforementioned hellish dimension and that is a LOT of information for someone to process if they are just diving in, and out of this world concepts like this rarely manage to elaborate on themselves without bogging the story down with carefully explained details and technicalities. But instead of the narrative and circumstances, Stranger Things focuses on the characters themselves as they attempt to wrap their heads around this extra dimensional mystery and the paranormal phenomena that have descended on their small town. To make it even more palpable, the differing revelations and deductions are made separate of each other by one of four parties, each working to determine the whereabouts of Will Byers and the cause of his vanishing. We see Will's immediate friends attempting to get into contact with him, and act as the audiences connection to Eleven, who will be touched upon later. Their part in the story is that of curiosity. They are the ones who figure the most about the situation and their imagination allows them to grip the possibility of an alternate dimension that their friend has been trapped in. Further up the age bracket, we have the older siblings of the kids, Jonathan Byers and Nancy, Mike's big sister. The teenagers primarily focus on the creature that is plaguing their community, directing their fears into anger at the situation. Their overarching plan is to find the creature and kill it, which sort of strays past the more highminded exploration that the kids are working on and into simple knee-jerk response territory. These two are teenagers, it's understandable. Both Nancy and Jonathan are spurred into action by the loss of someone close, Jonathan by his brother and Nancy by her friend, Barb.
Also, if I can go off on a tangent, one thing that always rubbed me the wrong way was the post-mortem canonization of Barb's character. I keep on seeing posts, rants and actual illustrated fan art all bearing the mantra “Barb Deserved Better”. For heaven's sake, she's even had full on comedy bits on other shows and animations devoted to her apparent abandonment by the protagonists. Yes, she was killed off at the beginning of episode 3, but that was the point of her character. Barb serves as Nancy's conscience, both alive, when she warns Nancy away from partying with that no goodnik Steve (Oh Steve), and later in death, Nancy's guilt over her friend's disappearance spurs her into action. Barb was not abandoned by her friends, Barb was a corpse by the time the opening credits started up. Will survived thanks to his ingenuity, familiarity with the terrain and oh yeah, he was holding a loaded rifle when the Demigorgon grabbed him. Remember that? Barb wasn't abandoned. She was dead. And nobody made a huge stink about it because staging the runaway of a teenager with a car is much easier than staging the death of a ten year old. I'm sure that she had family looking for her, they were just looking in the wrong direction. Enough is enough. It was sad that she died alone, but that's the point. It's a horror series.
The final group is the orbiting characters of Grace, Will's determined mother, and Hopper, the local sheriff who already has a boatload of personal trauma going into all this that will drive him to find the truth. Beyond exploration or reactionary violence, The mother and sheriff that comprise the adult faction are driven by both their own personal demons as well as the outside circumstances. It is made very clear that Hopper comes from a broken family and has endured extreme loss, and it is this trauma that fuels his obsession with unraveling the conspiracy around Will Byers's disappearance. I personally believe that his establishing moment was when he gripped Jonathan's shoulder and very shakily, yet intensely assured him that he would find Will.
Grace on the other hand, is also obviously entering this debacle with both a great deal of baggage, and a lot more to lose. From the simple inference and attitudes of her public circle, Grace is already apparently suffering from anxiety and potential instability, and her determination to both uncover the mind-bending circumstances behind her son's vanishing will not win her any supporters from even her immediate family. I found Grace to be the most compelling character of the entire, incredibly watchable, cast. She KNOWS that she isn't crazy, but also knows that everything she says will come off as insane. Only her inventive thinking and bloody-minded commitment to finding her child can serve her in this descent.
Eleven, of course, is the one who ties this all together. Her role in the group as a way to contact Will on the Upside-Down is more than just a functional purpose. She is also a narrative connection between the sane, rational world of the Indiana town that Stranger Things is set in, and the wild supernatural insanity that is pervading in on their reality. Eleven's psychic abilities first clue the kids in that there is a lot more to this than meets the eye. Her telekinetic assault on the bullies attempting to hurt Mike is what makes Hopper realize that Will's friends are in on this too. She explains the nature of The Upside Down to everyone. She's the link that spurs everything into motion. And I can't even spurn her abilities as an example of Steven King-esque “Psychic Powers out of Nowhere”. Eleven is the catalyst for the entire plot, and her telekinetic and telepathic powers directly influence and create events around her.
It seems necessary to keep all of these separate groups apart from one another as they carry out their own missions and agendas, if only to keep the story from drowning in the constant stream of information and interaction that would occur if they were constantly bouncing off of each other. Compartmentalized as they are, the show can instead fully use its 8 hour run time to explore each character and the group dynamic. And it makes it all the sweeter when they finally collaborate.
We have all seen the character tropes on display here before: The stressed cop, the overtaxed single mother, the damaged psychic girl, the eager-to-grow-up teenage girl that is grappling with her sexuality and so on. What makes the characters in Stranger Things so good is that the show can take the time to explore them, see why they are the way they are and what motivates them through the story. Everyone is fleshed out and stands as their own independent person. The mother of Nancy and Mike is obvious wound tight and eager to help her children, but blind to the larger problems that they face. The science teacher that offers frequent technical information to the kids is clearly a dork in his own right, but a scene of him showing The Thing to a date might be one of my favourite parts of the series, showcasing his interests and activities beyond his role as a teacher, which is actually quite rarely done. If I had to make a complaint, it's that some of the human villains are a little one note. Papa and the blonde haired assassin seem a little unilaterally evil, and almost as on note as the damn monster prowling throughout the series.
As for the ending of the series, I have no real problem, and appreciate both it's unconventional take on typical story arcs and it's refusal to explain the extensive repercussions. What happened to Eleven, is she still alive? Hopper seems to have faith, something that he hasn't possessed in a long time. What is going to become of Will? He's been touched by the other side, and that's left scars. Eleven was the same way, and now there will always be a piece of The Upside Down inside of him. As for Nancy, Jonathan and Steve, I rather liked the fact that Nancy eventually chose to stay with her initial choice. Steve had a redemptive arc of his own through the series and even at his worst, was never a complete asshole. He chose to make peace with Jonathan before approaching Nancy, and even went back to help them take their turn against the Demigorgon. And damn if that little bat twirl didn't make me a little bit more gay. You can add him to the stack of interesting characters.
Stranger Things is a fascinating exercise in storytelling, exploration of established plot and archetype and what freaks you out, from the childlike fear of monsters, to the adult fear of loosing a kid, to the overarching paranoia of not being told everything, and that possibly, the government doesn't have your best interests at heart. There is already talk of a season 2, but I would be perfectly happy if this stood on it's own. If there does end up being a second season, I think that the only way to do it right would be a completely different story line and set of events and characters. So much of the story revolves around discovery and figuring out the mystery of this small town that I think revisiting the same characters and setting just wouldn't carry the same impact. Hell, we've done The Goonies meets The Mist. What if we set the next season in the 50's and did Stand By Me meets The Dunwich Horror? I'd tune in.
And with that, I'm done. Whew. This was a simultaneously rewarding and intensely taxing endeavour. Yeah, I fell behind close to the end and this final entry was about two weeks overdue, but hey, it's finished now. I'm glad to have set out on this undertaking, and glad that you all accompanied me. If you're curious as to my final opinions on all of these films, I've put together one final little ranking of all of them , divvying out recommendations or condemnations from the space of a few days reflection.
For the purposes of this round up, I have neglected both miniseries that were discussed, as they count as separate entities that cannot really be classified on a simple best to worst (Also because they are probably leagues better than almost the entire list in itself). Also, any films that I did not finish and/or have scrubbed from my brain with liberal amounts of rye whisky will not be mentioned either.