For a few weeks now, Stranger Things, Netflix’s newest “original” series has received the kind of buzz that only a new Netflix show can seem to manage these days. It’s been recommended to me by just about everyone, and when I finally sat down to watch it, I found myself in a really weird mixed headspace. Because at the core of it, I love the show. There is so much to praise it for. But after every episode, I found myself wondering, often times aloud and to anyone who would listen, why it works. Because I can’t seem to get around the notion that it absolutely should not work.
Heads up, mild spoilers are to follow.
The story revolves around a few groups of characters that inhabit this small town in 1983, all scratching the surface of this extraordinary mystery following the disappearance of a local boy.
As I said before, there is just an awful lot to praise here. It’s tone and pace keep it deeply engaging, complemented beautifully by it’s soundtrack. Not only does it feature some of the great hits of the day, but the score to the show is an especially affecting synth-wave production that would feel at home in a John Carpenter film.
The show also features some of the best performances I’ve seen on a television show in some time. The child actors are especially impressive, as it’s rare to see kids so young performing such diverse and complex emotions on cue. Of note is Gaten Matarazzo playing Dustin, who of the group of nerdy outsiders is often the voice of reason and comic relief. All the kids on the show get great moments to shine, but among his group of friends, Dustin often shines the brightest. But the showstealer is without question Millie Brown, playing a young girl named Eleven. She has very little dialogue, and is forced to communicate her emotions through body language and facial cues. Her talent at delivering such a layered and complex performance at only 12 years old makes her a talent to keep an eye out for in years to come. There are so many actors delivering so many quality performances, that I could literally write an article just covering that. Barring one exception, the cast is cohesive and feel like real people dealing with this insane situation. Unfortunately, that one exception is pretty grievous, as she gets top billing on the series.
Winona Ryder plays Joyce, the mother of the missing boy. Winona Ryder is a superb actress, and honestly, a good choice to play the character. But she was given frustratingly little character development, to the point where every time she’s on screen, you come to expect the momentum of the show to just kind of halt. Her one emotional state in the whole show is distraught and hysterical. It’s the only speed she goes in the entire series, even before she’s aware that her son is missing. In a show with so many great characters getting such great arcs, it’s frustrating and disappointing that she is still at the starting point by the end of the season.
The show is masterfully edited and paced, taking full advantage of the binge watching format that Netflix created it’s reputation on. And at only 8 episodes, it feels just the right length to come to it’s conclusion, and leaves the door open for further seasons, though whether this show should continue this story could be pushing it’s luck. Why? Because it’s premise and concept shouldn’t have worked.
Now, before I anger the many fans this show has gained in such a short amount of time, allow me to explain myself.
If you were wondering why I put the word “original” in quotations at the beginning of the review, it’s because calling this show original is honestly impossible. When describing this show to people, I’ve been telling them it’s a Concept of Concepts. The premise of the story is a cavalcade of other premises from every 80s movie that you love. When the film focuses on the group of young outsiders, the show doesn’t just feel like the Goonies or IT. It IS the Goonies and IT. From the tone to the camera work, it’s like you’re watching those movies, servicing a plot point that also comes from those movies. It rides the line between homage and blatant ripoff in every minute of every episode. From Close Encounters of the Third Kind to E.T. to the Thing to Aliens to Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles, and every horror, comedy, and sci-fi thriller in between, all in a span of 40+ minutes. I often found myself remembering being in grade school, talking with friends about what if this movie were mixed with this movie and this movie. As fanciful as these ideas would be, it’s not something you would ever expect to get made. On a lesser production, the audacity of the idea would have been the first thing to pick apart in most reviews.
And yet, here it is. And by gum, it works. It maintains the tropes and genre conventions that work in these stories, and turns a few on their head for good measure. Take for instance David Harbour’s character, Chief Jim Hopper. You expect him to be the small minded, small town law enforcement who’s role is to hinder the protagonist’s forward momentum. And it certainly seems he’s going to play just that character until he does a 180 and quickly starts uncovering some of the biggest aspects of the mystery at large.
The show’s creators, the Duffer Brothers, somehow manages to make this Frankenstein-like amalgamation of stories work with few missteps along the way. Now, I’m probably not the person to try and explain exactly why this works as well as it does. If it’s in the well executed details or the grand stokes that created such a good product, I’m not one to say. But it does work, and I’m really a fan. Whether this is lightning in a bottle or can be successfully steered into a second season remains to be seen.
But until then, Stranger Things is hard not to recommend. At a brisk 8 episodes, it makes perfect weekend viewing. If you have a Netflix account, it’s worth your time.