STRANGER THINGS Review
Break out your Ataris, lace up your Reebok Pumps, and suckle your last carton of Ecto-Cooler! Between disasterpiece WICKED CITY, the middling success of WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER, and countless nostalgic movie reboots (up to and including “modern feminist masterpiece” GHOSTBUSTERS), it seems that if orange is the new black, the ’80s are the new orange. STRANGER THINGS — created by Chapman University alums Matt and Ross Duffer — exploded onto Netflix last week as the latest “must-binge” original release. Has the world’s throbbing nostalgia boner finally been adequately stroked, or does the latest Netflix darling leave an itch to be scratched?
There are two types of emerging nostalgic TV shows: the “this isn’t very good so let’s give it a perm and throw on some Bon Jovi and maybe that will help” variety, and deliberate stories that only makes sense set in a specific time period. Thankfully, STRANGER THINGS is the latter… usually.
STRANGER THINGS is decidedly more elegant in its ’80s-worship than most of its peers. In terms of production design, the dressed-down, earthy look of this show is a nice change from the garish ’80s “look.” The viewer never feels like she can smell the aerosol hairspray through the screen; yet the set dressings still make this unmistakably 80s. Things get a little more ham-fisted once music comes into play. The first few episodes are especially guilty of WICKED CITY-itis, cranking non-diegetic classic ’80s jams every time there’s more than a two second pause. Some of the songs they choose are just so well-known that they almost distract from the scene. I love Toto, David Bowie, and Modern English as much as the next gal, but when one of them starts blaring all the sudden it leaves one a little bit…
Still, the strongest argument that STRANGER THINGS must exist in the ’80s is its homage to so much ’80s material, predominantly Steven Spielberg and Stephen King. These tributes range from subtleties of storytelling and plot structure to the more obvious recurring images of bicycles (paging Amblin, Amblin to the screen please) and… well… I mean, look at this:
Ah, yes, let the New Coke wash over me…
Granted, The Duffer Brothers are not secretive about the things they borrowed for this show. They have openly embraced both Spielberg and King as their inspirations, and go so far as to mention King specifically on the show. THE GOONIES, POLTERGEIST, THE THING (featured in both a poster on a main character’s bedroom wall and in an actual clip from the movie), and the dramatic high school stylings of John Hughes also figure heavily. But again — they are really not shy about how much they ripped off borrowed from these and other classic ’80s films.
This raises an eyebrow about the things they don’t outright acknowledge having borrowed. Again, these range in complexity. There are similarities to indie game OXENFREE, particularly the use of radios, but one could argue that OXENFREE didn’t really invent this and was released too late in this show’s development for them to have played it beforehand. (If anything, they both ripped off THE TWILIGHT ZONE.) Aspects of the Slenderman mythos pop up consistently, some a little too close to be coincidence. And then you have a shot-for-shot recreation of the most iconic scene in UNDER THE SKIN — not once, but three separate times. Filmmaking as a medium is built around homage and innovation, but at what point is borrowing stealing? At what point is homage just copy-catting?
“Uh, honey? I think we’ve been served…”
So, if you take out everything borrowed, what do you have left? Considering that the story is just “THE GOONIES, Veronica from HEATHERS, and three-fifths of THE BREAKFAST CLUB team up with much-cuter-E.T. to search for a missing boy who’s been POLTERGEIST-ed into SILENT HILL by THE THING”… it works! The mystery unfolds beautifully over the course of eight episodes. It’s not quite MAKING A MURDERER, but it’s just the right amount of intrigue to let that “Continue Watching?” timer run out three or four times in a row.
Perhaps the strongest aspect of this story is its cast ranging from complete newcomers to old vets. I have to give this show a lot of credit off the bat for its casting. The kids look like real scraggly kids — especially darling Gaten Matarazzo as toothless Dustin — and the high schoolers actually look like 17- and 18-year-olds. Not only do they look the part, but they act it. 12-year-old (!!!) Millie Bobby Brown gave everything she had to her role as Eleven — including her hair that she shaved for the role, which made her family cry — and her efforts paid off in spades. Winona Ryder’s performance as Will’s obsessed/maniacal mama bear is hard to watch in the best way. These are just personal highlights — this truly is an all-star ensemble cast.
Writing-wise, the quality comes and goes. The world-building and mythology are spot on, no doubt drawn from the writers’ personal experiences playing DND like their group of main characters. On the other hand, I’m going to lob you the four major plotlines. You tell me which of these is the least interesting.
1. A ragtag group of DND-playing middle schoolers team up to locate their friend who may have been abducted by a supernatural being.
2. A mysterious young girl with psychic powers unravels her dark past while experiencing the world outside her prison for the first time.
3. A bereaved mother suspects her missing child is trying to contact her from another dimension.
4. A high school girl likes a boy — but also maybe another boy!
I guess every JUSTICE LEAGUE needs a Hawk Girl…
The minutes spent on Nancy are a complete waste up to maybe episode seven… out of eight. She doesn’t even have a vested interest in the supernatural goings-on until almost halfway through the series, and by the time she becomes directly involved, I already haven’t cared about her for six hours. STRANGER THINGS has all the adorable dorky love story it needs between major characters that actually matter to the story. The inclusion of the Nancy love triangle feels more like something that needed to be crossed off a list of “things TV shows must have” than a very important part of this particular TV show.
Each character definitely has a life of their own, all heavily shaped by major events before the timeline of the show. To put it in non-writer terms, everybody has their damage. Apparently, all of these moments must be put to screen because, by god, we spent years writing the show bible for this thing and our audiences will appreciate the depth of character we have created! We see little snapshots of our characters’ past lives in the form of flashbacks brought on whenever someone gets #triggered by literally anything in their environment. I’m talking anything. These people have been through a lot, but a mental breakdown over a can of Coke is a bit of a contrivance.
I can forgive this for El, whose past is really interesting and figures heavily into the plot, but do I really need to care about Hopper this much? Do we need reassurance via flashback that Will’s brother and mother are sad that he’s not around? It never really works better than the first one with Winona Ryder at “Castle Byers” — which, admittedly, was quite the gut punch.
TW: soda cans, stuffed animals, cats
Alright, friends, I’ve slung a lot of shit here. At the end of the day, I do have to take off my Killjoy Kate hat and ask myself, “Is this a fun thing to watch?” The answer is a resounding “yes.” This is Netflix Original Series material at its finest — well-acted, generally well-written, perfectly bingeable, beautifully designed, and all in a tight eight hours. My biggest critique — that this is basically just a patchwork of other things people love — seems to be a big plus to most of the people who like this show. I guess that people love the things they love.
A sensation lost on the staff of Crossfader Magazine
STRANGER THINGS is not the most original content, but it is good content. The inevitable announcement of Season Two is hot on our heels, so there’s no better time to hop on the train than right now. If you can accept/ignore the imperfections and enjoy the ride, it’s a train worth getting on.