After watching the first episode of Stranger Things the other week, honestly it hasn’t been far from my mind since. I’m pretty sure everyone at work now knows about it and followers of my Tumblr are aware I jumped on board the train early – nice for someone who is always late to a party.
Now after finishing the eight gripping episodes I am already eagerly awaiting season 2. I’ve written this in a way I hope avoids spoilers as I feel it is best seen with as much of it surrounded by the dark as possible (including your living room/bedroom, wherever you chose to watch).
Firstly, I’ll get this out the way, everyone has stated the obvious in terms of the show’s clear 80s pop culture influences, and I’ll admit I am as guilty of this as anyone.
It’s bit Spielberg, a lot Stephen King, a little George Lucas and has a smattering of John Carpenter (there’s even a The Thing poster and the ominous buzz of 80s synth music.
It also features a monster that reminds me a little of Pan’s Labyrinth, fun that reminds me more of X-Files and there’s something that oddly reminds me of Twin Peaks…The combination of these influences is a perfect ode to so many things that we in this oh-so-cynical age nurture nostalgic hunger for.
The X-Files had moments when I was younger, and even now, that scared me. The Walking Dead has had parts that make me jump, Lost sent shivers up my spine. But nothing comes close to the eerie feeling that has lingered after watching an episode of Stranger Things.
So what is all the fuss about?
You’re probably wondering this if you’ve yet to see an episode, right? Well here’s the scope, Stranger Things is an 8 part sci-fi, horror drama set in a small town in Indiana, US in the 1980s. Written and Directed by Matt and Ross Duffer, it follows the stories of residents of the town trying to find missing local boy Will Byers who disappears one night after a game of Dungeons and Dragons with his three friends, Dustin, Mike and Lucas.
Mike, the groups ersatz leader, comes across a mysterious girl known only as ‘Eleven’, (whom he calls L for the purposes of brevity and normalcy) who in time reveals to her newfound friends that she has psychokinetic powers and a mysterious connection to Will.
Soon the story lines of the friends, Will’s mother, Joyce (Winona Ryder), Chief John Hooper, (Suicide Squad‘s David Harbour), Mike’s sister, Nancy and her boyfriend Steve, become entwined. As the insidious threat from a seemingly unheard of but reassuringly sinister government agency / research centre grows stronger, they must work together to find Will and stay alive.
The show uses some pretty neat scientific explanations for the show’s seemingly supernatural phenomena and combines the surreal with suspense, emotional drama and some fantastically creepy/scary scenes that all combine to form a breathtaking adventure.
Here’s something else I love about this show and have so much respect for the Duffer brothers for doing… they’re not afraid to take characters that could easily have been walking stereotypes and instead subvert those stereotypes to make the characters feel believable. We have these three young heroes who play D&D, love Tolkien, Star Wars etc. but they get to be the heroes without compromising their quirks and geekiness (now I think of it, there’s a lot of The Goonies (1985) in there too.
We see them being bullied and the bullies get their comeuppance, and while this may seem pretty textbook, without plot spoilers the comeuppance in the form of a character revelation is well executed and doesn’t shame the bullies as such, rather accepts that we are all humans who make mistakes and just puts them in their place, even going to far as to offer redemption to some.
Stranger Things does something else I rarely see in other shows or films. There have been countless times, even in the most prestigious of shows where I get annoyed over the ‘but people in real life don’t talk like that,’ phenomenon.
Many a great show has fallen prey to dialogue that sounds and feels conspicuously like dialogue.
It didn’t happen in this show…not once.
No sentence felt forced or unrealistic, the deliverance of dialogue and overall acting ability, especially of the children made me genuinely believe that this was happening. If there was one word to sum it up, it would have to be organic. I’d say there’s some Stephen King influence to that too! Remember how refreshing it was to see 12 year-olds swearing, smoking, insulting each-other and generally acting like 12 year-olds in Stand By Me (1986)?
There are moments when you feel the show will give in to stereotypes, pretty girl with popular guy ends up falling for the ‘dorky’ kid etc. but the show is far cleverer than that. The relationships are believable, the characters are not perfect and all have their internal struggles.
Winona Ryder was exceptional in her role as Joyce Byres and if she doesn’t get nominated for an Emmy next year I’m going to throw a strop. Her honest and raw performance as a single mother seemingly descending into madness at the loss of her son is one of the best of her career and one of the strongest performances to grace the medium of television.
By the end of it all I’m exhausted, my brain overflowing with questions. What did I just see? Was it aliens? Monsters? Ghosts? Heaven and Hell? There’s enough ambiguity for that last sentence to be completely spoiler-proof which speaks volumes about the dexterity of the plot.
There is a big revelation in terms of the ‘government’ agency and what their experiments are for, I wish I could talk about it more here and go in a little deeper, but I fear it is a pretty big spoiler so for now I’ll just have to hope that when you come across that plot point you can nod and think “Aah, that’s what she meant!”.
The Duffer Brothers have stated that season 2 is going to be similar to Harry Potter. I’m not entirely sure what they mean by this, but it certainly leaves an air of mystery as one would expect from a show of this calibre.
I’m guessing they mean it’s a classic battle between light and dark or maybe it’s like Harry Potter in terms of how dark the end of the series gets, with unforeseen character twists and those willing to sacrifice themselves / great things to save others. The end of Season 1 certainly alludes to this with one character and ends on a cliff hanger in terms of the fate of another, but again, no spoilers.
If you’ve yet to enter into the ‘Upside Down’ – don’t worry it will make sense I promise.
I suggest that you do, but proceed with caution, an open mind and the sense of wonderment and adventure you had at 12 years old.
Stranger Things is available to watch through Netflix.