By Mike Malpiedi
It’s been a while since a show has reeled me in as quickly as the new Netflix series, Stranger Things. I was intrigued by the first couple trailers, but the show had me hooked by the first episode’s opening credits. The Duffer Brothers have truly created something magically with this 8-episode season that is one part Spielberg scifi, one part Goonies, and one part Stephen King horror/thriller. The world of Stranger Things is alive, and indeed strange, and its 80s cult scifi aesthetic is done to perfection thanks to superb casting, a phenomenal synth-filled soundtrack, great use of 80s camera techniques, and a mysterious plot that always leaves you begging for more.
So let’s break the show down a bit, shall we?
The show is set in the small Indiana town of Hawkins, which also just so happens to be home to Hawkins National Laboratory; a creepy facility hosting all sorts of weird, government funded science experiments. Needless to say, something is let loose from the lab and Will Byers (played by Noah Schnapp), a young local boy, is kidnapped because of it. The mystery ensues as Will’s family, his friends, and Police Chief Jim Hopper (played by David Harbour) try desperately to find him. Along the way Will’s friends meet a mysterious girl named Eleven, who may be connected to all the strangeness, as more and more people from the town are thrown into the fray.
This series possesses an excellent sense of pace with each episode presenting breathe taking thrills and suspense while seamlessly giving room for great character development. Each episode also answers some questions surrounding the mysterious of Hawkins and Will’s disappearances while simultaneously leaving more questions that will have you hitting “play next episode” as soon as the credits role. The Duffer Brothers have created a world that feels so beautifully alive and lived in as well. You can truly feel the connections each of these characters have throughout the story and their is an excellent attention to historical detail as the show partly examines the Russian and US political conflict during the 1980s through the use of Hawkins National Laboratory. You can tell that there is so much backstory to the town of Hawkins that season one barely scratches the surface of. This is also one of the season’s biggest strengths, how much it chooses to reveal about its world and its characters.
There are many that feel the ending didn’t provide the pay-off they were looking for since there was no true moment of understanding for what these characters are encountering. Given the series title, however, the ending feels like the appropriate way to go leaving more questions than answers. This series’ mystery and story excel because it follows ordinary people trying to make sense of and combat extraordinary odds. There is no way for any of these characters to truly understand what is happening, so it is refreshing to see a show that doesn’t necessarily want you to have all the answers. At least not right away that is.
Wow did they do a stellar job of casting for this show. Each cast member is pitch perfect in their role throughout the season. An extra hand needs to be given to each of the child actors since they are the ones that make this show work so incredibly well. The dynamic and chemistry between Will’s friends Dustin, Mike, and Lucas (played by Gaten Matarazzo, Finn Wolfhard, and Caleb McLaughlin respectively) is spot on and it is a pleasure to see each character grow and work together as they attempted to get their friend back. The conflicts between the friends feel genuine as well as Eleven (played by Millie Bobby Brown) is introduced into the mix, and it is clear the friends have varying views on how they wish to interact with her, but the conflicts help to make the characters grow and advance the plot in meaningful ways.
It is also exciting to see Winona Ryder return to the fold as Will’s mother Joyce. Ryder is easily believable as the worried and determined mother who will do anything to get her son back. While there are definitely some moments of overacting from her throughout the season, she overall does a phenomenal job and is responsible for some of the more heart-wrenching and powerful scenes within the show. It is also great to see her team-up with Police Chief Hopper, a seemingly carefree guy who has faced family tragedy of his own. He tries to shake Joyce’s worries off at first, but as he looks deeper into Will’s disappearance he starts to see the darker corners of Hawkins and his determination to find the boy, and possibly redemption, come bubbling to the surfaces. Hopper definitely serves as the series Han Solo/Indiana Jones-esque character that is part lighthearted rogue, part experienced combatant, and part concerned friend. There is more than one occasion throughout the season that emphasizes why Hopper is the Police Chief of Hawkins.
Then there are the teen characters such as Jonathan Byers (played by Charlie Heaton), Nancy Wheeler (played by Natalia Dyer), and Steve Harrington (played by Joe Keery). Heaton does a tremendous job as Will’s distraught brother who is just trying to keep himself together while also not trying to blame himself for Will’s disappearance. Dyer does a great job as Mike’s preppy sister, and she is one of the characters who sees the most change throughout the season. Keery is also great as the one-time jock who sees a change of heart. The three create a seemingly predictable love triangle which breaks the mold a bit by the end of the season. Each are very believable as the teenage counterpart to their respective siblings and families.
Even the various supporting cast members such as Barb (played by Shannon Purser), Karen Wheeler (played by Cara Buono), and Dr. Brenner (played by Matthew Modine) do an excellent job of adding a bit more depth to the world and story. It is a shame that some of these characters didn’t get more time to be explored, but some are sure to pop-up again next season.
The Duffer Brothers nailed the ‘8os scifi thriller aesthetic beautifully. Everything from the music to the 80s inspired camera shots help to support the world and characters they are trying to build. Enough praise cannot be given to musical composers Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein who developed the shows eerie and synth-filled score. Each scene is accompanied by the perfect score which emphasis the right tone for the moment. The soundtrack also does a lot to build the tension and thrill behind the shows darker and more intense scenes. The soundtrack to the opening credits is especially catchy and makes up one of the better opening credits to a television show in recent years. The two composers happen to be a part of the Austin based electronic band, Survive, and the musical influence shows in their work here on the show. Have a listen to the opening credit theme to get an idea:
There is a good bit of thought that was put into the costuming as well with each character being given pitch perfect wardrobes that make them feel as if they are on the set of a B-list scifi movie. The camera shots and cinematography also help to create the perfect amount of tension, suspense, and campiness when needed. Then there are countless 80s pop-culture reference littered throughout the world of Stranger Things that support its overall sense of place and time. These references can sometimes seem excessive to those that aren’t as engrossed by 80s and 90s pop-culture, but they do make sense given the story and characters.
All in all, Stranger Things is one hell of a ride and well worth the watch. The season is only eight episodes and given its suspense driven story it is very easy to binge-watch. The show is well paced, cast, and developed with the obvious influences of King, Spielberg, and 80s cinema being lovingly handled. The Duffer Brothers have created something truly unique with this tale of friendship, love, monsters, and courage. If there is anything that you decide to watch this summer, please do yourself a favor and let it be Stranger Things. By the last episode you will be begging for season two, I promise. Netflix has found another incredible hit in this beautiful ode to classic 80s scifi adventure.