Let me get in the long, long line to gush about the brilliance of this show. A large part of said brilliance comes down to the gifted batch of child actors whose genuine chemistry is a delight to watch. They have such a passionate rapport. Indeed, friendships cultivated at such an age seem far more intense and vastly more excitable than at any other. And that’s largely because they are. In the bittersweet words of Gordie Lachance in Stand by Me, “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”
And thank God these characters – namely Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), and Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) – bounce off each other so naturally and transcend their archetypes. Of course, let’s not forget about Will (Noah Schnapp) here, abducted in a legitimately scary sequence – I got that kind of numbing fright when the monster is briefly shown, much like the one I experienced in Signs when the alien briefly graces the jerky footage – in the first episode. We see only how resourceful Will is here, how clever and strangely kid-like it is of him to grasp the terrifying situation and leave his bike (as Chief Hopper sagely observes, the kids’ bikes are the equivalent of Cadillacs) to run home, try to get help, and then run to the shed to shakily load a gun. Then the shed light shines wince-bright and Will is gone, vanished.
If you have yet to watch the eight episodes, then stop reading right now, because major spoilers abound. Also, if you haven’t watched all the episodes, then you really shouldn’t be reading about the show at all, especially with all the attention it’s getting. This is simply to be on the safe side.
Stranger Things flaunts its influences, parades them, boldly and proudly. Just watch the seriously cool and commendably short title sequence, with the vintage Stephen King font (one cursory look at my bookshelf is all I need) demanding your attention. And the music here is basically a rip-off of Cliff Martinez’s track “Wanna Fight” in Only God Forgives. Does that make the title sequence less cool? Absolutely not.
Yes, it’s an ’80s stew: an intoxicating blend of Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter, Stephen King, A Nightmare on Elm Street, a dollop of John Hughes, and so on. This would be a problem in more dubious talents than the Duffer Brothers, who show no reluctance in immersing themselves in a period they clearly adore, and of course the pop-culture they grew up with. This means that you see posters of The Thing and you watch characters watch The Thing. Stephen King is name-dropped and yet it doesn’t come across as an insufferably knowing wink to the audience. You hear betrayals of Lando. You get quasi-Hughes High School scenes that fall a little flat. You watch eerily prescient games of Dungeons & Dragons. The point is that the Duffer Bros, while occasionally lurching from organic homage to inferior imitation, have carefully and lovingly constructed a world that is quite a bit more than the sum of its parts. Plus it’s not just exclusively ’80s references: The X-Files, Silent Hill and Under The Skin have more than a casual resonance.
Stranger Things feels like an eight-episode movie. Indeed, the enjoyment of binge-watching it comes from seeing certain characters change in the course of one sitting. First, there’s Nancy (Natalia Dyer): at the start she’s this little buttercup, fretting about her grades and pining after Steve (Joe Keery), a douchebag with advertisement-luxuriant hair and a generally cosy-seeming life. Then, after a pool party at Steve’s, with poor Barb (Shannon Purser) unwisely – yet unknowingly – letting her blood attract the Demogorgon, resulting in a grim struggle for her life that ends as it should given that she’s stuck in an empty pool without any weapon in the Upside Down, Nancy starts to realise that something is very, very wrong. The episodes take their time fleshing Nancy out, and it is a treat to see her concern about Barb manifest itself in action. When she’s with Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), who’s got that never-quite-opens-his-eyes quality that The Walking Dead’s Daryl possesses, it’s cool seeing her determination, which is merely converted to fear for a night after her brief but terrifying affair in the Upisde Down. She was not only out of her element, but out of her dimension. And she becomes even more of a badass because of that.
And second, Steve. What a welcome arc he had. It was a nice touch giving him a conscience and a few facets. When he’s beaten up by Jonathan – Steve, though in the heat of conflict, says some truly contemptible things that absolutely warranted that beating – I was seeing the worst: the bully with the bruised ego assembling the goons, the bystander girl watching the subsequent beating of Jonathan, etc. What a great little moment it was, then, to see him offering to help clean up his mess at the cinema, after becoming a little voyeuristic himself when he creeps on Jonathan comforting Nancy in her bedroom. What an even greater moment it was to see him barge into Jonathan’s abode, witness some truly out-there shit, react appropriately, run away briefly, and then return to bring the ruckus to that Demogorgon. I was completely surprised and by the end, when Nancy gets back with Steve, I was glad. Prediction: Jonathan will get with her, though. He can’t get Will back and have Nancy in one season.
What, then, about the next season? Is Eleven still alive? It wouldn’t be a great stretch to say yes, she is alive, in some form at least. One hopes so, because Millie Bobby Brown manages the monumental task of becoming something more than her gifts. And this is largely because she can do pretty much anything with just her eyes – so much range and nuance is communicated, often with just a look. The unfortunate tendency with these kids with gifts is that the gifts they possess dominate their characters, suppress them to the point where they’re too elusive and opaque to truly care about because they’re essentially just a vehicle for whatever gifts they possess (e.g., Midnight Special).
Then again, Millie Bobby Brown has had the luxury of time. Her powers are revealed slowly, subtly. She is fleshed out in traumatic flashbacks with the corpse-like Dr. Brenner (Matthew Modine) and his ludicrously full head of villain hair. When she makes peace with Lucas, she, in that moment, becomes someone I truly care about. And it only gets better from there. For example, when she is comforted by Joyce (the glorious Winona Ryder) in the make-shift sensory-deprivation pool – shout out to Dustin, who refuses to budge from this door of curiosity, and the coolest teacher around, Mr. Clarke (Randall P. Havens), who graciously keeps it open – it is genuinely heartwarming because Joyce can be caring, loving and maternal. It is one of the show’s great moments, seeing Joyce share the screen with El. And when Hopper leaves those Eggos in the storage box, it’s the perfect tease for more of her character and her gifts.
And Will. That scene in the bathroom, with that gloopy sluggish thing that slithers down the sinkhole, and the flash of that grim and all-too-close dimension, is also a great tease. Clearly Will will be quite a troubled soul after spending the guts of a week in the Upside Down. Although he’s pretty adept at concealing his fear: in that final shot he’s back to his beaming, excitable self at the dinner table. How he conceals if from his friends is another matter.
Also, it will be interesting merely seeing more of Will with the gang, because the first season is all about getting him back. He is largely beyond the first season, a plot device we see in aching fits and starts – and the hammy flashback with the Poltergeist tickets. And yet despite this, I was smiling dumbly when Mike, Dustin and Lucas plunged into his hospital room and showered him with love and pure joy.
But what about the bearish Chief Hopper? He has skills beyond his title. There is perhaps quite a shady past in his former Big City life. And he is seen getting into that black car to collude with the gloomy people with impassive faces. And yet he is seen delivering those Eggos, El’s snack. And the hatched egg he discovers in the Upside Down! There is ample teasing room here.
Oh yeah, and Barb. She’s obviously dead. However, not everyone knows. Yawn. Look, this obsession with Barb reveals far more about your own personal issues with men than it does about any supposed sexism on the Duffers’ part. Barb is essentially a redshirt who’s fleshed out a bit and then swiftly dealt with. More importantly, the show is about finding Will and this means we get perspectives from the people in his orbit only, so the fact that Barb is little more than an afterthought reflects this.
As a whole, Stranger Things is superb. When the lens is brought closer, though, it becomes easier to see the problems: the thin characterisations of both sexes – e.g., the dads are either opportunistic deadbeats or lifeless shells. Also, the tropes are occasionally a little too on-the-nose to really work – El’s discovery of TV and the like kind of distract me because I’m just thinking that Spielberg did this stuff better. Then again, that’s a matter of my own personal taste in this respect – incidentally, imagine the show being watched by someone who isn’t trope-aware, who can’t attribute a pop-culture reference to every single scene. For me, most of the pop-culture resonances enrich the show, rather than stifle it. They act as a kind of scaffolding. Ultimately, the Duffer Brothers have made Stranger Things with ample generosity, care, and attention. They have also made one of the coolest shows ever. Bring on season 2.