I spent my summer vacation watching all of the latest Netflix show, because why not?
Stranger Things is a sci-fi/horror Netflix original that currently sits at a breezy total of eight episodes. Set in 1983, it opens with something nasty escaping from a secret government research facility near the Midwestern town of Hawkins. Soon after, a young boy named Will Byers disappears from the town. When his three best friends go out looking for him, they find someone else instead: a frightened, nearly bald girl of few words and many mysterious abilities, who only answers to the name Eleven. Meanwhile, Will’s mom is certain he’s alive, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, and starts searching for him in her own unconventional way, with support from the town’s troubled police chief. Will’s older brother Jonathan starts investigating, too. None of them have any idea what they’re getting into.
The show leans heavily on nostalgia for the “kid adventure” movies that were popular in the ’80s, which means most of those cliches and stock characters make an appearance. We’ve got a gang of bicycle-riding, D&D-playing middle-schoolers, a bunch of bullies, a gaggle of ghastly teens, a convention of clueless parents, a duo of dumb deputies (okay, I’ll stop) and, of course, the ominous Men in Black. The whole thing is so Spielbergian in tone that it’s actually a bit jarring at first to hear a spooky electronic soundtrack instead of something by John Williams (not that I’m complaining–the music is excellent).
But under the surface Stranger Things is entirely its own story, and it’s a good one. It’s suspenseful and, at times, genuinely scary. The mystery unfolds at just the right pace, tying up enough loose ends to bring some closure to the finale, and leaving enough dangling to make sure Season 2 has plenty to work with. While some of the main characters start out looking like cliches, they all undergo lots of development that pays off over the course of the season. It helps that they’re all played by excellent actors, even (especially?) the kids. Will’s mom spends a lot of this season crying or otherwise being hysterical, but she’s got her own kind of toughness that never fails to come out when it counts. His friends (Mike, Dustin and Lucas) sometimes seem a little too unfazed by what’s happening around them, but their loyalty and friendship feels genuine, and it’s the emotional heart of the show. The teenagers are, as aforementioned, ghastly, but even they step up their game when disaster strikes.
The most memorable character, by far, is Eleven. She utters maybe a few dozen words in all eight episodes, but still manages to be equal parts creepy and vulnerable, innocent and monstrous. One minute she’s shyly learning about waffles and television with Mike, and the next she’s snapping people’s necks with her mind. I loved her. The police chief, Hopper, is also a wonderful, complex character who gets in a lot of cool action over the course of the show.
The show does have its problems, one of the biggest being its reliance on the “clueless parents” trope that is so common in stories that focus on kids. I can buy a couple of bad parents, even downright stupid parents, but a “perfect suburban housewife” who fails to notice a strange child living in her basement for a week has gone beyond mere stupidity. All the kids, except the missing Will, seem to have parents who don’t care about them at all (I realise this set in the ’80s, when people were less paranoid, but I think even an ’80s mother would be a little worried if her kids were constantly roaming outside town by themselves, at night, right after another child’s disappearance). And none of them ever think to talk to any adult about their investigation, even when it turns life-threatening.
It’s probably worth mentioning that, while 12- to 13-year-olds drive much of the show’s plot, it’s clearly not meant for young children. The monster from the research facility is truly terrifying, people die in pretty gruesome ways both on- and off-screen, and there’s a fair amount of language and sexually suggestive content. E.T. this ain’t, despite the homages.
That being said, it does promote some good values. Friendship and loyalty are major themes. The heroes are people who fight to protect and care for their loved ones, never giving up on them no matter what. The villains, and even just the more unpleasant characters, are those who use other people as tools rather than human beings and are willing to betray them in order to save themselves. Some of the “good guys” don’t treat their friends very well early in the season, but this always comes back to bite them, and the best characters learn their lesson by the end.
Overall, I enjoyed Stranger Things. So far I think it would make Spielberg proud–it’s got the same mix of suspense, mystery and fun that I enjoy in his earlier movies. And while the season finale was satisfying in a lot of ways, it left me hungry for more. I’ll definitely be tuning in for Season 2.