Summer TV series, especially genre ones, have been hit or miss in terms of quality. Sadly, many often fall into the miss category (see Under the Dome and Zoo as examples). But Stranger Things streaming this summer on Netflix is definitely one of the best TV series to come out in a summer season.
Taking place in a small Indiana town during the ’80s, Stranger Things is an homage to all the memorable sci-fi and horror tales from that period. Many critics are comparing it to early Steven Spielberg films but that isn’t a fitting description. This series is darker, less whimsical and a better comparison would be to an early Stephen King novel that has had a superior live-action adaptation. Then it throw in elements of the lower-grade genre efforts from that time but executed better and a soundtrack that would fit in nicely with a John Carpenter film. It may sound like a mish-mash but it works. The reason why is that despite its ’80s trappings and callbacks to films and stories from the era, Stranger Things has a timeless and unique feel.
The eight-episode series begins when a boy, Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), disappears after a night out with his buddies. A mystery develops as other characters try to find out what happened to Will. But we, and his mother Joyce (Winona Ryder), learn that he is actually trapped in a dark, parallel dimension and stalked by a flesh-eating monster without a face. As this happens, his friends Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) meet a strange and quiet girl known only as Eleven (Millie Bobbie Brown), or El for short. It turns out she is an escapee from a nearby government facility run by Dr. Brenner (Matthew Modine) that has been developing her telekinetic and telepathic powers to enter the same dimension Will is trapped in. These experiments opened up a gateway between the two dimensions and the monster that threatens Will is now also preying on our side. Naturally, Dr. Brenner and his associates don’t have her best interest at heart and are pursuing her as she hides out with the boys.
One of the reasons why Stranger Things works so well has to do with the characters and how they are portrayed. This is critical in the case of the children. Their performances seem genuine and their dialogue is authentic. By listening to them, it doesn’t feel like some adult wrote their words. If any of the young performances were sub-par, the series would’ve tanked. But thankfully, these young actors were well chosen especially Brown and Wolfhard. El says little but is very expressive and tortured while experiencing life outside the facility. All the while, El displays an appropriate childlike response to the outside world.
Other standout performances include Ryder as Will’s distraught and determined mother and David Harbour as Chief Hopper, a broken disgruntled sheriff who finds a path to redemption as he gets drawn into the mystery of Will’s disappearance. Other young performances that deserve shoutouts are Natalie Dyer as Nancy Wheeler and Charlie Heaton as Will’s older brother Jonathan. Aside from the stock evil government types, the characters are not one-dimensional. They have flaws and quirks but rise to the occasion when the time comes.
And there is plenty of meat for genre fans in this story. Owing thanks to classic sci-fi films from that time like The Thing, Alien and The Fly, Stranger Things delivers actual jump scares and gross out moments and the monster is disgustingly original and disturbing. The people behind the show (The Duffer Brothers) wisely kept its appearance vague until the final episodes and its full revelation won’t disappoint horror and sci-fi fans. Finally, Stranger Things has many Easter eggs and tributes to classics from that time that would delight fans of Star Wars, The Thing and more, but it doesn’t go overboard. With that said, the series isn’t perfect. Although its characters and dialogue are fresh and above average, the same can’t be said for some of its plotting. At times there are contrivances and certain developments are too familiar. Still, the series on the whole is enjoyable and hits its goals.
At eight episodes, the series took the right amount of time to tell its story while dropping hints of further developments. At the same time, not every question is answered so hopefully a second season will be commissioned because the warmly familiar and disturbing worlds of Stranger Things are worth revisiting.
Lewis T. Grove