Stranger Things

Netflix Series for the 80s Generation

Twenty minutes into the first episode of Stranger Things, a sense of deja vu, or at the very least, nostalgia will come over people of my generation. No cell phones, primitive computers, and kids riding bicycles like grown-ups use cars? We must be in the realm of the 1980s, or at least the version that used to inhabit the big screen.

That impression is intentional, since writer/directors/brothers Matt and Ross Duffer crafted the series as an homage to Spielberg films and other classics in that era of storytelling–particularly E.T. or even The Goonies. Those adventures still took time to explore a character’s heart, instead of devoting the focus of the story to special effects, and Stranger Things follows suit.

Even genre novels from the era get a nod: the font layout for the show’s intro is an amalgamation of Steven King’s early book covers and the layout for nearly every sci-fi novel published in the decade. And since every episode is called a chapter, it gives the series the feel of a visual book, not just a TV show.

The story takes place in an insular Indiana community in the fall of 1983. Something terrible breaks out of a mysterious government lab. A twelve year old boy goes missing. His friends search the woods for him and find a strange girl in a hospital gown instead. Everyone thinks the missing boy’s mother has finally gone off the deep end when she insists her son is communicating with her through pulses of electricity.

Like master weavers, the writers take these threads–even a left field subplot about an older sister sneaking around with a new boyfriend–and twine them gradually into a textured whole. The multi-plot storytelling is such high quality, that no thread drags, even if its connection to the others isn’t immediately apparent.

As for the monster-movie element, I’m such a sucker for scare tactics that I jump at every screechy violin or “gotcha” cut in a scene. Since I could be counted on to jump roughly twice an episode, that should give you a fair idea of the scare level. I’d call those parts horror-lite, and since I dislike horror movies in general and really enjoyed this show, that should also tell you where this might fall along genre lines.

In spite of the dark, mysterious tone, plenty of humor comes through from the characters themselves, as well as clever little 80’s references. And what’s not to love about the occasional pay phone sighting? The overall effect is far more immersive than the campy version of the era served up in some recent films. My husband and I particularly reveled in the grace notes of set design that really brought the era home. I didn’t grow up with one of those brown velour couches with glossy wooden arm rests and woodsy cabin scenes printed on the fabric but I knew three families who did. The same goes for wood paneled interiors and Formica dining tables (with vinyl chairs printed to match!), which we did have. That kind of loving attention to detail is a hallmark of so-called “premium” television (pioneered by HBO and AMC), and newer providers like Netflix have taken up the banner–and with much cheaper pricing than a cable package.

What I most appreciated in Stranger Things is that while it pays tribute to the films of its era, it also takes care to subvert some of their more pervasive tropes. In most 80’s movies featuring kid protagonists, the popular boys are unredeemable louts, the minorities are comic relief caricatures, and the adults are either villains or clueless obstructionists. Regarding the last, the adults in the show might not know everything, but then neither do the kids. A policeman and the missing boy’s mom (played by a perfectly cast Winona Ryder, the only “name” in this cast of unknowns) even get to be heroes alongside the kids. Her love for her son is a real force in the show, not just greeting card fodder. To quote one of my favorite Hugh Laurie characters: “Ah, the mother’s the heroine. Nice twist.”

 

Stranger Things is an eight episode TV series available in its entirety on Netflix. If it was a film, I’d rate it PG-13 mostly for the scary elements. There’s also one scene of underage alcohol use, copious (period appropriate) smoking, and one implied sex scene.

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