On July 15, 2016, Netflix released all eight episodes of its original series, Stranger Things. The show’s trailer promised something akin to The Goonies and E.T. with a dash of John Carpenter. As a child of the 80’s, I was fully on board with this.
Last night, I went to bed around 11:00 with the intent of watching one or two episodes. By 8:00 AM this morning, I had finished the entire season. I had also severely misjudged the show’s DNA. Oh, don’t get me wrong–Goonies and E.T. are definitely in there. But the John Carpenter aspect, which is more prominent than I anticipated, is joined by a healthy dose of Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft, as well.
In other words, I may potentially have to take legal action against the writers/producers of Stranger Things for a gross invasion of my privacy. There’s no other way they could have created a show that was so perfectly tailored to my tastes without opening up my head Locke & Key style and digging through everything I wanted to see.
Now to be fair, the show isn’t perfect. There are a couple aspects that, while forgivable, still made my brain itch a little. But the overall body of work represents one of the most unique and enjoyable television viewing experiences I’ve ever had.
Normally when I do a full season review like this (or even just one episode of something), it’s treated as a post mortem analysis for folks who have already seen the show or who don’t mind learning all the plot points before committing to it.
Since Stranger Things just came out–and a lot of people may not be aware of its existence or watched it all yet–this review will contain some narrative pathway spoilers without giving away the big plot reveals. With that being said, let’s dive in.
What’s It About?
The short version:
A little boy goes missing in a small town.
The small town is next to a secret government laboratory that is doing some very weird/scary stuff.
The missing boy’s friends go to look for him.
They find a little girl who escaped from the lab instead.
The little girl indicates that she knows what happened to their friend and can help find him. She also has weird superpowers.
Hijinks and shenanigans ensue.
The more in-depth version (with a few spoilers):
The series draws heavily on the Montauk military base conspiracy (the show was originally called ‘Montauk’) for inspiration, but is set in Indiana during the early 1980’s.
Like most sci-fi media from that time period, the U.S. government is fooling around with forces they can’t control or understand, all in the name of defeating the Soviet Union. They also have zero ethical concerns about doing whatever it takes to move the plot forward and unleashing untold horrors upon the earth. In this case, the big mistake was opening some type of portal to another dimension.
Meanwhile, a young boy named Will Byers goes missing after a night of Dungeons and Dragons campaigning with his friends. Despite what pearl-clutching 1980’s moms might tell you, he was not taken by a Satanic cult. Something from the other dimension has pulled poor Will into its world, which appears to be a dark and desolate mirror of our own reality. The monster, which looks like the product of an H.R. Giger fever dream, relentlessly hunts him (and other unlucky souls that is has captured) for food.
The next day, everyone in town flips out about Will going missing, especially his neurotic single mom and sullen older brother. Amidst the hubbub his disappearance caused, a little girl escapes from the government lab and goes into hiding within the sleepy suburban town.
Will’s buddies decide to search for him, because 80’s kids don’t mess around when it comes to friendship. They find the girl instead. Through a series of flashbacks and limited dialogue, we learn that she was being experimented on back at the base. She also knows where Will is…and maybe how to get him back.
Their search for Will, along with their lives in general, get all types of weird. While that’s going on, Will’s mom begins getting messages from her son from the other side/dimension–along with a very unwelcome visitor.
Normally in a case like this, the fictional police department is absolutely no help. But this town’s sheriff is surprisingly good at his job, which leads to him uncovering many of the dark secrets hiding in plain sight within his community. He’s also got a real ‘Batman from The Dark Knight Returns’ vibe going, so you know he’s going to see this thing through.
Rounding out our fragmented Scooby gang is the sister of one of Will’s friends, a total 80’s dream girl with a slightly harder edge. Together with Will’s brother, they go on their own quest to track down and kill the monster while also awkwardly navigating the social norms of high school.
As our protagonist’s paths begin to intersect, the evil government people continue to close in, hunting for their missing weaponized child with no mercy for anyone who stands in their way.
Oh yeah, and while this is all going on, poor Will’s still stuck in the shadow dimension, hiding from a monster and dying a little bit each day.
Mike (Finn Wolfhard, center)
We see Stranger Things’ story transpire predominantly through his eyes. He’s incredibly kind, a little bit timid, slightly impulsive, and socially awkward as hell. He’s also so damn endearing that his personality never grates on you or becomes annoying. The willingness he shows to face down whatever obstacles stand in the way of finding Will and protecting the lost girl is both heroic and completely believable.
Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin, left)
Every group of fictional friends needs the one rational person who keeps things grounded. Unfortunately, that character can often times be so disbelieving and abrasive that they become unlikable. So credit to McLaughlin for making Lucas a skeptical character you can actually be fond of and root for. Instead of feeling like a killjoy, his pragmatic approach to the craziness he and his friends are going through feels like the glue that keeps them together. And even though he’s not the comic relief, Lucas definitely has some of the funniest lines.
Dustin (Gatan Matarazzo, right)
It’s clear from the first episode that Dustin is the comic relief, but Matarazzo plays it such a better way than I was expecting. He’s not just all heart and book smarts. The adorably goofy kid also gets a few moments to shine as the group’s collective conscience, showing a knack for reading people and emotions that the other two often lack.
One theme you’re going to see throughout my review is how great the child actors in Stranger Things are. These kids are awesome. They bring their characters to life without exaggerated precociousness and overacting. Their characters feel genuine and relatable, especially to those of us who were geeky kids in the 80’s.
Eleven/Ellen (Millie Brown)
Go ahead and give this girl all the Emmys.
Despite her character having very limited dialogue, Brown conveys an insane range of reactions, emotions, and growth. Her character could have easily been portrayed as shifting plot device devoid of any anchor to the narrative. Instead, Ellen is someone whose welfare we end up caring about even more than her secret origin story.
But fear not, fellow horror/sci-fi fantatics. We still get plenty of cool action and shocking reveals about who she is and what she can do. Brown’s chemistry with Wolfhard (who has an amazing last name, by the way) also helps turn the bond between Finn and Elle into the story’s beautiful beating heart.
Will Byers (Noah Schnapp)
We don’t see much of Will, but when we do, Schnapp makes his screen time count—especially in the last episode. He also quickly establishes Will as someone whose welfare we need to care about despite only seeing him on screen for a few minutes before his character is taken.
Joyce Harbors (Winona Ryder)
Winona Ryder is great. This is not an opinion, but an objective fact.
After the first couple episodes, however, I wasn’t too sure about her character. Joyce was understandably unhinged about her son’s disappearance, but it didn’t feel like we got enough of the ‘real’ Joyce to understand how it was truly affecting her–even with the help of a couple flashbacks.
Over time, though, Joyce’s motherly instincts win out over her fear and desperation, turning her into a maternal badass. We’re not talking Ripley from Aliens level of Mom Warrior awesomeness here, but definitely in the same realm.
Chief Hopper (David Harbor)
What starts as an eye-roll worthy cliché of the burned out cop not listening to reason turns into a tragic and triumphant tale of redemption (mostly). When we learn why Hopper was the jerk we first met, it makes his initial douchiness a lot more forgivable. It also makes his story that much more compelling. There were multiple times were Hopper’s narrative could have veered off onto tangent paths, turning him into a morally perfect knight in shining armor or a crackpot conspiracy theorist. Instead, Harbour leads his character right down the middle, portraying him as a believably imperfect hero.
Nancy (Natalia Dyer)
Take Sloane from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Keep all her likableness while also adding a bit more sarcasm and self-awareness. Combine that with a believable character arc into a minor badass, and you’ve got Nancy.
The sensation you feel in your chest while you’re watching her? That’s your heart expanding as it develops a crush.
Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton, left)
This character falls is a bit too heavy on the beautiful weirdo trope (we’ll discuss that a bit more later). But to Heaton’s credit, he instills Byers with a great deal of sympathy, mostly through how we see him react to both his brother’s disappearance and his mother’s unraveling state.
Steve Harrington (Joe Keery, center)
At first, it seemed as if Steve was going to be your typical 80’s douchebag antagonist–which Keery played very well. To my surprise, the character ended up being a bit more layered than that. It wasn’t necessarily believable, but it also went against expectations, which was nice.
Dr. Brenner (Matthew Modine)
Much like William Byers, Brenner doesn’t have a lot of screen time. But when he appears, the character oozes efficient, self-righteous evil.
Even if you’re not into sci-fi horror and/or government conspiracy stuff, the way these characters interact and change throughout their ordeal is absolute joy to watch.
I’ll admit to being initially annoyed with Nancy’s story since it didn’t seem to have much to do with the main plot. Fortunately, that thread begins to intersect with the others in a way that brings it completely into the fold by episode three.
The monster/other dimension thing isn’t just a McGuffin, either. Stranger Things carefully doles out its information, action, and horror, culminating in a thrilling finale that’s made even better by our strong attachment to the characters. The successful execution of what basically feels like an eight hour movie (that I absolutely could not stop watching) is equal parts due to the great script and the fantastic actors who bring it to life.
The series also ends incredibly well, providing us closure on the main storyline while also leaving the possibility of a second season open via a few unresolved plot points…and one incredibly chilling coda.
I also love that while discussing the possibility of a second season, the show’s creators (Matt and Ross Duffer) totally called out The Killing for its craptacular first season finale.
Let’s get this out of the way first. The monster looks really cool. Not the coolest I’ve ever seen, but not at all lame or cheesy, either. Its design is simple, yet beautifully rendered via a deft mix of practical effects and well-executed CGI.
Stranger Things also makes impressively practical use of a major story element, utilizing a repeated lighting effect that allows the beast to exist on screen for progressively longer periods of time without being overexposed.
The shadow dimension that the monster comes from–and how it interacts with our reality–is truly chilling. Despite the world’s completely alien appearance, it also somehow feels like a place that could truly exist–an organic, living nightmare. Add in the little hints and snippets of other things from that place, and I definitely hope we get to visit it again (just not in person).
Back in the real/normal world, Stranger Things manages to pull off the 80’s aesthetic without ever sinking into parody. As a kid who grew up during that time period, the haircuts, styles, and environments made me feel like I was looking back in time…
…except for Mike’s Millennium Falcon toy, which was definitely not the vintage model from that time period… *smug nerd grin*
Otherwise, the look and feel of Stranger Things does a superb job playing to its nostalgic strengths without letting them substitute for artistic and creative quality.
During the first episode, I worried that the synthesized, period-appropriate soundtrack would become distracting. As the show went on, however, I grew to love how well it integrated with what I was watching on screen.
There’s also some great use of rock and pop music from the same time period, with one song in particular becoming a minor part of the story.
The sounds the monster makes are both organic and mechanical, helping to further establish it as a threat most definitely not of this world. Additionally, the way sound interacts between our world and the shadow dimension makes for some of Stranger Things’ most haunting moments.
What’s Not So Good?
As wonderful as Stranger Things’ overall story is, there were a few plot holes and narrative decisions that bothered me a bit (spoilers, obviously).
- Why did the monster take Will Byers and store him in that weird cocoon with the worm going down his throat instead of killing and eating him like all its other victims?
- How did Will survive in the shadow dimension without food or water? Was there any food or water there at all? Did the shadow dimension change his biology somehow so he could live without those things?
- We learn early on that the monster is attracted to blood when it takes Nancy’s friend after she drops a tiny bit from a cut on her hand. Later, a massive shoot out–and the subsequent spilling of hemoglobin–attracts the beast to the base. Both make for excellent scenes, but shouldn’t the monster’s attraction to blood have resulted in more disappearances? You’ve gotta believe that at least a few people in the shadow realm’s area cut themselves while shaving, chopping food, or when they found out M.A.S.H. was being canceled.
- During the first couple episodes, the kids had a hard time meeting due to their parents’ concern about Will going missing. After that, however, it was almost like they had free reign to come and go as they pleased. You’d think the parents (especially the ones we see) would have a tighter control on things. It’s hard enough believing the kids could hide someone in one of their houses for days on end. Maybe I just wasn’t daring or smart enough to pull that type of stuff off back in the day.
- I know we’re supposed to like Jonathan Byers…and for the most part I did. But there’s no way that him photographing Nancy while she was losing her virginity can be seen as anything but incredibly wrong/creepy. The fact that Nancy seemed to forgive this transgression simply because her douchebag boyfriend broke his camera is harder to believe than monsters invading our reality from another dimension.
- I’ve never been a big fan of portraying governments as monolithic entities of malice. There are invariably going to be good and bad people involved in any sort of major operation. (Take a look at the infighting that occurred among FBI and law enforcement during the Ruby Ridge Incident for some real world proof).
Sadly, the government agents in Stranger Things are uniformly evil. They’re also completely inconsistent in how they do things. In one scene, an agent murders a well-known and well-liked man in cold blood, presumably because he might “know things.” This was done despite the fact that he wanted to hand over Eleven/Elle to the agent (successfully posing as a social service worker) without question.
Other times, however, they allow people who could clearly compromise their diabolical schemes to live and roam freely. Speaking of that…
- Why the heck would the murder-happy government agents let Joyce and Chief Hopper go into the shadow dimension (WITH THEIR HELP AND EQUIPMENT) simply because he promised not to tell anyone about what they’d seen? I get that killing a police officer would make for extra unwanted attention, but that doesn’t mean they had to help them.
Don’t get me wrong–I’m glad they did, especially since it gave us that powerful scene where he’s fighting for Will’s life while simultaneously remembering when he lost his daughter. But the road we took to get there was a little too bumpy.
Is It Good?
No. It’s amazing. One of the best television watching experiences I’ve ever had.
Stranger Things hit all the right buttons for me, but the show’s creative quality is so multi-faceted that its bound to appeal to anyone. And despite the strong horror aspect, it doesn’t stray too far from PG-13 territory, making it something kids the same age as the ones on screen can watch (legally).
Stranger Things is the perfect blend of strong storytelling, pitch perfect character development, and creative world building. There are plenty of good shows out there that do one or two of these things well, but rarely will see a show that can masterfully pull off all three.
If you’re still not sure about adding Stranger Things to your binge-watching schedule, then give the first eight minutes of the first episode a try. There’s no way you won’t be at least a little curious to see what happens next.