Riveting Characters Meet Nostalgic ‘80s Mysteries
Nostalgia for the ‘80s and its best loved stories has been running high in the last few years. From reappraisals of movies from the decade to both modern music and filmmaking that emulate the style of the decade, modern pop culture is in the midst of a love affair with the decade.
Into this atmosphere arrives Netflix’s Stranger Things, an eight-episode television series created by The Duffer Brothers that is not only set in the ‘80s, but takes narrative, character, and reference cues from the decade’s fondly remembered films. A hypnotic synth score recalls the works of John Carpenter while the central quest into the unknown is both scary and charming in a way that was often best captured by films of the ‘80s. But while the pure surge of nostalgia may be the initial draw for many fans, what Stranger Things does even better than lovingly transpose the techniques of the ‘80s is to tell a story that is so good that it does not need its nostalgic elements in order to succeed.
Set in the small town of Hawkins, Indiana, in 1983, the disappearance of a young boy named Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) sets off a chain of events that see the boy’s mother, Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder), his brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), Police Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour), the boy’s friends Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), and Mike’s sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer), search for answers. Their quests lead them to the discovery of a monster from another dimension, a shady government agency, and a mysterious young girl named Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) who possesses psychokinetic abilities. Like a blend between Steven Spielberg and Stephen King, Stranger Things balances a sense of wonder with a sense of terror while anchoring its many mysteries in fantastic characters.
Crucially, Stranger Things shows how nostalgia can be harnessed for the best possible purposes, as it wisely sidesteps many recent nostalgia-laden pieces of entertainment that simply throw every bit of the ‘80s at audiences to make them happy, such as the dreadful Kung Fury, in order to better service the story at hand. Here, the pleasures of nostalgia key viewers into the narrative faster in order to plumb the depths of its story and character with every available moment.
Told across eight episodes, Stranger Things is thankfully just the right length. Recent Netflix series likes seasons 1 and 2 of Daredevil and season 1 of Jessica Jones have all been comprised of 13 episodes, and the resulting bloat and pacing issues caused by stretching a season-long narrative too thin have been some of the biggest issues found in those series. That’s far from the case here. Each episode feels perfectly paced, exploring the central mysteries of the story while filling out the many characters at its core. Best of all, the three main story threads that comprise Stranger Things are interwoven just right, maintaining interest and forward momentum in each without having them overstay their welcome.
It certainly helps that the central characters of the series, and their respective actors, are almost all stellar and given strong story arcs that satisfy from beginning to end. As the haunted adults driven to find Will, Ryder and Harbour bring great pathos to their roles and provide a greater sense of gravitas. As a desperate mother, Ryder feels both broken and strong, giving a complex female performance that is rarely seen in such horror-tinged fare. And Harbour is incredibly magnetic as the broken Chief Hopper, who is both an charismatic hero and a heartbreakingly devastated man.
On the teenage side of the story, both Heaton and Dyer keep what could have been the most clichéd aspect of the narrative exciting. Featuring the most common ‘80s horror elements like boyfriend drama, a lurking monster in the woods, and a will-they-won’t-they romance, the actors and the writing team add a growing sense of adult responsibility that informs their quest. And a special focus must be given to the gang of Mike, Dustin, Lucas, and Eleven, whose story most strongly echoes Spielberg’s E.T. thanks to its kids on bikes exploration of the unknown. While every actor brings something special to their roles, these young actors stand out to a greater degree thanks to the complexity of their characters and their young ages. Much like many fondly remembered films of the ‘80s, the kids in Stranger Things are crucial and very well done aspects of the narrative. Each brings heart and humor in unique combinations, with Brown as Eleven (aka Elle) putting in a stunning performance. Relying on physicality and her haunted eyes as a character of very few words, Brown conveys a lifetime of trauma with glances and postures and makes Eleven into an unforgettable character.
If there’s a weak spot with Stranger Things’ characters, it’s in those that inhabit its periphery. While the archetypes that inform the series’ central characters are overcome through great characterization, those that merely support the plot do not have the chance. As such, the menacing scientists that inhabit Hawkins Laboratory and their leader Dr. Brenner (Matthew Modine) never come across as anything more than briefly sketched out antagonists. In addition, the creature at the center of the narrative conforms to the often-proven idea in fiction that the less known about a monster, the more frightening it is. In the series’ first half, the scant glimpses and horrifying notions provided about the monster, known as the Demogorgon, prove to be absolutely terrifying. However, more and more exposure to the creature and a somewhat underwhelming design mean that the Demogorgon lacks needed menace, yet an investment into the characters mean that there are still plenty of thrills to be had. In addition, those familiar with the storytelling tropes and genre archetypes at play here may sense where the story is headed, most specifically in its finale.
Throughout its eight episodes, The Duffer Brothers manage to work in both literal and narrative references to a collage of ‘80s stories while incorporating a host of song choices that fit both time period and mood (the repeated use of New Order’s “Elegia” through multiple episodes and Peter Gabriel’s cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes” at the end of Chapter Three are among the most effective). Meanwhile, numerous mysteries play out in both the foreground and background of the narrative, allowing for viewers to speculate concerning the greater meaning of numerous elements and the history of this world’s many sci-fi twists. But while the closing moments of the finale may lean a little too hard on baiting audiences for a second season, Stranger Things as a whole is committed to telling a contained and satisfying story within its first season.
Having such a fully formed, robust story that satisfies in both individual episodes and as a whole is an exciting experience. There’s no warm-up time needed for Stranger Things to get great, it simply leaps at you and grabs you from the very beginning. And while there’s no doubt that anyone who loves this series will be champing at the bit for more episodes as soon as possible, there’s a great amount of satisfaction to be had here as a self-contained tale, which gladly pays off the immediate investment that the series causes from its first episode.
Fans of the ‘80s and well-crafted entertainment rejoice, Stranger Things is a remarkable series.