Thursday, August 04, 2016

Things to Talk About

I'm rarely at the cutting edge of Netflix binge watching. For example, I'm less than halfway through season 2 of Daredevil, and I haven't even started the newest season of House of Cards. But the drumbeat of people telling me I had to watch Stranger Things was relentless. So here I am, only a few weeks after its release, having finished its 8-episode first season.

It seems unlikely that you'd be reading this and not have at least a vague idea of what Stranger Things is about. But just to make sure we're all on the same page here: the series is a horror/sci-fi/drama mashup following the disappearance of a 12-year boy, and the probably-not-coincidental appearance of a young girl with powerful mental abilities.

The series is set in 1983, and I'd say that's probably the biggest reason for its success. The show is a loving pastiche of 80s pop culture that has targeted a particular age group with razor precision. Plot elements are evocative of Stephen King books, The Goonies, and Stand By Me. Specific scenes and the camera angles used to shoot them channel E.T., A Nightmare on Elm Street, Poltergeist, and more. Then there are the myriad explicit references to dozens of pop music hits, the Star Wars trilogy, John Carpenter's The Thing... more shout-outs than I could possibly list. This potpourri made for a show that a certain audience was destined to love regardless of the actual content or quality.

It is more than a gimmick, though. There's a tone to this story that fits hand-in-glove with this time setting. The series creators, The Duffer Brothers (Matt and Ross), clearly understood this, and demanded a level of fidelity that few "period pieces" get right. The real trick to evoking a specific year is to not have everything on screen come from that year; that's just not how real life works. People drive older cars (particularly if they're not well off), have older clothes they love too much to throw out, listen to both current and older music, and so forth. Stranger Things shows us not just the world of the early 80s, but a world that the 70s haven't yet let go of. And right down to the grainy opening credits and the synth score (by Survive, providing music very much in the mode of Tron or It Follows), this show bullseyes what it's aiming at.

Another big feather in the cap of Stranger Things is the outstanding cast. Winona Ryder stars as the mother who has lost her son, and is basically at maximum hysteria from almost the first scene. It's an amped-up, committed performance. David Harbour is excellent as the local chief of police, a man who tries to project an unflappable demeanor even though life has dealt him some serious blows.

But the real heroes of the cast are much younger. Much like Freaks and Geeks (another TV series that looked back lovingly on the 80s), Stranger Things follows a group of geeky preteen friends and a second high school clique of cool kids (that the older sister of one of the geeks is trying to get into). Much like Freaks and Geeks, Stranger Things -- through exhaustive searching, dumb luck, or both -- found not just one or two great young actors to fill these roles, but more than half a dozen. The story focuses most on three of them -- Finn Wolfhard as Mike, Natalia Dyer as Nancy, and Millie Bobby Brown as the mysterious Eleven -- but each of the young performers in this show fits their character to a T and delivers many great moments.

All that said, I think I'm a bit more reserved in my overall response to Stranger Things than many of the people who hounded me to watch it. The show is quite enjoyable, but not without its flaws. Even at just eight episodes, I felt that the first half of the season was becoming a bit repetitive before mysteries started to unravel. (There was a limit to how many times I could watch Winona Ryder's hysterical panic being rebuffed by a skeptic.) And the mysteries of the story only remain mysterious because of one character. Someone here literally has all the answers, and also literally has no compelling reason not to spill them by around the end of episode two. Comedy loves it when characters don't talk to each other; it's harder to pull off in drama without rock-solid reasons for secrecy.

I also found the ending to be a bit of a mixed bag. Though I felt the story as a whole reached a satisfying conclusion (and/or jumping off point for future seasons), I didn't think the last episode did right by all of its characters. In my view, more than half the cast was short-changed or made insignificant in the final hour.

Still, I can see why so many of my friends got swept up in Stranger Things. It's a fun ride overall. Plus, though I'm not normally a "form over content" sort of viewer, I'd have to say that here, the presentation alone probably makes it worth a watch. I'd give Stranger Things (or, shall I say, season one -- a renewal seems inevitable) a B+.

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