Stranger Things: It’s Much More than Nostalgia
Unless you’ve been kicking back in another dimension over the summer, you probably know at least something about Stranger Things, Netflix’s fantasy horror juggernaut from The Duffer Brothers. This show has a bit of everything for fans of the genre: a creepy storyline, kids on bicycles (without helmets, even), nefarious scientists, a chain-smoking Winona Ryder with an axe, and a surplus of other things that’ll make you jump like you don’t have a bit of sense.
It’s also garnered a heap of press coverage, most of it positive. Over at Rolling Stone, you can find their review, “Stranger Things: How Netflix’s Retro Hit Resurrects the Eighties,” while Vulture.com has a glossary of every single classic movie reference contained in the series. (My humble take: They missed quite a few.) Some of the reviews, though, like The Atlantic’s “Where Stranger Things Loses Its Magic,” argue that the show’s attention to 1980s era-detail is its weakest aspect.
Part of the show’s appeal is the homage it pays to great movies from the 1980s like ET, The Goonies, and Firestarter, but that’s just the beginning. Everything that contributes to its making—the story, acting, cinematography, and soundtrack—makes Stranger Things that unlikeliest of blends, a well-written, engaging, addictive grown-up story for the kids in all of us. Even those of us who didn’t grow up in the eighties.
One of the strengths of Stranger Things is its phenomenal casting, and I don’t mean Winona Ryder and Matthew Modine, the two most recognizable actors. They’re outstanding, of course—Ryder in particular—and they’re also first-rate Gen-X bait, so that works in the show’s favor. Fellow prominent adult David Harbour plays his brooding, haunted, beer and caffeine-loving Sheriff Jim Hopper like he was born to it.
The real heavy-hitting actors in this show, though, are the kids, the ones who also get the most screen time. It’s no doubt due in part to the solid writing, but still, there’s only so much a well-crafted script can do. The creators apparently established a rigorous audition process for the show, and it comes through in all of the acting, especially when it comes to the band of kids. Unlike some children who act, the kids in Stranger Things act like actual kids, not like miniature adults. They’re clueless, clever, terrified, and frantic, usually before the opening credits run.
Then there’s the story itself. If I have my way—and I shall, of course—Stranger Things will one day be considered a master class in fearless storytelling. The Duffer Brothers aren’t afraid to give a little, take a little, leave us in the dark, slow down, digress, or even stop cold in order to build the story they want to tell. That takes a ton of nerve, folks. I’ll admit eight episodes wasn’t even close to enough, but that’s my problem, not theirs. Eight episodes was exactly what they needed for the story they told. Too bad for me, but there it is.
There are familiar tropes at play in Stranger Things, and many of them hail from the stone age of the 1980s. But there are also fresh, bold, and unexpected storytelling choices that made me—both as a writer and a viewer—want to stand up from my well-worn couch and cheer. In fact, I think I did jump up once. Actually, maybe it was more of a lean forward. Either way, if you know me, you have to be impressed.
After everything else, though, Stranger Things is just a fun ride, and it’s a relatively uncomplicated one at that. That’s not to say there are no shades of gray. These characters don’t always do what we expect, and we’re often denied easy resolutions. If you want to know the answer to every mystery, you might be disappointed. If you want a story you’ll be hard pressed to put down, you might be just in business.