What I’m about to say is going to sound like a bad review of Netflix’s new horror drama Stranger Things, whose eight-episode first season follows the adventures of kids in and around a small town where strange things happen.
The acting is of variable quality; it occasionally feels like even the great Winona Ryder is playing less of a character and more of a stereotypical harried, worried mother. The writing is often painfully on the nose. And worst of all, the story sometimes seems to exist solely to nod toward the '80s movies that Stranger Things’ creators, the Duffer brothers, clearly adore. The series isn’t made up of lived experiences — it’s made up of other stories.
Yet I watched all eight hours of Stranger Things within a 24-hour period, and when I was done, I found myself hankering to go back and start over from the very beginning, something that rarely happens to me.
In short, Stranger Things has flaws — big, noticeable flaws. But those flaws somehow make the show stronger, not weaker. Even if the Duffers have nothing more interesting to say than, "We love '80s movies!" they convey their affection for said movies so enthusiastically that you can’t help but be swept up by the whole thing in the end.
So let’s examine some of the '80s movie motifs Stranger Things employs to talk about how the series both fetishizes storytelling tropes and upends them. Naturally, spoilers follow.
1) A group of normal kids have an encounter with the supernatural
At its best, Stranger Things exists in the center section of the three-circle Venn diagram that connects the respective 1980s films of Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, and John Carpenter — at least to the degree that Stranger Things’ title font is exactly the same as the one that used to adorn the covers of King’s books.
As such, it’s about a group of preteens — mostly boys — who encounter something slightly terrifying. In this case, the slightly terrifying "something" is a strange monster that comes from an alternate dimension the kids call the "Upside Down." The monster captures one of them in the first 15 minutes of the first episode, and the rest of the season deals with trying to rescue him.
In short, Stranger Things is sort of like if E.T. took a left turn into It, with a stop along the way to pick up a bit of the small-town terror of Halloween. And, really, its central kids are pretty stock characters. There’s Mike (Finn Wolfhard), the de facto leader, the kid who is slowly figuring out his own charisma and smarts. There’s Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), the group’s pudgy soul. And there’s Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), the group’s idealist and, consequently, occasional hothead.
And of course there’s a girl, and of course there’s a stolen kiss late in the season. But in keeping with the genre, the girl has superpowers and is the only person in town who can stop the monster.
As Eleven (so named by the government scientists who experimented on her), Millie Bobby Brown occasionally feels like Stranger Things’ most vital character. But she can also be its most frustrating. Sometimes she seems like a real person, especially when she’s just enjoying the company of her new friends; at others, she’s little more than a plot device, as when the show will keep her motivations mysterious for no good reason. Periodically, she’s both in the same scene.
Nothing that happens on Stranger Things will radically rewrite your conception of how stories about groups of preteen boys work, but the roles are cast well, and the Duffers (whose first names are Matt and Ross, I guess I should say) have a real talent for eliciting good performances from their actors. When the group suffers the obligatory fight that nearly breaks everything apart, you feel it.
2) The characters all live in a movie-ready small town
If there’s a secret to how Stranger Things ends up succeeding, it’s in how the Duffers use the tiny Indiana burg where the series is set.
If you were to cut out everything that happens in Stranger Things’ season one except for the actual story of the showdown with the monster, you’d fill maybe three episodes’ worth of running time — and that’s a very generous maybe.
This has led some critics to complain, justifiably, that the show is quite flabby, with too many subplots and too much variance in quality among those subplots.
This is more or less true at certain times throughout season one, but I grew to really like all of these subplots by the end. It was very smart of the Duffers to marry their '80s movie homage to a more traditional small-town show, about the hopes and dreams of people who are stuck in a place that has seen better days.
And they film the town like it’s a place filled with mystery and fascination. In particular, a late-season shot of the government lab where — surprise! — illicit experiments are occurring offers a shadowy, ominous sense of the building looming over the otherwise unremarkable locale.
3) One of the kids has a single mom
The "star" of Stranger Things — if such an ensemble-heavy show can be said to have a star — is Winona Ryder as Joyce, the mother of the boy who’s been captured by the monster. Her husband left her for another woman, and now she’s trying to raise two kids on her own, in Stranger Things’ most blatant Spielbergian trope.
At times, Ryder feels a bit lost in the show’s overall miasma of events, and she’s the one character the writers never really get a firm grasp on.
In scenes where she’s launching seemingly bonkers investigations to find her kidnapped child — including a tremendous set piece in which she strings up Christmas lights to see if she can communicate with what amounts to his ghostly spirit, trapped in the "Upside Down" dimension — she’s fantastic. But in scenes where she’s, say, yelling at her ex-husband, both the character and Ryder feel adrift, counting on raw emotion to carry the day.
She’s at her best in scenes with the show’s other major adult character, Police Chief Hopper (David Harbour), who lost his own daughter to cancer years before the events of the show started. Joyce and Hopper bond, search for Joyce’s son together, and become great partners in exploring their own attempts to suspend disbelief.
Stranger Things boasts something of a melancholy soul, one that’s most potent when these two are sharing the screen. That melancholy feeling is what elevates the show beyond its homages, to something approaching real feeling.
4) There are teenagers here, for some reason
Anytime a story like this counts preteen kids among its major characters, there are guaranteed to be some older kids in the mix, both to provide the preteens with elder siblings and to provide the production with teenage characters who can be played by actors over the age of 18, and thus not subject to child labor laws.
The teenage characters here take the form of the typical love triangle, including bookish but vaguely popular Nancy (Natalia Dyer), brooding and nerdy Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), and heartthrob bad boy Steve (Joe Keery).
By the time Steve has become convinced Nancy is cheating on him with Jonathan, even though Nancy and Jonathan are just trying to track the monster, you might find yourself rolling your eyes at how familiar of a story Stranger Things is telling.
But in the season one finale — and major spoilers follow, I guess — this triangle gets flipped on its ear. Steve realizes he’s been an asshole and sets out to apologize to Jonathan — the point at which his character might fade into the woodwork in another similar story — only to realize the monster not only exists but is in Jonathan’s house at that very moment, and Nancy and Jonathan are trying to kill it.
I won’t say how the situation resolves, but the outcome ends up being more satisfying than I was expecting for a storyline I couldn’t have cared less about until that instant. This is one of the strengths television (and the small-town series) brings to a story like this — a character like Steve can evolve into a real human being (or at least a suggestion of one), instead of stagnating as an archetype in a story you’ve seen dozens of times before.
5) Even the show’s images find the unexpected in the mundane
If nothing else, the Duffers have a real talent for coming up with gorgeous images that will stick in your imagination. They blend the weird with the mundane, in a way that pays true credit to how thoroughly they’ve digested their obvious inspirations.
I was particularly taken by Joyce, sitting alone in a room, surrounded by Christmas lights and trying to shout into the void, even after the corpse of her son had been discovered. Or when Chief Hopper cut open that corpse and discovered it was effectively a stuffed animal, filled with soft, spongy material. Or the images of Eleven encountering beings from other worlds in an inky realm, which called to mind the great sci-fi film Under the Skin.
Stranger Things might be a hodgepodge of lots of other things, but there’s a sincerity to it that’s hard to fake. And in its appropriations of those other things, it somehow becomes something new that rises above its collage-like origins.
I don’t usually like stories built from scraps of other stories, but Stranger Things has an earnest beauty when it most counts.
Stranger Things’ first season is streaming on Netflix.