While it’s the job of a publicist to sell audiences on entertainment media, sometimes there is false advertising. Not so with Stranger Things, the latest offering from The Duffer Brothers (Wayward Pines). The show is described as “a love letter to the ‘80s supernatural classics that captivated a generation,” a synopsis that might sound cliché but is delightfully accurate.
Stranger Things is set in the small town of Hawkins, Minnesota in 1983. For those of us who grew up during that decade and think of it with fondness, our first instinct is to look for mistakes. The folks behind Stranger Things, however, have done their homework. The production design and costumes make us truly feel like we’re in 1983. This is not the glossy Miami Vice ’80s or even the 1998 version as seen in American Psycho; this is the station wagon, button-down shirts, wood paneling, macramé and latch-hook, crappy TV sets, last gasp of the 1970s-version of the ‘80s, which is exactly what it was like for most of us in middle-class America.
After establishing itself with such impressive accuracy, Stranger Things takes a big risk: it causes harm to one of the main characters in the very first episode. Twelve-year-old Will Byers goes missing after riding his bike home from a friend’s house. His mother Joyce, naturally, is frantic and despite search parties and flyers and Will’s three friends sneaking off in the middle of the night to look for him, he seems to have literally vanished without a trace.
The spider’s web of the narrative spins out from there. Joyce Byers is played by Winona Ryder, who enlivens the role with a kind of frazzled hysteria that we haven’t seen from her before. It’s great to have Ryder back on the screen regardless, but especially in a role like this. There is also Police Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour), whose life is similarly falling apart, but who rises to the challenge of finding Will as soon as he realizes this is no ordinary “missing child” case, using subterfuge to investigate the situation, and when that doesn’t work, his fists. Joyce’s older son Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) is a New Wave-loving loner who has his own way of dealing with things, which is to make breakfast for his mom and disappear into his photography hobby. Will’s friends Mike, Lucas, and Dustin are beautifully brought to life by Finn Wolfhard, Caleb McLaughin, and Gaten Matarazzo, never once succumbing to clichés or coming across like dumbed-down TV versions of kids.
There are other plot threads woven in to the main story: Mike’s older sister Nancy is having boy and best friend troubles; Joyce’s good-for-nothing ex-husband Lonnie soon reveals why he’s her ex-husband; and a strange, short-haired, hungry young girl shows up at Bennie’s Diner on the outskirts of town. Then there are all those scientists in Hazmat suits skulking around.
Stranger Things unfolds a bit like a well-crafted horror movie: we don’t have a lot of information about what’s going on but there’s enough to keep us watching. When the plot starts to coalesce, it does so spectacularly. We’ve become so invested in the characters at this point that we eagerly await the next episode. There is equal weight given to the trials and tribulations of the younger teens, the older teens, and the adults, so there is something for everyone.
The creepy, synthesizer-drenched original score is terrific, as are the various contemporaneous tracks (most of which are so well-chosen I’ll even forgive the fact that a few of them were actually released after 1983). The animated opening titles resemble like the fonts from the covers of Stephen King novels and to complete that feeling, each episode has its own chapter number and title.
Kids who grew up hearing their Gen X parents talk about their teen years or even those who are just nostalgic for an era that took place before their own will love this show. If like me, you were a teenager in the early 1980s, a twentysomething in the early ‘90s, and a genre fan, you’ll definitely recognize all the references, which run the gamut from Aliens to Scanners to The X-Files and beyond. Yet instead of just making the series a game of “spot the influence,” Stranger Things reworks its pop cultural touchstones into something new, much like Bryan Fuller did with the Hannibal-verse. This makes it much more than the mere sum of its parts.
With Stranger Things, the Duffer Brothers have not only done a marvelous job of tapping into the current zeitgeist of 1980s throwback culture, they’ve managed to make it refreshingly original and exceedingly watchable.
All eight episodes of Stranger Things will be available on Netflix on July 15.