This show is way better than it has any right to be, meaning, it’s AWESOME.
If I had to describe it, I’d say “Basically every 80’s genre movie ever made rolled into one”. You can see shades of “E.T.”, “The Goonies”, “Poltergeist”, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, “Alien”, “Predator”, the John Carpenter oeuvre, and even “Half-Life”, of all things (which isn’t eighties, but hey, whatever). You can even sprinkle some John Hughes type stuff in there thanks to a subplot involving the dating drama of one of the main characters.
But two things make this really shine:
1) It isn’t just a homage to 80’s movies. I think a lot of reviewers get this sort of wrong. I came into this series not having seen too many of its influences (I’ve never even seen “Alien” or “Close Encounters”), and I was still highly entertained and impressed.There are no near quotes followed by a wink. Nobody says something cheesy like “What, you think this is some sort of movie”? Nobody says “We’ll be just like the Goonies!” This IS an 80’s movie that just so happened to be made in 2016.
2) More importantly, it’s incredibly well executed.
“Stranger Things” is eight episodes long, and let me tell you, “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones” – especially the latter – would have benefited greatly from the narrative focus. There isn’t a wasted moment. Pacing is arguably the most difficult part of writing. Even great authors struggle with it. Tolkien struggled with it. As the saying goes, even good Homer nods.
“Stranger Things” never nods. The pacing is flawless. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a show or movie this good at heightening suspense or tension since “Jaws” (Hey, another movie I forgot!). Each new twist and turn tightens the screws, sometimes subtly, sometimes more overtly. There isn’t a wasted moment – everything that happens not only furthers the development of characters but also the overall plot.
And the characters! “Stranger Things” is an eight hour movie, and where that extra time is most apparent is in the character development. All of the main characters are three-dimensional people with flaws and virtues, and all of them have full character arcs. They’re recognizable as real people. Of particular note are the exceptional performances by the child actors. They take four characters that can easily have been simple stereotypes or archetypes and turn them into complex human beings with unique roles on their team that go a step beyond “The Leader”, “The Skeptic”, “The Comic Relief” and “The Psychic”. The character of Dustin in particular (who, let’s face it, is adorable) impressed me; he looked to be a standard comic relief “third wheel” type character, like Chunk in “The Goonies”, and instead ended up being something more: The smartest, the most level-headed, the most mature, and the most self-aware of the four man child band, without ever losing his endearing goofiness.
Actually, let’s talk about the number four in that band: Eleven, also known as El, played by Millie Bobby Brown. What an amazing performance, for any age. El is given a limited vocabulary, but it’s a marvel to see how much Brown manages to communicate with an expression. El’s attempts to communicate with the other characters from such an alien mindset is practically an acting masterclass. Brown’s facial expressions and body language communicate more than pages of dialogue often could, and she is the surprising dark horse winner for the coveted award of best performance on the show. She was so good that I hope she gets some awards love come nominating season (she won’t, though).
Of the teen characters, the stand out was Steve, who started out as the typical douchebag boyfriend of one of the other main characters but as the season progressed developed into something more, and without ever betraying what made his character unique in the first place. The end result of his character arc is one of the show’s biggest and most impressive surprises, yet another case of taking a character who could easily have been a two-dimensional archetype and turning him into a complex three-dimensional human being.
As for the adults, Winona Rider gets a lot of billing because she’s Winona Rider and the biggest star in the whole cast, but of everyone there she probably gives the worst performance, which is saying something. Rider is engaging but starts off as a very one note “hysterical mother”. By the end of the season she’s showed off more of her acting chops, but due to the hyper-focused nature of her plot arc she’s probably the least interesting of the main characters. The star here is Hopper, played to absolute perfection by David Harbour. Hopper is the Chief of Police, who starts off his odyssey looking like a drunken, possibly drug-addicted loser but who in time is revealed to be a competent investigator motivated by personal tragedy and guilt. The disappearance of Will at the start of the series sparks Hopper into working harder than it is clear he’s worked in years. Hopper’s backstory is revealed in pieces throughout the season, and by the time the credits roll in the finale it becomes completely clear why, exactly, Hopper is so invested in the fate of Will.
And, yes, I was very moved by the climax. Were I the type of person to do such things, I would say that during one particularly emotional moment I might have shed a single, manly tear. For a show to have that sort of effect on me is very, very rare. I need to be really, REALLY invested in the characters for that sort of blatant emotional manipulation to work, and I was.
Oh yeah, before I forget: The show is EXTREMELY superversive, and not only that, it’s superversive while working in genres known to be precisely the opposite. As I mentioned previously there’s this wonderful, subtle theme about the importance of personal, human connections as opposed to cold government statistics. The selflessness and bravery of the main characters, particularly the kids, is a breath of fresh air in a world of anti-heroes and gray morality. These are people that we’re not only supposed to root for because the plot tells us to but who we WANT to root for because they’re people we want to see succeed. How’s that for a change?
So, is the show flawless? Well, what do you think? Nothing is flawless. I criticized “Watership Down”. Heck, in this thread I criticized “The Lord of the Rings” and Homer. If I was to nitpick “Stranger Things” I’d say that the ending of El’s character arc was telegraphed a little too loudly, and Winona Rider’s performance didn’t really come together until maybe halfway into the series. For all of its nuanced characters, the villains are very “cardboard cutout”, government agents who torture young children and drive people insane for shadowy, insidious reasons. Of that four man child band the “Skeptic”, a black child named Lucas, doesn’t do as much to distinguish himself as the other three and ends up falling back the most into his archetype. The kids in general come off as a little bit too competent.
But honestly, that’s pretty much it. In the comments of the previous thread I criticized the actions of one of the main characters, but in the context of the story they made perfect sense, so it’s not really a criticism of the show so much as a testament to the fact that I was invested enough in the character to be disappointed in his decisions. I can’t think of anything else about it that bothered me. For what it was – an eight hour sci-fi/horror movie done in the style of an 80’s pulp film – it was almost perfectly executed. Practically immediately became one of my all-time favorite shows. I can’t recommend it enough.