Last Friday Netflix dropped a nostalgia bomb in the form of an 8 episode television series called Stranger Things. Wearing its influences, which include Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, and John Carpenter, on its sleeve with pride, Stranger Things has achieved the true Netflix dream. At only 8 episodes, all released at once, Stranger Things feels remarkably like a really long movie, or a book, only broken up by chapters. The realization that this series nailed the balance hit me when I suddenly wanted to watch the series, in its entirety, again, only days after my first viewing. It didn’t feel like the arduous task of re-watching a TV series, it felt like going back to the movie theater to watch a beloved movie again.
I don’t have this experience all that often anymore, but back in my childhood, when I didn’t have nearly as many movies and TV shows to gorge on, I would re-watch beloved films countless times. Stand By Me, The Goonies, The Monster Squad, and ET were among the classics I couldn’t stop watching. That Stranger Things is, in many ways, an homage to this very specific kind of movie, and also happens to inspire a re-watch mentality that I don’t often feel anymore, is very telling of the achievements made by Netflix and the Duffer brothers. For this review I decided to focus on the 3 most important pillars of Stranger Things, The Story, The Characters, and The Presentation.
Like with every aspect of Stranger Things, the story is a beautiful hodge podge of 3 distinct styles from the 80s. The coming of age elements are heavily tied to the 1980s works of Steven Spielberg, in particular, ET. The Monster of the series seems like a clear homage to John Carpenter, most notably The Thing. Lastly, the child with powers is straight out of Stephen King’s playbook, Firestarter and Carrie in particular. Many of these elements cross over though through the works of these 3 figures.
King was quite adept at the coming of age story as well, especially when related to monsters, as was the case with IT, for example. The 80s was a special time for this kind of storytelling, and as such all of these distinct styles seamlessly merge into a compelling story about the monsters of our world bringing the monsters of another down upon us, and how it is the incorruptible children that stand between these forces and our lives.
One of my favorite traits of movies from the 80s that I feel Stranger Things absolutely nailed is the establishment of Iconic characters. In particular the children of the series. Will’s relationship to his distant disapproving father, when combined with the homophobic slurs he is addressed with, in particular, provides a powerful modern reflection on an era in which that discrimination was shockingly more common than it is today. The same is done for Lucas who faces racial discrimination as the only black child in town, Dustin who has a medical condition that has him lacking in teeth and suffering a speech impediment, and Mike, the nerdiest of the bunch, in a time when geek was not yet sheek.
The schoolyard bullying and ostracization brings these boys close together, forming a Goonies-esque clique of “freaks”. Defining these characters by what are considered negative traits, to many on the outside of their clique, makes them hugely Iconic, in a way that is not very common these days. Elle quickly fits in with the clique, for the most part. She can represent both the tomboy trope, as well as being the literal freak of the group, with her telekinetic powers.
The most common thing people notice about Stranger Things is its nostalgic 1980s presentation. The music, the title sequence, the hair, the clothes, the shot compositions, it is all distinctly 80s. It is so obvious, and so talked about that I don’t feel like I should bother with addressing the more overt tropes, at least any more than I already have. Instead I want to acknowledge that it is all true, and then focus on 2 distinct things I am seeing less attention paid to. While the boys adventurous coming of age story takes center stage, I was impressed with the John Hughes-esque relationship between Nancy and Barbara, as friends, when Nancy is lured towards the popular table.
I was also impressed by Joe Chrest’s portrayal of Mike and Nancy’s father Ted, a somewhat distant and uninvolved father of the 80s. Had this been about 90s nostalgia, Ted would be divorced and working out a midlife crisis. 1980s Ted, who seems to be one of the last few still unaffected by the cultural shift from the 50s to the 60s, caught my attention in the best of ways. Overall the 1980s nostalgia was strong, but it never felt forced or artificial, it always felt like it came from a deep and true nostalgia, and as such it touched a deep and true nostalgia within me.
Nearly everything I loved as a kid is on display in Stranger Things, and it all fits together seamlessly. The series is even highly rewatchable like a favorite movie from my childhood, like the movies it pays homage to. 1980s nostalgia is strong and beloved, but I feel it is done better here then anywhere else, better than JJ Abrams Super 8, and better than the hilarious Youtube sensation Kung Fury. Where as those 2 examples felt like great homages to the things I loved, Stranger Things IS a thing I love and will get mixed up in my childhood memories despite its 2016 debut.
I skipped a lot of the big talking points for the series, Winona Ryder as a frantic 1980s single mom, Steve and his douchey 1980s “cool kids” friends, and the barrage of direct 1980s references like posters for The Thing, The Evil Dead, and Jaws. But this series means a lot more to me than just nostalgic references and cool casting, it is like a piece of my childhood previously unknown to me, and it is my favorite original series on Netflix.
The best part, a second season has already been ordered, so we get more, unlike our never-ending wait for Goonies 2. I knew the series had been picked up for a second season before I started watching, and I wondered how they could keep the story moving, I was surprised with a rather dark twist involving Will, which he is keeping secret from his loved ones. A surprise which has me eagerly awaiting a second season.
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