Note: This review is spoiler-free.
Stranger Things (2016) is an 8-part Netflix series by Matt and Ross Duffer, aka the Duffer Brothers, whose previous credits include some episodes of Wayward Pines and assorted films and shorts featuring tales of the macabre and the uncanny. It’s hard to name the genre that Stranger Things falls into. I see it as an onscreen carryover from the speculative fiction subcategory known as “weird fiction,” which blends elements of plot-twisty sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and the supernatural – the genre of Lovecraft, Poe, Serling, and contemporary author Jeff Vandermeer.
Set in the fictional Hawkins, Indiana in 1983, the main plot launches with the presumed kidnapping of 12-year-old Will Byers (Noah Schnapp). As details of his disappearance begin to contradict the official “facts” of the case, different groupings of Will’s family and friends begin to investigate independently of one another, ultimately arriving via these disparate routes at the door of unexplainable, otherworldly revelations.
Will’s best pals and D&D crew – the sincere and compassionate Mike (Finn Wolfhard), nerdy reject Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas the iron-willed skeptic (Caleb McLaughlin) – embark on an adventure to find their missing friend. They pick up the mysteriously gifted, androgynous runaway Eleven (Millie Brown) along the way, who proves an invaluable but controversial member of the team.
Will’s punky outcast brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), a budding photographer whose pictures reveal more than just high school party antics, eventually joins forces with Nancy (Natalia Dyer), the aloof but good-hearted sister of Will’s friend Mike. Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) follows a mother’s intuition, but her sanity appears to crumble as she continually insists that Will is alive and that she can communicate with him. Meanwhile, irascible local police chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) researches his way into the disturbing history of an ominous government research lab on the edge of town. Matthew Modine plays Dr. Martin Brenner, a distressingly mild-mannered baddie. I really wish the cast had included a woman or color or two, but otherwise the casting choices were consistently solid.
Before going on, I can’t help but mention the stellar acting in this series. Naturally, I was drawn to watch at the mere mention of Winona Ryder. She was my very first screen crush, before I even knew it was a crush. That began pretty much the second she stepped into frame in her first movie Lucas (1986), lasting through peak-Winona (circa Edward Scissorhands, 1991), and ending with Reality Bites (1994) when I discovered Janeane Garofalo. I was happy to see that Ryder’s work hasn’t suffered at all. Her doe-eyed guilelessness, juxtaposed by her signature intensity and resoluteness in the face of terror, have remained fully intact over the past 20 years. Her woman-centric flip on the classically misogynist Hero’s Journey motif of a descent into the underworld proved quite welcome and completely convincing.
But the kids in this show – THE KIDS – are nothing short of magnificent. The D&D boys fit into recognizable “types” – Mike the bullied smart kid, Dustin the loveable but semi-tragic weirdo, and Lucas the hotheaded, Rambo-style rogue – but they never tip over into stereotypes. Meanwhile, the sibling characters deliver poignantly John Hughes-worthy high school angst and class conflict.
However, Millie Brown’s Eleven steals every scene she’s in, even with her very minimal lines. Those mesmerizing eyes and her singularly expressive face, a haunting combination of utter innocence and having seen far too much, broke my heart every second she spent onscreen. Her androgynous appearance comes across as illegibly uncanny to other characters, at least at first. We viewers come to see that she resents being misgendered. This facet of her character becomes almost its own subplot, anchored by a few loaded glances in a mirror and her utterance of the word “pretty” a couple of times. It’s astonishing how much pathos she generates even in these tiny, seemingly offhand moments. I still can’t get over how I felt almost physically compelled to take her in my arms like some kind of sappy mom and whisper, “It’ll be okay, sweetie.” I have very little in the way of maternal instinct, so this is a real testament to her phenomenal acting.
Within the first few moments of Chapter 1, “The Vanishing of Will Byers,” I was struck by the extremely accurate production design and wardrobe. An exceptional PD team painstakingly duplicated the very specific look and feel of the early 1980s. I was slightly younger than Will, Mike, Dustin, and Lucas at the time, but set details – like the muted color palette, a particular set of 70s drinking glasses that every family had, the worn shag carpeting, the windbreaker jackets, even the Coke cans, not to mention the fact that basically every adult smokes anytime-anywhere – all map perfectly onto my memories of small-town America in 1983.
Shows so rarely get these finer points right. My ears are especially attuned to anachronistic slang, which almost every single period show fudges – I’m looking at you, The Goldbergs. But Stranger Things keeps even that tendency reined in pretty carefully. Sure, no teen girls whine a sing-song, “Grody to the max!” but terms like “gross,” which came into wide usage sometime in the mid-late 1970s, definitely make it into the script. So the verbal nostalgia stays low-key, never indulgent.
In much the same way, clothing styles give hints of the era but don’t look joltingly timebound. Sure, we get some tacky poofy-sleeve blouses with ribbon ties and at least one of those down vests in a trademark early-80s two-tone rusty brown, but we see no chunky neon bracelets or fishnet fingerless gloves. Meanwhile, hoodies, jeans, flannel shirts, and Converse All-Stars have never been fully out of style, so the wardrobe choices avoid any overwrought garishness just to look self-consciously “80s.”
More striking than the well-executed look of the series is the feel that all this attention to detail conjures. I’ll paraphrase a Tweet (by whom I’ve forgotten – sorry) that sums this up succinctly: “It feels like I stumbled across a lost show from the 80s.” Okay, to be fair, actual 80s shows didn’t look nearly this good, and 1983 brains would’ve had a hard time even processing the hyperreality of HD video, but the characters and situations would’ve struck a familiar note. Adventure stories of tight-knit, mostly boy-centric groups of young friends on secret quests were absolutely de rigueur at the time. Look no further than E.T., The Explorers, The Goonies, Space Camp, Stand by Me – need I go on? It’s no coincidence that this show sometimes feels like the love child of vintage Stephen King and Steven Spielberg. That said – and despite moments nearly lifted right out of Poltergeist, Close Encounters, and Alien (1979) – the series somehow manages not to feel derivative.
Even the opening credits reproduce the experience of early 1980s TV viewing. The theme song and minimal visuals – which even duplicate some tiny imperfections of a fuzzy TV broadcast – feel exactly like the intro to any mid-80s horror or sci-fi you can name. It’s almost disturbingly accurate in its use of synthesizers, reflecting a time when the obsession with machine-made music had just reached its height. Given that we’ve not had this brand of all-synthesized original soundtrack shoved in our faces in some time, it comes across as fresh in Stranger Things, if also occasionally distracting. The use of mostly diegetic, era-appropriate rock and pop is also completely on point. A few of the songs hadn’t yet been released in 1983, but one of those is the Bangles’ explosive rock cover of “Hazy Shade of Winter,” so I’ll forgive them those little infelicities. Most of the song choices, particularly a stunningly effective use of Joy Division’s haunting classic “Atmosphere” (1979), melt seamlessly into scenes.
The sound design also proves remarkable in that it plays consciously with silence as much as with noise or music. Something we don’t often consider is how an era might have sounded, but I happen to remember what the 1980s sounded like – it was largely quiet. There wasn’t the constant hum of computers, appliances, the unremarkable drone of a distant car alarm, sometimes not even central air conditioners. When you weren’t using a machine, it was turned off. There was little or no 24-hour programming on television, and a lot of folks didn’t even have cable TV yet. Silence, or at least quiet, was the default. Daily home life wasn’t permeated by constant ambient sound, but rather punctuated by interruptions to the relative quiet.
Stranger Things gets the fact that silence feels uncanny in 2016, that a lack of noise and flashing screens makes people anxious now, that it feels…. off, eerily desolate. The jolt of a ringing phone amidst a sea of silence seems jarring for us in a way that it would not have felt in 1983. Oddly normal moments in this series make us jump out of our skin.
Similarly, the show also plays on our contemporary fear of being disconnected or unreachable. Characters often have no way of getting in touch, have to find or acquire a phone, have to know the number and wait for the dial plate to finish its rotation after each digit, and they sometimes find that phones are – in that perennially ominous horror movie usage – dead.
The boys’ obsession with HAM radio and the kids’ use of absurdly bulky walkie talkies underscores for 2016 viewers that lack of constant communication. Yet, instead of neglectful parenting, this limited contact was the default.
That sense of freedom and self-determination that comes from being in a group of tween-age neighborhood friends on bikes set loose with no agenda other than adventure and the directive to be home by dinner – does that even exist now? Probably not – the world doesn’t feel safe anymore, despite our constant ability to stay in contact.
What looks like desolation and neglect from our current perspective felt like freedom then. Privacy, even for kids… Well, it existed, was encouraged in fact.
The image of fairytale children abandoned in the woods, which this series plays on again and again, has a flip side: kids’ ability to gain a sense of mastery in dealing with a daunting situation on their own terms.
Although this is a show that tends to refuse that kind of easy wallowing, if there’s any indulgent nostalgia to be found, for me it’s the way Stranger Things captures this now bygone era of unprogrammed independence and creativity. We see – and some of us remember – a time when kids had full lives of their own, kept their innocent secrets in jewelry boxes or old rusted-out cars. They played out their invented adventures unhindered in woods, in ditches, in fields, on playgrounds, not yet victims of the freedom-vs.-security tradeoff that somehow became our new normal.