I’ve heard Stranger Things defined a million ways: A friend said it was The X-Files meets Freaks and Geeks. I’ve heard it described as an Amblin-era Steven Spielberg production of an unwritten Stephen King novel with music courtesy of John Carpenter. Basically, it’s a mish-mash of inspirations… you can see glimmers of Alien here, bits of IT there, while being slathered in the overall themes of something like Stand by Me.
Narratives being borrowed from other areas is not a new or particularly novel device of storytelling. Quentin Tarantino has made a career out of it. But, for some reason, Stranger Things has really found an audience, and that audience has gone absolutely apeshit over it.
I think, in part, it’s because all of those influences above aren’t just a celebration of cool. It’s not some empty-headed movie or show to come out in Pulp Fiction’s wake and desperately cry, “I watch movies, too! I was influenced by Brian De Palma from the 70s, too!” Stranger Things is, instead, a series that has characters that it cares about, a mystery at the center of the plot that the show itself is invested in actually solving, and genuine emotion involved.
Plus, the soundtrack has Joy Division on it.
The story begins with a familiar slice of Anywhere, USA. A group of friends (Mike, Dustin, Lucas and Will) are way too invested in a game of Dungeons & Dragons than has gone on for 10 or so hours without their having realized it. They call it a night (against their will; parents can be such squares), but due to a yet-unexplained disaster at a military facility close by, a monster is on the loose, and it grabs Will.
Will does not go down without a fight. The first thing he does is grab a rifle, load the clip, cock it and brace himself for whatever might come through the door. Stranger Things is full of little moments like that, where no one is stumbling blindly or stupidly into some disaster waiting for them. It’s just Will’s misfortune that he wasn’t prepared for a fourth-dimensional creature.
The rest of the series is dedicated to solving the mystery of what happened that night. What is that monster and what has it done with Will? And who is this mysterious young girl with seemingly no identity except for a cryptic numerical name “Elven”, and who are the pursuing people willing to kill anyone in their way to get to her?
Stranger Things benefits from being a multiple-episode series, as opposed to just a normal-length movie. Its running length of eight episodes is shorter than most typical television show series, but gargantuan when compared to your average film’s running length. Its episodic format is almost perfectly evocative of a good, well-paced novel. It’s short enough that once it hits the ground running, it never lets up, but leisurely enough that there’s room enough for all the great supporting characters that populate the story’s world. Any story is only as good as its characters, and Stranger Things definitely has a wealth of people to care about.
There’s Jim “Hop” Hopper, the alcoholic cop with a dead child, who somehow isn’t an archetype. There’s Will’s mom, Joyce, played by Winona Ryder who sort of tragically doesn’t get enough to do in the show, but she does have several moments that redeem her (Joy Division, an angry Winona Ryder and an axe are a trifecta of pure joy). And then there’s, of course, the band of kids mentioned above, supported by the gifted Eleven. And even the older kids benefit from quality writing, never being too angsty and having realistic, relatable problems.
The characters seem believable to me, and aside from the cartoonish bullies, no one is just outright evil. Everyone has their own motivations. The military men have a mission, the monster just wants to eat, and the jealous boyfriend ends up not being such an obvious plot point and redeems himself somewhat.
Some of the best moments in the show come from a place this isn’t at all cynical or meta or “self-aware”, whatever the hell that even means anymore. It isn’t a show that’s interested in subverting a cliché or turning a genre on its head. It’s just pure, unabashed joy, and it’s fun to watch the story that it weaves. There are plot points where everything kind of comes together perfectly, where so many steps had been taken to ensure that these characters were going to be here, while these characters make sure that this and that happens in order for there to be one, just one, magical moment where action and plot collide in almost pitch-perfection.
Not all of Stranger Things is pitch-perfect. It has its problems. Sometimes it loses focus somewhere around the middle. Some of it seems repetitive—I swear some moments were repeated two or even three times; I just don’t know how many times it’s necessary for Mike to get mad at Eleven, or for Mike to get mad at Lucas. And why is no one particularly concerned over the disappearance of Barb? What the hell did she ever do except for want to go home? “Eh, I’m sure she’s fine,” everyone seems to be saying.
If you’re considering watching it, just watch it. The Duffer Brothers, the show’s creators, have crafted something solid enough that it’s objectively good. It’s solidly told, inoffensive and just generally pretty fun. It isn’t much more than that, but it doesn’t really have to be. It’s not much deeper than its surface, but the surface is pretty awesome.