The Strange Brilliance of Stranger Things

Stranger Things was sold to me inaccurately.  I came to the show very late (I just watched it last week) but I was told by multiple parties “If you love 80s horror you’ll love this show!”  That couldn’t be less accurate.  A more true statement would be “If you love the 80s AND love horror you’ll love this show!”  I do love both and, like everyone else who has seen it, I love this show.  At its core it’s just a story about a missing boy, but surrounded by excellent high-concept storytelling that takes it to the next level.  It’s part Goonies, a little X-Files, some Monster Squad, with a bit of Twin Peaks thrown in for good measure.

So what makes this series another spectacular notch on Netflix’s already festooned original content belt?

  • Characters: it always comes down to characters. You can hang the simplest story on phenomenal characters and make something special (Star Wars anyone?), but a complex epic story is just white noise if the characters are flat and useless (looking at you Jupiter Ascending).  And this is where Stranger Things gets it all right every time.  A dorky science teacher is 100% accurate, but science dork isn’t ALL he is (he knows DnD, he helps with a search, he’s on a date).  Surly Chief Hopper has a reason to be surly, but he also has backstory with other characters (that’s rumored and speculated and nothing more) and also an obvious reason to be obsessed with the disappearance of Will Beyers.  Even the characters on the periphery have deep characters built up, like Steve the would-be boyfriend.  He’s not Johnny from Karate Kid who’s just kind of a jerk to be a jerk. Steve has good qualities and his character arc isn’t what you expect it to be.  The same is true for Nancy and Jonathan, who have realistic and believable character arcs.  The show is stolen by Winona Ryder as Joyce Byers and Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Finn Wolfhard, Caleb McLaughlin, and Noah Schnapp as the main child leads.  Ryder’s performance as a frantic, but determined and brave mother is terrific and I can’t recall when I’ve seen such authentic child characters.

  • Tone: The show is a masterpiece of pacing and tone. It’s set from the opening battle with monsters in a make believe fantasy setting during a Dungeons and Dragons game.  It then becomes a battle with real monsters and a real fantasy setting and never loses its authenticity.  You believe in this world, its characters, and its lore.  You believe in interdimensional monsters and psychic kids.  Strangely the tone isn’t one of traditional “horror” either.  While yes there are monsters and victims, I never found it to be scary in a normal way.  It has a feeling of tense suspense, with the tension coming from a desire to see as little harm as possible come to these great characters.  Or alternatively see the deserving ones get the chop.

  • Concept and Execution: This is a story that is unique and original. It’s not based on a treatment of a comic book or from the characters featured in a novel.  It’s a new idea encompassing everything we love about the time period and bringing in elements of modern science fiction horror from films like Super 8.  It even gives subtle nods to period-specific media, from the music (which isn’t ALL accurate, some of that is post 1983 people…) to movies (kids riding their bikes from imposing authority figures anyone?)  It’s a slickly made, well-executed piece of storytelling that again continues the gradual shift from single-narrative feature films to the expansive mini-series formula as the potential preferred medium of up-and-coming creators.  And it also shows just how well it can be done.

It’s not all roses of course.  I think the creature is significantly scarier the less we see of it (it was never more frightening than the first glimpses Will sees of it while riding home) and even though they may have needed to show the creature for the themes they were going for, I think less is more for it.  Also the vague “government” enemy is a little bit of a cliché, but it does tie in nicely to the 1980s Cold War fear mongering prevalent in the period.

Stranger Things shows just how much can be done when the right group of creators, meets the right distributor, and mixes the perfect cast with the right idea.  It’s perfect for the Halloween season, and if you haven’t seen it yet catch it right now!  If you have seen it, hell catch it again;  I definitely intend to!

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