Written by Josh Sarnecky
Stranger Things, Series Premiere Plot Summary:
A small town in 1980s Indiana is rocked by the disappearance of middle school student Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) following a crisis at a nearby government facility, causing the boy’s mother (Winona Ryder), his friends, and the chief of police (David Harbour) to frantically search for him. Meanwhile, a mysterious young girl (Millie Bobby Brown) wanders the town as she evades figures related to her past.
When I heard several sources refer to Stranger Things as a love letter to the works of Stephen King and Steven Spielberg from the ’70s and ’80s, I knew that I had to watch this show. After all, Spielberg and King are among the greatest creative forces of the last fifty years and two out of my three all-time favorite Stephens/Stevens (in case you are wondering, Colbert is the third). Having now watched the series premiere of Stranger Things, I can happily confirm that the show not only makes no efforts to hide its inspirations but instead revels in them. And the visible influences don’t end with King and Spielberg; various moments in the show’s first episode display noticeable hints of John Carpenter and Akira. Of course, the line between imitation and homage is often a difficult one to navigate (consider Jurassic World and The Force Awakens as examples), but this initial episode successfully traverses that tightrope. You can easily count the number of elements directly borrowed from Spielberg (a struggling single parent, shady government agents, geeky pre-teens on bikes, etc.) and King (a government laboratory in a small town, supernatural forces disrupting a small town, pretty much anything to do with a small town, etc.), yet these components feel as if they are serving a greater purpose than retelling past stories. Similar to J. J. Abram’s Super 8 (another tribute to Spielberg’s legacy), Stranger Things utilizes the power of nostalgia to create something familiar but powerful in its own right.
And like Super 8, a large part of what makes Stranger Things so memory-invoking is its setting. The creators of this show were not content with merely setting this series in the ’80s though; they intentionally present their show as if it was made in the ’80s. Everything from the soundtrack to the text to the title sequence feels thirty years old. While this direction may seem a bit hokey or cutesy at first, the decision ultimately makes the show even more nostalgia-inducing and captivating. The closest analog I can think of to this phenomenon is the Tower of Terror of Walt Disney World; just as the Tower of Terror attempts to suck riders into the illusion that they are actually in a haunted hotel, so too does Stranger Things draw viewers back in time and into this shadowy world. Frankly, I’m incredibly impressed by the level of immersion the show successfully creates with so many recognizable elements.
Since so much of the plot consists of recycled elements from other movies and books, none of the individual plot points in the premiere are particularly groundbreaking. Yet the way these retrofitted parts work together represents what is so special about this show. The concept of a missing child due to supernatural circumstances is both intriguing and emotionally charged but also somewhat conventional; adding a government conspiracy and the appearance of another child with her own tie to supernatural forces, however, elevates the initial mystery and leaves us with an increasingly tangled web of riddles. The plot, at least based on its premiere, is thus more of a gestalt than a hodgepodge of tropes.
Granted, as is true of all horror stories and supernatural thrillers, the plot of Stranger Things is secondary to the overall aesthetic. In these genres, the sense of dread and feelings of unease the audience experiences are far more important than the sources of that anxiety and terror. Thankfully, the showrunners seem extremely aware of this rule and make sure to instill even mundane scenes with a palpable degree of discomfort. Accordingly, the show achieves the delicate balance of keeping viewers on the edge of their seats while also making them want to hide under a blanket.
The show accomplishes this goal on more than the strength of its writing and directing (which are superb) though. The cast truly brings the script to life with some terrific acting, particularly by the show’s biggest star, Winona Ryder. As Joyce Byers, the overwhelmed mother of the missing child, Ryder captures the incredible turmoil any mother in her position would feel while also showing signs of remarkable strength and determination beneath layers of apprehension and guilt. Meanwhile, David Harbour delivers an understated performance that simultaneously illustrates his character’s gruff exterior and suppressed emotional pain. But perhaps most importantly, the show’s many young actors prove themselves as more than capable of carrying much of the drama and humor on display in the first episode. Having seen plenty of subpar child and teen actors over the years, I am always thrilled to see young talent with great potential, and these kids definitely shine in the show’s premiere.
Unfortunately, the few critiques I have of the show do involve the younger cast members. While they handle the material well, some of their scenes don’t quite gel with the overall tone and focus of the show. In particular, the conflict at the Wheeler family dinner table, the bullying scene, and every hookup between Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) and her boyfriend who doesn’t understand the concept of “no means no” all seem like they belong in another show. Where the show’s soundtrack and title sequence miraculously avoid feeling forced, these scenes come off as the writers trying too hard to establish the time period by throwing in an unneeded dose of John Hughes. Hopefully the show stays away from this jarring ingredient as the season unfolds and finds a way to make Nancy’s romance relevant to the rest of the plot.
Aside from these missteps though, Stranger Things is a pure delight for fans of the ’80s, supernatural thrillers, and overall great television. Netflix has scored several top-tier dramas and comedies over recent years, but Stranger Things marks the streaming service’s first binge-worthy success in horror. And they just so happened to have struck 24-karat nostalgia.
Rating: 9 out of 10
SEASON 1 OF STRANGER THINGS IS STREAMING NOW ON NETFLIX