Since it began producing its own series, Netflix has emphasized the creative process in every original program it has released. Each new show or movie seems like a singular idea rather than a tightly marketed ratings pull. Certain people make their art through this platform, and Netflix is cutting out the round-the-clock commercialism of a new program in a familiar slot with recognizable actors. Although there is familiarity within the casting and production teams with most of these shows, there have already been several visionary projects aptly stuck to Netflix’s name. This leads to each new endeavor from the giant streaming service feeling like an event, and Stranger Things is perhaps the best example of an ambitious series that can only work in the medium.
It’s 1989 In small town Hawkins, Indiana, and the young Will Byers goes missing after a strange, unexplainable encounter with otherworldly forces in his own back yard. His best friends and fellow D&D partners, led by the smart and tenacious yet fragile Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), begin to search for answers to Will’s disappearance while their paths converge with the mysterious Eleven, a misplaced and confused girl their age who they find in the woods and embed into the group. Will’s mother, Joyce (Winona Ryder), is devoid of all civility in the face of the tragedy, and vows to find her son no matter the cost at the concern of the bothered townsfolk and most notably cop Jim Hopper (David Harbour), whose past and inner demons guide him emotionally as well as professionally as he and Hawkins attempt to solve the mystery of Will’s vanishing. What ensues is an amalgamation of wonder and adventure permeated by dark, brooding horror.
Created by Matt and Ross Duffer, professionally known as the Duffer Brothers, Stranger Things is the latest original Netflix series. It’s original in its uniform concept, but the various sources it draws inspiration from ignite a treasure hunt of references within each frame, sound and act of camerawork. It picks from the best of the sci-fi genre, invoking heavy early Spielberg and Carpenter vibes, even down to its pulsing score. The story brings out the best of its aspirations, concocting a heart wrenching that wraps and serves through elements of grotesque body horror and bizarre, Lovecraftian fantasy. There is a comradery within the dynamics of Mike and friends that hold the core tone of the show together: the sense of family and warmness of normality. However, what isn’t normal in Stranger Things is what makes its universe all the more horrifying, which bounces back around to the likability of the cast. Although it’s full of newcomers and child actors who have sparsely appeared in anything, the acting is impressive all around, but most impressive from those who aren’t receiving top billing. That’s not to say Ryder’s Joyce isn’t convincing or downright disturbing, but the entire vibe of childhood adventure that surrounds each subsequent event feels a bit aloof against the shouting, often emotionally basic Joyce and boring parents of Mike.
Although it’s best to keep most of the show’s surprises under wraps, it’s hard not to talk about the central mystery of Stranger Things and become giddy. Most of the excitement lies in the character of Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown). Her appearance is as confusing as her backstory; we see flashbacks throughout the show focused on the labs which she came from and alarmingly learn she possesses telepathic abilities. She is the wind that continuously guides the overarching weirdness of the show while also slowly emerging as its emotional center. The boys instantly take a liking to her because of “superpowers,”, and once those powers begin to enter the quietness of Hawkins, the tone changes for good, but this divergence into sci-fi is mounted in Eleven while she learns the way everything works. There is a hint of E.T. in the element of discovery and exploration for Eleven, helping keep the innocence alive in a mostly dark show.
Though it takes so much from many films and the way those films feel, Stranger Things has enough of an original setting and several memorable characters to detach it from what it imitates. It’s always fun to see a show reference what its creators love, but often times Stranger Things ends up feeling a bit familiar in execution. Some situations mimic cautious horror movies of the 80s in which teens are off on their own only to be snatched by some evil force. Or in the way the battered cop has a troubled past such as Jim Hopper. Tiny examples always come back in mind when thinking about the experience as a whole, but the series has enough vibrant writing to make the most trodden paths seem exciting. It is hard to imagine those characters as anything other than what they are, though, and ultimately they end up serving as disappointingly one-dimensional. It’s easy to admire the inspiration, but sometimes the commitment to the show’s feel by the Duffers ends up making Stranger Things feel like just another one of those stories.
Where Stranger Things takes viewers, though, is somewhere relatively new, and the places it can go from here only make the prospect of this actually being a show more and more enticing. That’s probably because it can only work as this show, one that isn’t interrupted by commercials or whose next chapter isn’t delayed by a week. The result ends up making Stranger Things feel more like a movie, and it provoked thoughts about the nature of Netflix’s own series and the future of that format. Do shows like this even need to be split up? Couldn’t it just be one long movie? These questions kept popping up while watching the show, but ultimately Stranger Things can only work in a binge-able format. It draws you in and doesn’t let you go for its eight episodes. And what a fast eight episodes they are. The Duffers mastered the pacing of story, and each episode has just enough going on and looming avenues of opportunity to incite the “just one more” mentality. It has to be a show because the pacing is built around that format, and the Duffers have executed on that idea brilliantly.
It’s doubtful there will be another show like Stranger Things, so in support of originality and plain old entertainment, Stranger Things is essential viewing for Netflix subscribers searching for something different but subtly familiar. The Duffers set out to make a show that is like what people have seen, in some ways detrimentally so, but has ounces of heart and peril that will automatically connect with the average viewer.