You’ve likely already noticed, but the 2010s have somewhat become a 2.0 update of the 1980s — at least in terms of our media. In video games, retro-style 8-and-16-bit graphics are commonplace. In film and television, our most cherished childhood properties are being rebooted seemingly every other week. Even many of today’s biggest pop stars have been modernizing the sounds of some of the biggest hits of the 80s in order to form their latest singles (looking at you Carly Rae Jepsen).
In Netflix’s latest phenomenon, Stranger Things, created by brothers Matt and Ross Duffer (credited as “The Duffer Brothers”), it’s The Duffer Brothers’ obvious obsession and adoration with 80s media that is the backbone to what is the best television I’ve watched all year.
Stranger Things is more or less an amalgamation of all the classic horror/sci-fi/family films of the early 80s. There’s a competent mix of genre tropes and direct allusions to the works of Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter, and other visionaries of the time that the Duffer Brothers clearly grew up admiring. There’re components of films like Alien, E.T., Stand By Me, and countless others. And although there’s fairly little that’s truly unique here, the eight episodes jaunt along at a quick pace, making for an entirely enjoyable series that’s perfect for binge-watching over the course of a couple days (or less than 24 hours, which I did).
Our story is fairly simple to start. Set in 1983, a young boy, Will Byers, mysteriously disappears on a November night in a small Indiana suburb. Over the course of the season, we follow three main groups in search of Will. There’s Will’s mother Joyce (Winona Ryder), who teams up with the town’s distressed police chief, Hopper (David Harbour); Will’s three best friends: Mike, Dustin, and Lucas; and Will’s older brother Jonathan, who is joined by Mike’s older sister Nancy.
Along the way, the Duffer Brothers effectively introduce new subplots that further develop the mystery behind Will’s disappearance. We’re presented with a governmental conspiracy, inter-dimensional intrigue, and the sudden arrival of a young girl named Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), who speaks very little but possesses some incredible powers.
Although the disappearance of Will Byers kicks off the initial through-line of Stranger Things, and while he’s definitely never forgotten, it’s the inclusion of Eleven that really propels the plot forward. We get a glimpse at Eleven early on in a scene involving her scrounging at a local diner before she’s discovered by Mike, Dustin, and Lucas. Mike decides to shelter her at his house — unbeknownst to his family — because he believes that she is the key to finding Will. Eleven quickly becomes a main focus, with many of the best scenes centering on her, be it in the many fascinating flashbacks that slowly reveal more of her backstory, or the compelling sequences in which we watch her discover the full potential of her powers.
It’s true that much of the series is rooted in ideas of films past, and while that could be seen as a flaw regarding originality, it’s the remarkable execution in every last aspect of the show that makes Stranger Things must-watch television. The Duffer Brothers just do everything right here. The story they create is simple, but effectively sprinkles in intriguing twists and turns to throw you off, leaving you with that insatiable desire in which you mutter to yourself, “just one more episode.”
The cinematography effectively balances the aesthetic of John Hughes’ films and the eerie atmosphere of 80s sci-fi and horror. The acting is phenomenal, with the younger actors actually being the best of the bunch, and subsequently some of the absolute best child performances I’ve ever seen. And the music? Oh man, that music. The soundtrack consists of a mix of 70s/80s pop hits and a John Carpenter-esque synth score from Michael Stein and Kyle Dixon — and it all sounds absolutely superb.
In all honesty, there’s not very much for me to complain about. In fact, perhaps the best thing I could say about Stranger Things, which most television shows fail to accomplish, is that I decidedly believe there’s no fat to be found here, nothing to be trimmed. The eight episodes are impeccably paced and vary in length from just 41 minutes to 55, each episode containing only what The Duffer Brothers believed should be included in order to culminate in the show’s very satisfying end.
Stranger Things sort of came out of nowhere to become the biggest television phenomenon of the summer, and it deserves all the praise it is getting. This is television storytelling at its most concise, effective, and formidable.
If you haven’t yet started it, then do it now. You’ll likely be finished by tomorrow.
— Michael Lane, Blog Editor