Matt Duffer & Ross Duffer
Jul 15, 2016
A Review by Eamon Ambrose
Every now and then, something magical happens in the T.V. industry. A show comes along out of the blue, and blows all before it out of the water. This phenomenon has been accelerated somewhat by the advent of streaming companies such as Netflix now producing their own original content, or doing distributions deals for shows on other networks giving them exclusive viewing rights in other countries (such as they have with the upcoming new Star Trek series).
This has also changed the way we watch T.V.. We now have the entire season of a show available at once, and the binge watch culture is now well upon us.
Enter Stranger Things, a new show from producer siblings The Duffer Brothers, previously best known for scripting some episodes of Wayward Pines. From watching the initial trailer, it seemed like a Spielbergian 80’s homage that could have some interesting concepts. Of course, with this show being shown exclusively on Netflix, there wasn’t much more information available, but being a bona fide 80’s kid, I couldn’t help but investigate.
Set in the small town of Hawkins, Indiana (near Eerie maybe?) Stranger Things tells the story of a group of D&D playing young boys, whose friend, Will (Noah Schnapp) disappears mysteriously on the way home from their last campaign, leading to some scary revelations as they try to find him, along with Will’s mother and older brother. Actually, the show focuses on three main groups, the aforementioned kids, the older teen siblings, and the adults. What’s really clever about what the Duffer Brothers have done here is that each group is a tribute to a different kind of 80’s movie. The kids arc celebrates movies like The Goonies, Stand By Me, and E.T., the teens, Nightmare On Elm Street, Halloween, and a lot of John Hughes movies, and for the adults, expect to see lots of Close Encounters, The Thing, Jaws and Poltergeist references.
Of course it could have been extremely easy for all this to be a complete mess, but the Duffer Brothers have managed to pull off something here that I think only Star Wars: The Force Awakens has managed to do in recent years, which is use nostalgia to embellish the story rather than tell it. Stranger Things could probably still have worked in some way in a modern context, but I don’t think it would have had quite the same impact on me as a viewer who was actually the same age as those kids back in 1983. Of course, even with all this nostalgia, they have proven so far that Stranger Things still appeals to modern audiences. I watched this with my sixteen year-old daughter who absolutely loved it.
The absence of modern technology and the innocence of the kids make for much easier storytelling. We have no internet or smartphones, T.V. reception is terrible, and dubious 80’s parenting is abundant. Nowadays, we’re afraid to let our kids down the street, much less go off on their own for hours at a time. Back then, that’s all we had. The outdoors was our playground and it was relatively safer than today. Today’s eleven year-olds are very different, and privileged creatures.
Influences aside, Stranger Things has much more going for it. Quite frankly, it’s one of the best ensemble casts I’ve seen in years. Not one character seems out of place.
On the kid’s side, Millie Bobby Brown is spectacular as the mysterious Eleven, a child who has escaped from a shady government facility nearby, who has some very powerful gifts. Her performance is perfectly nuanced, considering how little dialogue she actually has throughout the eight episodes. Gaten Matazzaro is inspired casting as Dustin, who provides much goofy comic relief throughout, while still being an integral part of the group’s effort to find their friend. The rest of the group consists of Mike, the default leader (Finn Wolfhard) and the somewhat angsty Lucas (Caleb McLoughlin), both putting in solid performances.
The teens, while a little more stereotypical, wouldn’t seem out of place in any 80’s teen movie, and all provide strong support, especially Natalie Dyer and Charlie Heaton.
David Harbour as Chief Jim “Hop” Hopper acts as a solid anchor to the entire cast, his flawed, but eminently honourable character playing brilliantly off Winona Ryder as Joyce, the missing boy’s mother, who makes a wonderful comeback here, giving one of the most memorable performances of her career as a struggling single mother trying to cope with the loss of her son. Matthew Modine is subtly menacing as scientist Dr. Martin Brenner who wants to find Eleven at any cost, and there are a bunch of well-placed smaller characters such Mr. Clarke, the nerdy science teacher, essentially an amalgam of Bill Nye and Neil Degrasse-Tyson, and a pair of Simpson-esque Police deputies to name a few.
The other star of Stranger Things is the music. Its soundtrack owes much to early John Carpenter, with swirling pads and arpeggiated synth basslines, with shades of M83 in there as well, making it a little more accessible to a modern audience. The array of original songs featured is impressive, and reads like a who’s who of decent 80’s music featuring Joy Division, New Order, Tangerine Dream, The Clash and Echo And The Bunnymen to name a few. The only odd inclusion for me was Peter Gabriel’s cover of Bowie’s Heroes, which was recorded in 2010, but I’m a big Gabriel fan and he was one of the most influential artists of the time, so I’ll forgive that transgression.
The entire show is perfectly paced, right up to the thrilling finale, and benefits from not giving away the goods too soon, like Alien, keeping glimpses of the show’s monster fleeting and relying more on atmosphere and the actors to relay the fear, which works brilliantly throughout.
Look, I’ll be honest—I could spend all day writing about this show. I really could write pages and pages more. What I’ve written here is barely touching on everything I love so much about it. This show is unique. I managed to speak briefly to David Harbour recently, who said of the show’s success: “It truly is something. I’ve never seen the like. It’s bringing all kinds of people together. It’s amazing.”
And he’s right. It really is.