Netflix has really made a name for itself as of late with TV shows. They have hit it big with shows like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. They’ve brought us continuations of fan favorites with Arrested Development and Fuller House. Also, they are bringing us Marvel Comics TV shows with Daredevil and Jessica Jones, with many more on the way. Then I read about a new science fiction mystery focusing on a single mother searching for her lost son, and paying homage to 80s pop culture. I quickly marked my calendar for the launch date of July 15th for Stranger Things.
Reports were talking about Stranger Things in the same sentence as things like Stand by Me and The Goonies. They were saying it took influences from Lucas, Spielberg, Reiner, Carpenter, and King. Rarely does a show promise to hit so many things I love and hold dear like this one was said to offer.
I was so interested in the show that I added it to my Netflix queue the day it was available. I was all set to binge it by myself starting after work that day, but then I spoke to my wife about it and she showed interest. While I love watching shows with my wife, the trade off is that it takes significantly longer to watch a show than by myself. This is a trade off I’m frequently happy to make, but it can be hard to hold back on shows I’m excited about.
As it turns out, I didn’t actually have to wait long to see all of Stranger Things. As a result, my wife and I finished this show by the end of the weekend. It is very rare for the two of us to get through that much content together in so few days. I’m not entirely surprised, as a good mystery is something we both can enjoy. We did get through the first season of Veronica Mars very quickly together.
There are a couple of factors that played into this. First, this inaugural season of Stranger Things has only 8 episodes. Second, each episode builds up and leaves you with just enough intrigue at the end that you can’t wait to see what is next. On top of this, the performances are strong all around. The story itself is interesting enough to work alongside these factors, and it kept us coming back well beyond our normal stopping point for the day.
I will try to give you a quick introduction to the show without giving away any important plot points. Please be warned that soon I will spoil just a few things from the first episode. This is necessary because of their importance to the rest of the season. I am doing my best to relegate that into the spoiler area of the review, but be forewarned.
If you want nothing spoiled, this is the explanation of the story. This is a mystery story where a young boy’s family and his friends are seeking answers to his disappearance and trying to save him. You’ll see some science fiction elements involving otherworldly creatures as well as shadowy government labs. You will see a young girl with mysterious powers join the boys in their search.
We are first introduced to a group of friends playing Dungeons & Dragons. Will, Mike, Dustin, and Caleb are preteen geeks. They are into Dungeons & Dragons, radio technology and other forms of 80s geekdom. These are kids after my (and possibly your) own heart. They are not popular kids, but the typical class geeks that are a little awkward, who get made fun of, and are bullied by other kids.
Now, for the spoilers:
After these friends finish up their regular game of Dungeons & Dragons at Mike’s house, they all ride home on their bikes. On the way, Will encounters an odd creature outside of a government lab. The creature pursues him and ultimately is the cause of his disappearance. The next day, nobody knows where Will is; his friends and his family start to worry and look for him.
As the days pass, there are some weird things that begin to happen. His mother, played by Winona Ryder, notices some odd electrical behavior and even thinks she hears his voice on the phone. The odd developments lead the family and the friends to believe that Will is actually still alive and can be saved. The friends begin the search while the family attempts to find ways to communicate with him through electronics.
While the boys are looking for Will, they find a young girl lost in the woods known only as “Eleven”. They take her in as part of their group and begin to get to know her. We find that she has some sort of telekinetic powers that seem to be related to some lab experimentation. She also knows something about the creature and the Upside-Down world that it comes from.
As the first season goes on, we learn more about Eleven and her powers, where they came from and what they can do. Each episode, we learn a little bit more about the government lab and the Upside-Down. As this is revealed, we get more clues as to what might be behind the disappearance of young Will Byers.
We also get to see Will’s older brother, Jonathan, and his interactions with Mike’s older sister, Nancy, evolve during the show. Nancy’s boyfriend even goes through quite an evolution during the show. Apparently, he wasn’t really even intended to be an ongoing character. While filming, they liked him so much that they gave him a character arc for him to grow into.
As all of these pieces are falling into place, we really get to see the strength of the younger actors. Yes, Winona Ryder was great and carried her role extremely well, but the boys and girl were a pleasant surprise. Much like the referenced The Goonies and Stand By Me, this show really does rely on the strength of the youth leads. We spend a lot of time watching the young friends interact with each other and independent from the adults.
The friendship between the boys was strained during times in this season, but held together by one who would never give up on them. Their arguments were all believable and their delivery was always earnest. I could see any of these fights and resolutions happening with real kids. I believe these kids are why so many people want to compare this show with The Goonies.
Another standout was the young girl who played the mysterious Eleven. She was pitch perfect through much of the show. She was believable as someone who didn’t understand the world she found herself in, while also knowing she has some kind of hidden power that she is exploring. Some parts of her portrayal reminded me quite a bit of Summer Glau’s performance as River Tam in Firefly.
Now, I’ve never heard of the Duffer brothers before this. I don’t know what they’ve done before, but I believe they are on board for the second season and I’m excited bout that. The story was woven well throughout all of the episodes and the pacing was quite strong. Each episode has just the right amount of mystery and reveal. Each day of their search gets them a little closer to the answer, but also opens up new questions.
The visuals were also really well done. I see where a lot of the comparisons between the inspiring works and Stranger Things are coming from. Thankfully, they played off more like a loving homage than a cheap rip off as well. They succeed in evoking a lot of mood in the scenes. Even the use of colors and lighting were pretty much pitch perfect to set the mind of the viewer in the right place and emotion.
I will warn you that the ending might leave a few people feeling disappointed. I think they did a great job of explaining all the important things. On the other hand, I honestly felt like a lot of the events at the end were a little too predictable. I still felt quite satisfied in what happened, but I did want slightly more creative outcomes for a few things. I can’t really fault them too much because I can’t think of better ways myself that wouldn’t leave the viewers depressed or really upset.
All in all, I think the Stranger Things was a great watch and experience. I think the first season stands up well alongside other Netflix original content and might be the most enjoyable new TV series I’ve watched this year. Did it live up to all the promise? Time will tell, but I never felt shortchanged with what it delivered from it’s influences. Everyone who enjoys mystery should give this a shot.