The Netflix Original Series Stranger Things is a loving homage to the storytelling of the 1980s. The 1980s belonged to two storytellers – Steven Spielberg and Stephen King. Stranger Things is an interpretative amalgam of their works. It is a jigsaw puzzle in which the pieces are E.T., Goonies, Firestarter, The Explorers, Poltergeist, Stand by Me, Carrie, and Aliens.
Stranger Things is set in the mid-1980s in a small town in Indiana. The story begins with a small boy going missing… I’m being careful not to give any significant spoilers here. Stranger Things is best enjoyed knowing as little as possible. The essence of the story, without spoiling it, is that just outside this small town in Indiana is a secret laboratory in which scientists have been conducting certain experiments that they shouldn’t have and they have unleashed powerful forces.
I love that the series isn’t just set in the 1980s, it is designed to look like it was made in the 1980s. The graphics and music of the credits feel so authentic to the period. Having two actors, Winona Ryder and Matthew Modine, who both became established in the 1980s play significant roles added a sense of credibility. While Modine’s character is a bit simplistically black hat, Ryder gives one of her most intense performances in years.
I love looking around the scenes to spot things I’ve owned. I remember my Trapper Keeper. I had that Dungeon board game. Oh my goodness, I still have that avocado green Tupperware bowl!
There are three groups of characters in the series – the kids, the teens, and the adults – each representing an archetype upon which Spielberg and/or King have dwelled.
The kids are represented by three boys, friends of the missing boy, and a mysterious girl they come across. Mike, Dustin, and Lucas are fully-fleshed out characters and the child actors that play them do a great job. They have the personalities and energy of the kids from E.T. and Goonies and the depth of the kids from Stand By Me. The girl, similar to the girl in Firestarter is a tangle of power and confusion.
The teens showcase the horrors of burgeoning adulthood, bringing to mind King’s Carrie. The story gives them an arc of growth that allows them to transition from childish to the mature heroes of the story, by the end.
A lot of Spielberg’s work in the 1980s juxtaposed the joy and adventure of childhood against the sad realization that that is over for the adults. The adults carry a lot of the burden in this story, as they do in life, in their capacity of knowing that there aren’t happy endings. David Harbour is impressive in his role as the town’s police chief. My exposure to Harbour’s work is that he specializes in sourpusses (most recently in Manhattan and Newsroom). Here he builds on that with a mix of tragedy and stubbornness.
As you watch the series, expect to see many shots and scenes that will remind you of films from the 1980s. There is a character made up to look exactly like a character inGoonies. There’s a scene involving the boys and the mysterious girl that will remind you of a scene in E.T. These little nods are almost subliminal; they’ll trigger feelings of warmth that you might not even consciously understand.
The series is well paced. Free of the constraints of network or cable, the series is eight episodes long because that’s how long the storytellers felt they needed to tell their story. I have spoken to half-a-dozen people whom watched it from beginning to end in a single sitting.