My sister and I just finished binge watching both seasons of Stranger Things over the last week. And if you gentically spliced together: Alien, Dean Koontz and……….Pretty in Pink – you would end up with this show. NOT that Stranger Things is derivative. By no means. S.T. is one of the most creatively original shows I’ve seen since Fringe. But it is POPULATED by and decorated with homages to practically every blockbuster movie of the 1980's and the early '90's.
At turns Stranger Things is funny, charming, whimsical, nostalgic, terrifying, grotesque, suspenseful, intriguing, and as addictive as Hershey bars.
The premise is that in a small Indiana town a group of three just pre-pubescent boys – Will (Noah Scnapp) Byers, Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) Henderson, and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) Sinclair bike home from the house of the fourth member of their group Mike (Finn "It" Wolfhard) Wheeler, after a game of D&D (Dungeons and Dragons – role playing, interactive board game involving mages, wizards and demigorgons). This is the ‘80's when there was a reasonable assumption that children could make their way at night safely this way. Like any other night the smallest – Will – bikes a shortcut through the private property of a local research center. Unfortunately his timing is astronomically and cataclysmically poor as on this same night "something" gets out of the research center’s secret lab at the same time a little girl dressed in a lab gown with a shaved head and supernatural powers, Eleven (MillieBobby Brown), runs into the boys on their forbidden venture to help find their missing friend.
The show revolves around the meaning and consequences of Will’s disappearance.
Without giving any but the smallest of spoilers: one of the things that makes this STRANGER things so watchable is the characters. The kids act like kids – they speak with the rhythm natural to kids – blunt, with a short cut language specific to their group. They spearhead the acceptance of the dangers they face with an openness born of a creative mind. The adults have flaws and blind spots like any other humans but they are caring, attentive and good people.
For example the Sheriff, Jim (David Harbour) Hopper, is a burnt out boozer suffering from a crushing past tragedy but is always there to do his job with judgement, calm and fairness and is both incredibly and recklessly brave.
The teachers genuinely care and are interested in their students' welfare and generously take time to help them when they can, especially Mr. Clarke who is always providing much needed expositional information, though he is not "in the know".
Even many of the smaller characters have memorable scenes – like Murray (Brett Gelman) Bauman the alcoholic snarky cynical investigative reporter who can see right into the heart of people. On for about 5 minutes but I wouldn’t mind if he popped up again in season three.
As most of the characters come from the same small town and grew up together, went to the same school and know each other they have a shared history reflected in their interactions which pull you into the story with a three dimensional feel that makes you a part of their group, just as Eleven is included in the group of nerdy boys.
And homages abound. The tribute references of situations, character personality traits or habits, items, set ups and visuals reads like a list of every iconic and blockbuster movie of the ‘80's and early ‘90's: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Goonies, Poltergeist, Alien, Carrie, The Excorcist, Stand by Me, Firestarter, Jaws and……….Pretty in Pink. Bikes and hiding the unusual creature from your parents, empty creepy halls full of monsters and unseen terrors that yank people into the dark. Other dimensions and super powers. Pre-pubescent crushes and coming to manhood and responsibility teens.
The songs conjure up my early college days: "Heroes" as sung by Peter Gabriel, "I Melt With You" by Modern English, "Should I Stay or Should I Go" by the Clash, "Hazy Shade of Winter" as sung by the Bangles, "Sunglasses at Night" – Corey Hart.
Even some of the actors themselves are nostalgia incarnate:
Winona (Heathers, Edward Scissor Hands and here she thought Beetlejuice was scary??!!) Ryder plays Joyce Byers, Will’s desperate mom and I thought her performance was painfully spot on. As a mother of six it was wrenching to watch her go from mild concern to terror fueled panic as she discovers her youngest child missing then MISSING.
Charles Heaton plays Will’s older brother Jonathan Byers, beaten down from having to shoulder the responsibility of the "father" figure in his abandoned home but is kind and gentle. While he does not have the historic pedigree connection to the ‘80's the older actors do, he looks so ridiculously much like a young Stephen King I thought it must have been one of the audition requirements.
Like a treasure hunt in a haunted house escape room, the writers have placed little scenes and moments lifted out of other movies and positioned like decorations all over the movie. One example and a very SMALL SPOILER: Paul Reiser appears in the second season and during one crucial moment watches a radar making a distinctive noise that I KNOW goosebumped the hair on every inch of him with some SERIOUS Deja Vu. There are secret labs with evil government henchmen, horrifying monsters, alternate universes and —– humor.
One of the biggest charms of the show is its unpredictability. The characters are funny – not like a comedy but in the way only people can be funny in their day to day decisions, mistakes and the way personalities bounce against each other with familiar interactions born of long acquaintance. The secretary who snatches a donut out of the hand of the Sheriff Jim Hopper (David Harbour) to replace it with a carrot. The clueless but well meaning and harmless deputies who come to useless conclusions. Eleven’s favorite food. The nicknames even the adults have for each other (Hop, Bob the Brain). The extreme adorable nerdiness of the boys. Dozens of moments defuse this otherwise very suspenseful show in healthy ways to create the ebb and flow necessary for a successfully scary watch. Otherwise the tension gets too much and you will numb up.
The kids are wonderful and adorable. The adults lend a relatable genuineness to their roles, not minding looking ugly or awkward if the moment requires it. People often either are not completely what they appear to be or genuinely learn and grow from their extreme experiences to become better people. Willingness to self sacrifice in many ways, generosity, loyalty, family/friend bonds are generously demonstrated by all but the most unredeemably evil characters. These are good, decent and plain old nice people – both adults and children – from a small town banding together to face the extremity of bizarre with courage and grace under pressure.
The show has some bad language and tastefully referenced teenaged intimacy. Much of the violence takes place off screen but you do see some aftermath, the suspense is intense and there are graphic scenes of characters being psychologically experimented upon, especially Eleven.
Obviously we are talking mid teens and up. Younger kids should NOT watch this show unless you want them sleeping in your room with the lights on until they move to college. But for those of you with even moderately stout hearts this is a show well worth your time – it's smart, scary, and surprisingly warm of heart.