'Stranger Things': TV Review

Netflix
Like 'Fuller House' (but actually good) for a different kind of '80s nerd.
7/15/2016

The Duffer Brothers pay homage to Stephen King and Steven Spielberg in their spooky new Netflix drama starring Winona Ryder.

When Fuller House pandered meekly to a generation of TV viewers huffing nostalgically from the gaseous corpse of a bloated 25-year-old sitcom that was never particularly good in the first place, I spared no contempt at the laziness of the endeavor.

After watching and enjoying the full eight-episode first season of Stranger Things, though, I'm wondering if Netflix just turned around and gave me a Fuller House of my very own.

Sure, I'm going to tell you that this '80s-set supernatural thriller/coming-of-age drama from the Duffer Brothers (Matt and Ross, veterans of Wayward Pines) is more than just an exercise in nostalgia, that it's a satisfying, spooky and carefully arced mystery buoyed by a slew of unexpectedly strong juvenile performances, a rare and well-earned lead for David Harbour and a welcome comeback from Winona Ryder — but am I any more trustworthy than the brainwashed Fuller House enthusiasts? If you were to pander directly to me and my formative entertainment influences and enthusiasms, you couldn't cherry-pick more directly than by paying homage to the early films (directing and producing) of Steven Spielberg and the early books of Stephen King and that's the rich well of inspiration that the Duffers are drawing from here.

Set in a small Indiana town in 1983, Stranger Things begins with an escape from a barricaded research facility, unleashing something that swiftly abducts young Will (Noah Schnapp), coming home alone after a heated evening of Dungeons & Dragons with misfit friends Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Mike (Finn Wolfhard). Some members of the community are sure that Will is dead, but Joyce (Ryder), his already unstable mother, becomes convinced that she's able to communicate with her son in ways that make her look increasingly unhinged. Mourning the loss of his own child and covering his own grief in booze, Chief Hopper (Harbour) becomes an interested ally. Meanwhile, Will's three friends are also determined to find him when they find a scared, bald girl (Millie Brown) who calls herself Eleven (after the numeric tattoo on her arm) and possesses powers that defy explanation. Also interested in the child-snatching beast in the woods is Will's outcast brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), Mike's socially blossoming sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and, prone to ominous HAZMAT suits, the menacing Dr. Brenner (Matthew Modine).

The Duffers wrote three of the episodes, dubbed "chapters" to underline the literary undertones, and directed six, with executive producer Shawn Levy helming the other two. The influences are easy to spot. You've got the rag-tag kids-on-a-mission adventure of Goonies or The Body (directly cited in one chapter title), the haunting lost-child-in-the-ether terror of Poltergeist and there are shades of both E.T. and Firestarter in the powerful and otherworldly innocent threatened by sparingly seen government scientists. John Carpenter's films (and his synth-heavy scores) from the same period, especially The Thing, are also part of the series' vernacular, but those references aren't as pervasive as the King and Spielberg nods that range from big picture thematics — backward-looking suburbia, outsiders as sources of fear and awe, distracted parents struggling to hold onto their kids — to shout-outs as blatant as movie posters on walls, the King paperback title font and even the show's own Drew Struzan-inspired one. Stranger Things invites viewers to play 1975-85 Fiction Bingo, so when a tow-headed small child stares in wonderment at an inexplicable electrical display, you can check Close Encounters off a list. But is Chief Hopper's name a play on Hooper from Jaws or is his dangling cigarette a nod to Chief Brody's compulsive habit? Sometimes a bicycle is just a bicycle and an Eggo waffle is just an Eggo waffle, but there's a temptation to assume that everything in Stranger Things is a call-back to something else.

That temptation is selling the Duffer Brothers short. Geeking out over shared pop culture experiences is part of why Stranger Things works, but it also weaves a good yarn that keeps you guessing on the nature of the unfolding phenomena, gives answers efficiently and if the answers don't always make sense or if they push the show off into a genre that you maybe didn't expect, it avoids becoming trapped or bogged down in mythology. While never exactly scary, it's generally eerie and unsettling and the Duffers work around their clear budgetary limitations with great ingenuity. Over eight episodes, there are few money shots, be they creature effects or showy displays of power, but there are many examples of building mood with smart and often minimalist production design, old-fashioned camera placement or sound work that doesn't resort to jump scares.

You care what happens to the characters in Stranger Things because they're written authentically and they're cast exceptionally, especially when it comes to the kids. Brown, one of the few watchable parts of BBC America's obnoxiously cryptic Intruders, makes Eleven menacing, sad, funny and startlingly sweet, especially in scenes shared with Wolfhard. Matarazzo's Dustin, short on teeth but long on hilarious indignation, grew on me with each episode, as did Nancy, with Dyer nailing probably the season's standout character journey. Ryder digs into Joyce's initial desperation and misery with gusto, but thankfully doesn't have to spiral for eight full hours. And Harbour is a great reluctant hero, huffing and puffing in exasperation and very gradually finding purpose and authority.

Unlike Fuller House, the Stranger Things approach to nostalgia isn't solely parasitic, but it also isn't King's conflicted prism on the past, that the good old days weren't all that much better even if their songs were catchier and their snack foods tastier. I don't know that Stranger Things has anything deep to say about 1983 or is using 1983 to say anything deep about 2016, but it has a true affection and a scholar's reverence for the period and its storytelling. Stranger Things looks backwards, but it stands entertainingly on its own.

Cast: Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Matthew Modine, Cara Buono, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton
Creators: The Duffer Brothers
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)

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