– By Paulie Spiceflow –
*** Warning: Season 1 Spoilers Follow ***
Once again, I am behind on some pretty awesome television. It wasn’t until last week I started the Netflix original series Stranger Things and saw what everyone has been raving about. The sci-fi horror kept me captivated through almost every minute of every episode. With a dynamite cast, great writing, and unique premise, the its renewal for a second season came as no surprise. This is something special.
What kept me away initially from the show was the monster movie feel the trailer conveyed. Supernatural monsters terrorizing small towns does not really do it for me. After two episodes, it became clear it is so much more than that. The show doesn’t build up the typical Midwestern small town only to have the beast splatter it with blood and gore. It is more a combination of Super 8, E.T., and The X-Files, blending the best elements of late 20th century sci-fi horror.
Hawkins, Indiana – 1983
Right from the pilot, you know you are in for something different. The opening credits use old school 80s synthesized music and horror font. The setting is certainly unusual: Hawkins, Indiana, 1983. With a seemingly random time and place, I wondered if the show was going to bank on the nostalgic feelings of its Generation X audience. The neighborhoods, houses, cars, phones, radios, even the board games all look authentic to the era. As a child of the early 90s, some of it was familiar to me but did not awaken old memories of childhood. Still, I enjoyed the show thoroughly despite that fact much of it predates me. Younger viewers probably find the Reagan-era town to be utterly foreign.
Aside from the aesthetics, the time and place add a few extra elements. It is the height of the Cold War when the military and intelligence agencies were at their most influential. Fear of Communists was still very real. During that period government agencies may have engaged in nefarious activities in the name of national security. Activities like kidnapping children from their parents, similar to the precogs in Minority Report.
Children Are Our Future
As a kid, I loved watching movies where the kids were the heroes. Instead of relying on superheroes, parents, or the government (big mistake), the world is saved by the children. It is all possible thanks to the wondrous imaginative mind of a child, one that is more open to the strange and extraordinary. When weird things happen that defy explanation, they are the first to accept it and see things for what they truly are. Meanwhile the adults are unable to cope, preferring reasonable explanations. That’s great for the day-to-day stuff but when aliens and monsters come around, the grown ups are the last to figure it out. By then, it’s too late.
Mike, Lucas, and Dustin are committed to finding their friend Will. Later, their intuition and inherent open-mindedness lead them to hide Eleven rather than tell their parents. Turned out to be the right move. They witness and accept her special abilities with surprisingly little trouble. Even more amazing, they refuse to accept that their friend is dead, realizing the government’s ruse one episode before anyone else figures it out. I could not help but think of Elliott in E.T., defying parents and government alike to get his extraterrestrial friend home.
The friendship the four boys share is equally compelling. The nerdy D&D players mean everything to one another, faithfully committed regardless of the consequences. You cannot help but root for them right from the start. The group grows when their special friend appears in the woods. Just as Elliott and E.T. become fast friends, so do Mike and the mysterious Eleven.
As you move up the age scale to Nancy, Jonathan and Steve, we see they are slower to accept what is happening to their town, yet even they are quicker than their parents. Before Hopper and Joyce put it together, Jonathan and Nancy take it upon themselves to face the supernatural menace. The love triangle between the three high school characters will annoy some viewers but it does not overpower the plot.
Classic X-Gen Entertainment
Beyond the setting, the show also has the feel of a 1980s sci-fi horror. Creators Matt and Ross Duffer were clearly influenced by the 80s works of Stephen Spielberg, John Carpenter, and Stephen King. It resembles the coming-of-age style of many movies of the era with the horror of the supernatural, or in this case alternate dimensional horror. Throw in the telekinetic girl and have resemblance to Carrie, one of the great horror films of that period.
Audience expectations and tastes have changed in the past 30 years. Horror has become more graphic and depraved. Science fiction relies heavily on CGI and epic light shows. Stranger Things is neither graphic nor depraved. Special effects are used relatively sparingly compared to contemporary sci-fi shows. Yet somehow, it works.
It’s All About Fundamentals
A purest might say that you don’t need fancy special effects to make a hit, and you certainly don’t need to follow genre fads. What makes a show great is talented writers and actors coming together to make something special. The fundamentals of quality entertainment. Sounds naive right? Well, Stranger Things is proof audiences will respond to quality without hype or flare.
First, several of the actors will almost certainly get nominated for some serious awards. Whoever did the casting did a fantastic job. Finn Wolfhard (who plays Mike Wheeler), Gaten Matarazzo (Dustin), Caleb McLaughlin (Lucas), and Noah Schnapp (Will Byers) are sensational. The older actors are impressive as well, in particular Natalia Dyer (plays Nancy Wheeler) and Charlie Heaton (Jonathan Byers).
The really amazing thing about this cast is that I have never heard of any of them. The only recognizable name and face is Winona Ryder who does a tremendous job as the frantic Joyce Wheeler. Her performance in season one may well be the greatest work of her career.
The writing is impressive as well. Stranger Things avoids many sci-fi horror clichés and managed to keep me guessing as to what the hell was going on. The writers managed to create and develop three likable child characters as well as a grieving, self-medicating police chief. Talk about range. Between the scares are some truly powerful dramatic scenes of ordinary people facing ordinary challenges. Take the monsters and telekinesis out, and there is still a decent show here.
Old School Coming-of-Age Story
Most young adult franchises these days travel down the narrative path of wish-fulfillment. The main characters are attractive Mary and Marty Stus with some sort of special power or talent, out there doing good deeds and changing the world. Stranger Things went the more old school YA approach.
Back in the day, young adult fiction stories were largely coming-of-age stories about normal people. The young protagonists faced a serious challenge or conflict, which required them to grow up and adjust to the real world.
None of the protagonists have superpowers (aside from Eleven, but she isn’t the protagonist). The main characters are just normal kids. Mike, Lucas, and Dustin love science and technology, and play D&D in a time where those things were belittled and demeaned. They are bullied or ignored by their peers but in the end it is their intelligence and open-mindedness that allows them to save their missing friend. Jonathan Byers deals with the stigma of poverty as well as his awkward, introverted nature. The much more “normal” and popular Steve Harrington gets the attention of Nancy, while Jonathan can only watch through his camera lens.
Older coming-of-age stories also had endings where not everything goes the protagonist’s way. Many are about loss. Stranger Things is no different. While the heroes save Will Byers, Barb is lost, as well as Eleven (for now). Nancy chooses popular Steve over shy Jonathan. The parents of Hawkins are still utterly clueless as to what really happened, with the exception of Joyce Byers. The Lab is still running and times are still tough for the small town residents.
Conspiracy Theories and Government Cover-Ups
Today, we live in an era of cynicism. Their is little faith and trust in our federal government. Conspiracy theories run rampant all over social media. Many with no facts to back them up while others have turned out to be true. Back in 1983, attitudes towards the government were much different. Fear of nuclear war was palpable and many still looked to the government to solve their problems. Concerns about the military industrial complex, out of control intelligence agencies, and government cover-ups had yet to penetrate the public consciousness.
Today, people might have believed Terry Ives when she claimed her daughter was stolen from her. Not in 1983. The government concocts a cover story about a miscarriage and declare the Mother insane. When their prized lab subject escapes, they kill innocent Americans to cover up their activities. In the finale, the people of Hawkins seem eager to return to normalcy, as if the atrocities committed by their government never occurred.
The whole government conspiracy premise reminded me of The X-Files and the many extreme lengths our government goes to protect its secrets. Some parts were over the top, such as the execution of that restaurant chef. But for the most part, Dr. Brenner could pass for cancer man.
Add it all up, and you have one hell of a show. Season two premieres next year and I cannot wait.
Why You Should Watch
- Classic sci-fi horror in tradition of Spielberg, Carpenter, and Stephen King
- Nostalgic trip down memory lane for Gen X’ers and older Millennials
- Brilliant Cast and plenty of memorable characters (e.g. Dustin)
- Great Writing; keeps you at edge of your seat and avoids most sci-fi and horror clichés
Why You Should Watching Something Else
- You Shouldn’t.
- Watch Stranger Things.
Paulie Spiceflow is a regular contributor, movie reviewer and unbelievable smart ass. He prides himself on his excessive knowledge of movies, TV, books, internet memes, and pop cultural references. During college, he spent minimal hours studying but took full-advantage of the free internet and lack of bills to broaden his knowledge in numerous genres including spoof comedy, fantasy, Shakespeare, military history, zombies, and cartoons.