Like The Hunger Games and Star Wars before it, Stranger Things is that rare breed of entertainment which becomes a franchise almost instantly upon release. What’s more, it firmly established Netflix’s media strategy: The Binge. With the days of having to wait a week between episodes firmly over — and at a modest eight episodes long — some people managed to finish the first series in a day. So what winning formula managed to establish such a die-hard legion of fans?
On paper, Stranger Things shouldn’t really work. The show’s an indefinable blend of horror, humour, coming-of-age drama, science fiction, romance and mystery. When asked how they’d classify it, the Duffer Brothers themselves were unable to give a firm genre, and perhaps that is where the success of the show lies: there really is something for everyone, whether you’re looking for a scare or a swoon.
The disappearance of Will Byers kickstarts the action of the first series. Set in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana in the 1980s, Will is cycling home late one night after an intense game of Dungeons & Dragons. Grizzled police chief Hopper and Will’s distraught mother Joyce begin a desperate search, but Will’s friends, Mike, Dustin and Lucas take matters into their own hands. When they find a mysterious girl with telekinetic powers enigmatically-named Eleven, they begin to suspect something supernatural is amiss. Eleven has escaped from Hawkins Lab — a government laboratory doing secret tests on the paranormal. Eleven tries to explain Will’s disappearance to the gang by referring to Dungeons & Dragons: she turns the board over, thus introducing the Upside Down — the evil netherworld that Will has been abducted to.
Eleven and the boys are not the only ones that have cottoned on to the otherworldly goings on of Hawkins. Joyce believes Will is making contact through electricity, and promptly buys out Hawkins’ entire supply of Christmas lights. As one would imagine, this doesn’t instil confidence in the more logically-minded of the cast, namely Will’s own father, who returns to the small town after his son’s disappearance.
Meanwhile, the teenage members of Hawkins are up to their own antics. Nancy, Mike’s older sister, and her friend Barb attend the party of Steve, resident hottie of Hawkins High. Unbeknownst to them, someone (highlight to see a small spoiler): Jonathan (Will’s older brother) [end spoiler] is spying on the group from the woods, and if that wasn’t creepy enough, he’s taking photos. What he doesn’t realise is that he accidentally gets a shot of the monster that may have taken Will, and (in what has sparked one of the biggest fanbase twitter outcries: #justiceforbarb) Barb, who disappears that night.
Stranger Things offers a mashup of eighties pop culture and nostalgia that will seem both familiar and original, and maybe that is the key to the show’s success. With a loveable cast combined with cliffhanger endings to each episode, it’s no surprise this was one of the easiest shows of last year to binge. Whether the show will stay this good over the five-season arc the Duffer Brothers have planned remains to be seen, but season one is most definitely television at its very best.
I was blown away by the first season of Stranger Things, even though I was on the fence about watching it for a long time. The current craze in 1980s nostalgia is anathema to me because so much of it seems like middle-aged white dudes navel-gazing over how great and special their adolescence seemed compared to how horrible their lives are now.
But the Duffer Brothers do something very different here by placing their focus on a small group of pre-adolescent children and telling the story of a decidedly not-great point in the lives of these kids, saturating every scene in loving tributes to geek culture. Throw in some ridiculously compelling performances from said pre-adolescents, the always-stellar work of Winona Ryder and a nearly unrecognizable Matthew Modine, and some surprising turns from the teenage actors, and I finally understand why this show is such a hit.
Stranger Things’ influences are worn proudly on its sleeve: the early horror novels (and their film adaptations) of Stephen King, particularly Firestarter and IT; The Evil Dead; Dungeons & Dragons, obviously; and many more that I won’t mention for fear of spoiling certain moments or background details. The Duffer Brothers do an excellent job of creating a specific atmosphere and mood for the season as a whole, and to their credit, they re-create both the fun and difficulty in being a pre-adolescent child as pitch-perfectly as they portray teenagers on the cusp of adulthood and middle-aged adults who wear their years and pain honestly.
I only had two complaints about Season One: the cast wasn’t quite fairly balanced, in terms of prominent female characters versus the larger number of male characters; and some characters (like Barb, and even Will) were snatched away right as they were becoming interesting. But Stranger Things’ strengths far outweigh these faults, and as much as I’ve tried to avoid spoilers for Season Two, I haven’t been able to ignore the gleeful fan reaction to what seems to be a greater representation of female characters, which pleases me.
Still: #justiceforbarb, folks. #justiceforbarb.