(Warning: Some spoilers follow for the first 3 episodes)
Netflix maintains a pretty good track record on original programming. House of Cards. Orange is The New Black. Master of None. Love. Their Marvel shows. And the criminally underrated Flaked.
At this point, Netflix have built up enough good faith with their audience, catering for different tastes with quality shows. Sure, there have been a few stinkers, Fuller House and The Ranch but even those shows have huge followings. So when you hear of a new Netflix Original, it is often far more exciting than network or cable shows.
Stranger Things is their latest offering. Set in 1983, it is most definitely a throwback to those times, very much a fusion of early Spielberg and Stephen King by the way of John Carpenter, right down to the fonts, title music and overall score.
It starts with a something, what we can only speculate, escaping from a secret underground government facility. After that we meet the group of kids who take centre stage throughout the 8 episode season, playing a game of Dungeons and Dragons. On the way home, Will Byers encounters that very same something and it follows him home. The next morning, Will is gone. His mother Joyce, played by my childhood crush Winona Ryder, searches the house, calls his friends, before heading to the Sheriff’s office to report her son missing.
In the small town of Hawkins, Indiana the Sheriff is Chief Hopper. And Hopper isn’t convinced of any foul play, he says that kids run away all the time, that it could be any number of things, to begin with he’s not hugely bothered by the whole thing, more interested in coffee and breakfast. He questions Will’s friends, who are every bit the loveable gang of nerds, right down to being bullied at school, and searches the nearby woods, finding Will’s bike.
Soon half the town is out searching the woods and it’s not long before Will’s friends go out to look for him too. There’s a lot going on in this first episode, we also have a mysterious appearance, a strange girl steals food from a diner, who is clearly on the run from some very sinister and trigger happy authorities.
There’s a strange static playing through the phones, a sound that isn’t quite human. Power outages and heavy storms ravage Hawkins. Lights flicker, electrical items turn themselves on. Stranger Things is an absolute love letter the 80s, created by The Duffer Brothers, and is their first major directing credit, and they seem to capture this era, and more specifically this era in culture, music and movies, in the same J.J Abrams attempted and valiantly failed with Super 8. Stranger Things is put together perfectly with staggering confidence, it feels like you’re watching a film from 30 years ago, nostalgia drives a lot of it but that will only take you so far. The show does manage to surpass this however, driven by the mystery and characters, Ryder is great as the distressed but determined Joyce, David Harbour gives a world-weariness to Hopper and we soon learn the reason for that, saying he feels cursed, but this show belongs to the young actors who play kids, much like in E.T. The camaraderie is centre to the show and is a big part of what makes the whole thing work.
The strange girl who appears to be at the centre of the larger mystery soon ends up with the three remaining boys. She doesn’t seem to understand or fit in, barely able to speak at first. But Eleven, or Elle as Mike shortens it to, is a quick learner. Oh yeah, and she has psychic powers! The ‘bad people’ are coming for her and Matthew Modine’s Dr Brenner seems to be heading up the hunt. There’s more than one mystery going on here but it’s pretty clear everything is connected.
Stranger Things is a throwback. A few scenes are a little on the nose in terms of emulating other 80s icons, Mike showing his Star Wars toys to Elle feels too much like E.T, most of the time though it works. And at times you feel like this will stop it from doing anything new or terribly exciting, there’s some truth to that as certain elements play out exactly as you expect, but being an 8 episode season the show is allowed much more time to develop than a film would have. We spend significant time with these characters, they may start off as 80s horror movie stereotypes, but we get to know them and care for them.
Netflix definitely have another hit on their hands, the show manages to be creepy, terrifying and constantly charming, looks fantastic, full of memorable moments and images, with compelling performances throughout. I’d be very surprised if Winona Ryder doesn’t get some awards nods. Netflix don’t release viewing figures but I hope plenty of people tune in. The show absolutely feels like it came from a different era and that is not a bad thing, not a bad thing at all.
Stranger Things is available now, on Netflix.