Stranger things, season 1, created by the Duffer Brothers (Netflix, 2016).
Score: a very simple idea, elegantly executed.
It’s the early Eighties in a small town in Indiana and four pre-teen friends are playing Dungeons and Dragons. After their session is over for the night they go back home on their bikes. Will (Noah Schnapp) is snatched by a monster in his backyard, and his disappearance shakes the whole town. His three friends, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), put all their nerdy knowledge in service of finding him. Joyce (Winona Ryder) is convinced that her son Will is alive after some paranormal events in the house and will go to any lengths to bring him back, with or without the help of her elder son Jonathan (Charlie Heaton). The town’s sheriff, Jim Hopper (David Harbour) is going through a hard time after the death of his little daughter and being relocated from the city, but as the mystery of Will’s absence becomes more complicated, he’s reminded of why he became a police agent. Mike’s older sister, Nancy (Natalia Dyer) is busy with school and her boyfriend Steve (Joe Keery), but becomes concerned after her friend Barb (Shannon Purser) goes missing too. Last but not least, the night of Will’s disappearance a strange girl of few words in a hospital gown (Millie Bobby Brown) walks in a diner while being pursued by government agents. After escaping, she ends up being found by the three friends who were looking for Will, and she’s the key to finding the boy.
Stranger things is nothing new. In fact it’s laden with homages to Steven Spielberg’s and Stephen King’s works of the Eighties, along with horror and sci-fi classics. But that doesn’t mean it’s not an excellently written show on its own merit. At only eight episodes of forty minutes each, every episode (except for the second one, which is a bit slow and boring) flows seamlessly. Most scenes either advance the plot or develop character, but character development is not so prevalent that it stalls the action.
Characters are my favourite thing about Stranger things. They are built on archetypes so they are easily recognizable but then they are developed into something else. ***SPOILERS*** Joyce looks like she’s going to be a neglectful, incompetent single mother but turns out to be resourceful and compassionate. Hopper starts out as a depressed, demotivated agent but as the conspiracy unfolds, he proves he really cares about helping people and doing the right thing. He also proves resourceful not only bluffing and negotiating but also punching his way around. Nancy looks like she’s going to be a vain and shallow popular teenager but she’s genuinely concerned about Barb. The fact that she’s the only one who cares that Barb’s gone is the biggest flaw of the show, as it has been repeatedly pointed out by fans. (Like, they only needed to add a couple scenes showing that at least Barb’s family has acknowledged her disappearance… Maybe they shot them but then edited them out?) She also shows sympathy towards Jonathan and can see through Tommy and Carol… and so can Steve. I really liked how both Nancy and Steve are put in a situation where they can relent to peer pressure or make a moral choice and in the end they do. Also, she decides to take revenge on the monster and uses her knowledge and intelligence to design a trap for it with Jonathan. The fact that she stays with Steve instead of dating Jonathan not only avoids a cliché but is also in-character: Nancy knew and loved Steve before all the action started, and given that Steve apologized to both Nancy and Jonathan and helped them, the most natural thing for her would be to stay with him, not run to Jonathan. Like, she even says several times that she’s not romantically attracted to Jonathan. The kids feel very real, not too cute or corny or annoying. They have reasonable conflicts for their age and situation and serve as a suitable comic relief. The characters solve the puzzle not too early, not too late, but only when it makes sense for a reasonably intelligent person to do so.
The ending is not precisely surprising but the finale follows quite closely the rule of “surprising, yet inevitable” that makes for a satisfying resolution. It also provides reasonable closure for the story while at the same time leaves some openings for the confirmed second season. ***END SPOILERS***
I was quite skeptical of Winona Ryder’s performance but she does very well, also the five kids are a highlight. Special effects work well, not showing too little in order to stay in a low budget, but also not showing too much or getting bad results due to budget restraints.
This show everyone is talking about is fun and exciting and worth a watch. Enjoy!