Spotlight: Stranger Things Season 1

People have a lot of nostalgia for the 1980’s.  And why shouldn’t they?  It was the era of Spielberg.  It was the era of movies like E.T. and Back to the Future.  Stephen King was writing books like ItThe Mist, and Cujo.  It saw the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), which is widely credited for saving the video game market after it crashed.  Plenty of modern pop-culture nods are taken from the 1980’s, and even the book Ready Player One has nothing but reverence for the decade.

But nostalgia is a tricky thing.  If we aren’t careful, it can turn our vision rose-colored, obscuring any unpleasant details of the past.  While we owe the 1980’s a lot in terms of pop-culture, nothing is perfect.  E.T. and The Thing might be fondly remembered from the decade as powerhouse movies, but there was plenty of garbage to go along with it.  And while Mario and Zelda are revered video game franchises that continue to this day, there were plenty of games that came out that were cheap cash grabs with little in the way of intelligent design choices and frustrating controls.  Not to mention that back then there wasn’t much in the way of seeking out reviews for games, so often kids were stuck with what they got.

This is the line that Stranger Things straddles.  Stranger Things is a Netflix original series that released this past July, and follows the residents of a small town that deal with mysterious happenings that begin with the disappearance of young Will Byers.  The first season is eight episodes long, and from the start the influence of the ’80s is obvious.  The show opens with a group of kids playing Dungeons and Dragons.  After being told that they have to quit for the night (as it is a school night) the group split up and head home.  However, Will Byers isn’t seen again after that night.  He disappears after seeing something strange that chases him through the woods near his house.  It is his disappearance that strings everything along throughout this first season.

And I must say, what a damn good showing.

There is a reason why Stranger Things basically rocketed to the top of many Netflix queues.  It’s smartly paced and expertly written.  The characters are well acted and fleshed out over the eight-episode span.  And even despite the dark tone the show has a lot of the time, it manages to be incredibly charming.  This is especially due to the kids.  If you remember Freaks and Geeks, that show from the end of the ’90s, it feels similar to that.  It has that same charm of being part of a group of outcasts, the “freaks” so to speak.  Stranger Things even has the bully characters, who will show up every now and then simply to give the kids a hard time.

In this way, the kids feel essential to the tone of the show, which is ironic because part of the reason Stranger Things wound up as a Netflix show was because every studio the Duffer brothers (the creators of the show) pitched the show to wanted to cut out the kids as characters and make it more about the adults.  After having watched the show, I can’t imagine it without them.  I’m glad the Duffer brothers waited until they found a place that would honor their original vision.

But what about the adults?  How do they fare compared to the kids?  I would say just as well.  Everyone in this show seems to fit into their roles, even if their characters aren’t initially likable (the sheriff seems a little grouchy at first, but you quickly come to realize that he’s just reserved due to tragedy in his past).  I was particularly struck by Winona Ryder.  She plays Joyce Byers, Will’s mother, and gives a very convincing performance of a mother who’s just lost her child.  Throughout the season (especially the early episodes) we see her breaking down many times, especially so when she starts experiencing some strange events.  Predictably no one believes her and they’re convinced she’s just making it up in her head to cope with the grief.  This affects Joyce greatly, and her pain feels genuine.  It’s not easy to act a role like that without it feeling like you’re either underplaying it too much or being too melodramatic.  It’s a fine line, but Ryder walks it gracefully.  She stands out as one of the best parts of the season along with the kids.  All the other adults fit their roles, but I’m going to avoid talking about them to cut down on spoilers.

As I said earlier the show’s pacing is nearly pitch-perfect.  Each episode is briskly paced, keeping you engaged with what’s going on without feeling like it overstays its welcome.  They also keep handing you little bits and pieces of the mystery to keep you enticed while leaving you just enough in the dark that you want to learn more.  It never feels like X-Files or Lost, shows where you couldn’t be blamed for thinking they would never explain anything because they spend so much time building up the mystery.  Part of this is due to the difference in formats.  With Stranger Things being only eight episodes, they can’t spend a whole lot of time being mysterious.  They have to grab you, entice you, but give you enough to feel satisfying in its short run.  Compare that to the twenty-odd episodes in each season of X-Files and Lost, and you see how those shows can feel like they’re being dragged on too long.

Now that I’ve spent so much time hyping up how good the show is, the question becomes is there anything bad about it?  Well I can safely say that most of my gripes are minor.  Sometimes the special effects can look a little hokey and the CGI-ness of them is obvious.  One of the episode cliffhangers is resolved within the first five minutes of the next episode, despite the fact that the cliffhanger suggests that the solution should be much more difficult than that.

My only major gripe is with one of the characters.  It has nothing to do with the acting, just more with the character’s purpose.

Minor spoilers follow below.  You have been warned.

Early on in the season we are told about Lonnie, Joyce’s ex-husband.  He’s introduced as a small red herring for the characters, as the sheriff initially suggests that most of the time when children go missing they’re simply with a relative or someone they know.  Will’s older brother Jonathan goes to visit Lonnie in around episode three I think, but Lonnie shows up later on in the season to help console Joyce.  At first, when we hear about Lonnie, it sounds like he’s a total jerk-off who mocked Will for liking things like Dungeons and Dragons.  But when we actually see him in this later episodes, he seems like he might actually be a little more caring then we’ve been led to believe.  But this is where the show drops the ball.  Instead of doing anything interesting with him, all it seems to lead up to is a dramatic shouting match between him and Joyce, the only purpose of which is to cement in our minds the fact that she is the better parent of the two.  It feels like unnecessary drama that could have been filtered out.

Spoilers over.

Aside from that, I can’t really find anything bad to say about the show’s debut season.  It manages to be charming, enticing, and satisfying all at the same time.  And it sets up a few enticing tidbits at the end for the next season, which is said to be releasing sometime next year.  All that remains to be seen is if the show will fall victim to the “sophomore slump”, which is a term that means that the second season of a television show is often a bit of a letdown.  And when a show like this has such a strong first season, such a thing could be devastating for it.

But all that’s in the future.  If you’re looking for a good mystery with well-developed characters and elements of horror, Stranger Things is right up your alley.  If your alley is dark, spooky, and full of monsters that is.  Whatever man, I won’t judge.

 

That’s all I have for this time.  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

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