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Josh Reviews Stranger Things

September 19th, 2016
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Stranger Things, created by the Duffer Brothers, is an eight-episode Netflix mini-series.  Set in Indiana in 1983, the story begins with the disappearance of twelve-year-old boy, Will Byers, in mysterious and possibly supernatural circumstances.  Will’s three best friends Mike, Lucas, and Dustin set out to investigate what happened to their friend.  They soon meet a mysterious, near-mute girl who goes only by the name Eleven who seems to have telekinetic powers.  Does the government facility from which Eleven has apparently escaped have a connection to Will’s disappearance?  Will’s distraught mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) is also desperately searching for her son, and she becomes convinced that she has been able to be in contact with him somehow through the electronics in her house.  Although the town Sheriff, Hopper (David Harbour), who has a past with Joyce, is at first dubious of Joyce’s claims, he gradually becomes convinced that she might be on to something.  Mike’s sister Nancy is going through her own drama, entering a new relationship with Steve Harrington, one of the most popular boys at school.  But when she sees something terrible in the woods behind Steve’s house, she and Will’s weird, outsider brother Jonathan start doing their own looking-into the weird happenings in their small town.

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Stranger Things is a lot of fun, and I very quickly got sucked right into the story being told.  The series is a loving homage to a whole host of influences that many who were kids in the eighties (as I was!) likely have a wonderful warm nostalgic feelings for: Amblin Entertainment and the films of Steven Spielberg, particularly E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial; and also The Goonies, which was directed by Richard Donner and released by Amblin; and also the novels of Stephen King.  There are a lot of common narrative threads that run through those stories, which have been adapted here in Stranger Things: a story set in a small American town with supernatural elements, focuses on a group young kids who come together to go on the adventure.  The combination of a coming-of-age story with some sort of adventure/supernatural/sci-fi element proved a potent combination for so many of those great movies/novels/etc. in the eighties and the combination works every bit as well here in Stranger Things.  The show is filled with lots of little touches that are designed to strike that nostalgia chord in viewers, such as the very distinct font for the show and episode titles in the opening credits, as well as the sight of the boys riding around their small town on their bicycles.  These elements are fun, but luckily they don’t overwhelm the show to become nothing more than reminders of things we’ve seen in other things we’ve liked.  Instead, these elements have been gently and lovingly combined into a new story that successfully stands on its own.  This is not just an empty exercise in nostalgia.

First and foremost, I adored all the kids in Stranger Things.  Getting kids to give a convincing performance can be a challenge, and many of these types of stories (usually in the form of movies) have fallen down because of the unconvincing kids.  But all the kids here in Stranger Things are terrific.  The actors are great and the characters are well-written, allowing each of the kids to develop distinct personalities and to each have their important role to play in the story.  I was, of course, most taken by the core group of boys: Finn Wolfhard as Mike Wheeler, Caleb McLaughlin as Lucas, and Gaten Matarazzo as Dustin (who gets to be so funny as the series progresses), and also of course Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven and Noah Schnapp as Will Byers.  The show takes the time to allow us to enjoy the interplay between these kids, and I had just as much fun watching them play Dungeons and Dragons (or some version of that type of role-playing game) as I did watching them out in the woods trying to track down their friend.

I was also bowled over by how much I enjoyed the stories of the adults in the show, specifically Winona Ryder as Joyce Byers and David Harbour as Sheriff Hopper.  It’s a joy seeing Ms. Ryder get this showcase.  Her casting is of course a nostalgic choice, as Ms. Ryder was so memorable as a kid in so many eighties films.  But Ms. Ryder remains a great actress, and it’s a pleasure to get to see her bite into this juicy role as an increasingly desperate mother looking for her son.  The biggest surprise of the show for me was how much I loved David Harbour’s performance as Hopper.  I’ve seen and enjoyed Mr. Harbour in smaller roles in other things before this (in things like Quantum of Solace and The Newsroom), but I wasn’t prepared for the way her would knock it out of the park here as Hopper.  I loved the way the character was introduced –having a rough wake-up, to put it mildly — and I was captivated by the character from that moment on.  It seemed like the introduction of the show’s villain.  I’d never have dreamed from that introduction that Hopper would become the most sympathetic character in the show.  (When we finally get some flashbacks, in the final episode, to see what happened with his daughter, those moments are heartbreaking.)  Matthew Modine is also great in his brief appearance as the show’s actual villain, the cold scientist in charge of the experiments that unleash all the craziness.

The show’s third group of characters is the teenagers: Karen Wheeler (Natalia Dyer), Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton), and Steve Harrington (Joe Keery).  All these kids are good though I must confess that I was a bit less interested in this group’s story-lines than I was those of the other two groups.  But I liked the way these kids gradually got involved in the larger story unfolding in their town.  (Aside: I had a hard time hearing Steve’s last name the first few times it was said, and since the character was the somewhat dim cool/hot guy in the school, I immediately took to referring to him as “Steve Holt!”, a little Arrested Development gag that amused me far more than I think it did my wife.)

At eight episodes, the show’s story zips along at a nice pace and the show doesn’t overstay its welcome.  (As I’ve written before, I’ve started to find some of the 13-episode streaming shows to feel a bit stretched.)  I enjoyed the pace at which the show revealed its secrets (though the show is definitely guilty of what this writer has beautifully named “plotblocking”), and it was a ton of fun in the last two episodes watching the show’s many characters and story-lines come together.  I’d read that a second season of Stranger Things was announced before I started watching this first season, so as I made my way through the episodes I had a small fear that there wasn’t going to be any sort of resolution to this first season.  But I was relieved with the way things came together, giving us a decent amount of resolution to this first season’s stories while still leaving plenty of avenues open for future stories in additional future seasons.

My main complaint about this first season is that while the character story-lines were mostly resolved in a satisfactory manner, I felt that the show left too many questions hanging about the supernatural events that had set all the character arcs in motion.  Why wasn’t Will immediately killed by the monster in the Upside Down the way Barb and others were?  How did he survive all alone in the Upside Down for over a week?  How was he able to communicate using electronics with his mom in the real world?  We learned how and when the first portal to the Upside Down was created by the evil scientists, but how were the other portals created (in the Byers home, and in the tree in the woods behind Steve’s home)?  (We learned that the creature was attracted to blood, but are we to understand that that creature could create a portal to our world any time it wanted to?  Did no one else in the town ever cut themselves at any point during that week, thus drawing out the creature?)  The show set up a lot of wonderful mysteries/questions, but as we reached the end it seemed like they couldn’t be bothered with taking the time to actually answer so many of those questions, and that was frustrating.

But overall, Stranger Things pushed a lot of the right buttons for me.  The Duffer Brothers (Matt and Ross) are now names that I will pay close attention to in the future!  I enjoyed this series very much and I hope that the currently in-the-works second season doesn’t dilute the fun of this first season but instead continues to grow and expand these characters and this world.  I can’t wait.

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