Netflix has to be one of the greatest gifts to mankind. They come up with several original new series every year and at least three of them are bloody brilliant. Continuing with that tradition comes Stranger Things, the buzzy new sci-fi horror drama that has captured the imagination of the general public for the last month or so.
The basic premise is as simple as it gets. Or maybe not that simple. Set in the fall of 1983, Stranger Things centers on a boy Will (Noah Schnapp), who goes missing under mysterious circumstances. Will is one of a group of four nerds : Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin). The four of them play Dungeons and Dragons in Mike’s basement and share a special rapport with their science teacher Mr Clarke (Randall P. Havens). The three of them are desperate to bring back their best friend. Will’s disappearance coincides with the appearance of an equally mysterious girl known as just Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown). Also there is Will’s mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) and her son, Will’s elder brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) trying to find him. Involved in the mystery is the local Police Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) who himself is haunted by his past. Mike’s elder sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) gets entangled in the mess as well.
Stranger Things is a love letter to the eighties : to the movies made in the eighties, to the music, to the books written. Right from the very onset you can feel the influences : there is something very Speilberg-ish about how three young boys and a girl are set on unwrapping and uncovering a big mystery.The similarities do not end here however, there are several moments that feel like a riff on classics. The series walks a very tightrope between tribute and plagiarism in some scenes, but in an overall sense it reinterprets many of those classic moments and shines a new light on them : a characteristic that makes Stranger Things stand out among a crowd of films and tv series that have been made based on the eighties.
For a full list of all the homages paid by Stranger Things you can read this excellent list on Vulture : it is comprehensive and exhaustive, but also full of spoilers. So if you haven’t binged on it yet, be aware. You can check out The List here.
The episodes are beautifully directed. Every frame tells you how much care has been taken to direct them, from the shadows to the close ups to the panning views : each of them serves a purpose. The Duffer brothers (Matt Duffer and Ross Duffer) direct 6 of the eight episodes while Shawn Levy directs the other two. The brothers are also the ones behind the conception of Stranger Things (their previous work have been writing four episodes for Wayward Pines) and are a great new addition to the already bubbling with talent tv landscape. The sets are made meticulously and every small thing is paid attention to. This is one of the most believable eighties set you will find.
Now let us come to the performances. The child actors are phenomenal. The three best friends of missing Will form the crux of the story and each of them initially play into stereotypes. Mike is the leader of the group, the brave kid who is ready to sacrifice his life for his friend. Lucas is the knee jerk pessimist, a realist who knows danger when he sees one. Dustin is the likable voice of reason. And he loves eating.
But they are so much more than those initial stereotypes. Mike shows raw emotions, Lucas shows loyalty and bravery and Dustin (oh, I so love Dustin) shows a maturity far beyond his age or looks reveal. Never mind the fact that he is the only one who understands how magnet works.
And then there’s Eleven. I lover her so much and I am so afraid of her at the same time. Millie Bobby Brown gives an award winning performance that will put most adult actors at shame. She hardly speaks, or rather learns to speak slowly, but words are no barriers for her. I may be a novice but I have seen a fair share of films and movies, and trust me when I say : this is one of the BEST performances you will ever see. I cannot reveal almost anything about the character, because spoilers (duh!), but she brings out helplessness, pain, fear, agony, happiness, betrayal and heroism without speaking a word.
The teen brigade is represented by Mike’s sister Nancy, his boyfriend Steve and Will’s elder brother Jonathan. Jonathan is a bit of a loner, he listens to punk and loves taking photograph. Nancy is a pretty girl who is very studious and falls for the college hunk Steve who happens to be a bit of a dick. Sounds very cliched and like a rehash of every other eighties rom-com, don’t they? That’s because that is what Stranger Things does. And does it pretty purposefully. They play with our preconceived notions and then goes about to break them. Just like all the other characters, these three too are initially presented as exact stereotypes. But just like every other character in this show, the stereotypes are systematically and efficiently peeled off with every episode so that in the end we see them in a different light altogether.
And finally, the two most interesting adults : Joyce Bryer, mother of Will Bryer played by the highest billed star of the show Winona Ryder and local Police Chief Hopper played by the ever dependable David Harbour. Joyce is a single mother of two : who never quite settled after her divorce from the manipulative and greedy ex husband Lonnie (played with a lot chutzpah by a sneering Ross Partridge). When we meet her, her nerves are already fried, she is already on the edge and hence when her son disappears that pushes her into the crazed mother stereotype. And she takes quite some time coming out of it, but she does eventually and it is only in the end (end of the series that is/or maybe her end : you never know, no spoilers) that we get to see the real her. Police Chief Hopper is probably the best fleshed out character. A washed out police chief who lost his daughter and his marriage along with it. The street smart police chief though is way over his head investigating a conspiracy far beyond his reach. Will he be able to unravel the mystery before it is too late
Ultimately, *mild spoilers here*, Stranger Things is about monsters. But the monster is not necessarily the grotesque faceless creature creeping between dimensions. The monsters are men and their jealousy, their struggle for power and their naked ambition.
There are a hundred reasons for recommending Stranger Things. But the most important reason I can give you is that Stranger Things will, for eight odd hours, allow you to revisit those sunny, optimistic days of your childhood. It will allow you to experience those first tender moments of talking to your crush, your first kiss, the first time you heard The Clash blaring through your headphones. And if you are lucky, it will make you believe in the endless possibilities of the human form once again.
Rating – 8/10
Also, in case you are too sad that Stranger Things is over, here’s a tease for season two.