A lot has been made about Netflix and its capacity to turn the most gym obsessed human into a couch potato. For all the noise about the Netflix originals, narratively their shows don’t suit a binge fest, often causing an I’ll-come-back-tomorrow attitude. Stranger Things, the latest Netflix original series, changes that. It’s a television feast of awesomeness with every episode playing like a book chapter. It plays like the love child of Steven Spielberg, Stephen King and John Carpenter and it’s as engrossing as that sounds.
It’s just a shame we’ve seen it all before.
Set in an indistinguishable small town in middle-America in the 1980s, Stranger Things concerns the search for a missing boy whose disappearance coincides with the arrival of telekinetic girl and a monster in the woods. Sound familiar? Stranger Things is drenched in nostalgia, not just for the 1980s but for the movies of the era. It’s the type of programme where the kids act like they’re in Scooby Doo, ride around on BMX bikes and come from estranged families. The show’s love for the — for want of a better word — “Amblin” genre is obvious from the first minute and your enjoyment of the show will rest on how much you like this type of cinematic aesthetic because the series nails it. The love the creators, the Duffer Brothers, have for this type of storytelling is obvious and it gives the show an earnest attitude that makes it loveable in turn.Nostalgia is the show’s biggest success and biggest drawback. When a series is as deep in a certain aesthetic as this show is, its narrative moves are telegraphed and the references become a distraction. When everything from The Frighteners to Under The Skin (not 80s movies, surprisingly) is referenced, finding the show’s identity can be tricky.
To some extent, Stranger Things understands this and it subverts a couple of its conventions. The flickering lights generally used to create tension (this show uses this technique a lot) eventually symbolise a mother-son relationship and the cool kid (read: arsehole) goes on a more interesting journey than most entries this genre allow.
Part of the 80s movie Amblin package is the single mother. Here she’s played by Winona Ryder. Ryder, as the “star” of the ensemble, gives a good performance, going broad when she needs to go broad and intimate when she needs to go intimate. She’s at her best playing off the ensemble, creating two nice dynamics with the grouchy Police Chief (David Harbour) and her eldest son, Jonathan (Charlie Heaton).The three kids solving the mystery (Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo and Caleb McLaughlin) suit their archetypes well, even if they do come across as if they’re trying too hard. Millie Bobby Brown, who plays the telekinetic Eleven, gives the most sympathetic performance on the show. The older teens, Heaton, Natalia Dyer and Joe Keery, are lumped with a tepid love triangle that isn’t really a love triangle but watching teenagers buy weapons to go monster hunting is always a blast. Plus, Keery’s hair is the live-action version of Marge Simpson’s — it’s 80s volume is a work of tacky art.
Normally, shows built from other shows and films shouldn’t work. But, the earnestness and occasionally subversive storytelling, coupled with the comparatively short season, help the show get over its references. Well, Stranger Things have happened.
Best Episode: Chapter Three: Holly, Jolly
Worst Episode: Chapter One: The Vanishing of Will