Wednesday, 31 August 2016
Created by The Duffer Brothers
Starring Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown
Genre Science Fiction, Horror
Running Time 8 episodes, 45-55 mins each
Those who know me best will know that I am partial to a good TV binge, after all I do go to the effort of drafting The Ephemeric's annual TV Hot List as an advance guide to a year's worth of television. At the same time, regular readers of this blog will know that in spite of this, I rarely actually post articles on the subject outside of this once a year preview. Today will be the rare exception. Stranger Things is the show that everyone is talking about right now; a series that has come out of nowhere, endured no fewer than fifteen network rejections before being picked up by Netflix, and has gone on to overtake House of Cards and Making a Murderer as the all time most watched original content on Netflix.
The basic premise of Stranger Things is simple: a young child goes missing in small town America, his young school chums go off on a grand adventure to rescue him, while simultaneously he is searched for by his mother and older brother, and, separately, the local chief of police. As the search proceeds it soon becomes clear that something strange, and decidedly supernatural, is afoot.
If this all sounds familiar, it's by design. Stranger Things is very much an homage to 1980s pop culture, with particular reference to the Steven Spielberg brand of kids' adventure movies like The Goonies and ET, and the small town Americana horror of Stephen King. Throw in Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind with a dash of a John Carpenter "creature feature", and a pinch of John Hughes, and you have some idea of where this is coming from tonally. This is a show that is clearly very happy to wear its influences on its sleeve, from the setting and references, to the beautiful synth score, and the eye-searingly gorgeous artwork (see above). This is a show that oozes with nostalgia and fuzzy memories of millennial childhood.
But to summarise the show as merely a nostalgia piece would do it a disservice. Stranger Things contains some of the tightest writing of TV's golden age; a potent and immersive world and characters that are surprisingly complex and addictively easy to which to grow an attachment. Across Season 1's roughly eight hour running time the show never overstays its welcome, never feels like it's dragging things out, or that it's meandering aimlessly. Pitch perfect in tone and pacing, the show is self-aware and light where appropriate, but treats its surreal subject matter with the necessary respect. This is an exceptionally well made piece of television.
I have previously made a point on this website about the fine line of tastefulness that exists between nostalgia and cliché (see as a contrast the new M83 album Junk, which falls on the wrong side of that line). Stranger Things is very much an example of nostalgia done right, evoking the atmosphere and essence of a thing, without ever seeming pandering or forced. Rather than an endless parade of "hey remember this movie?" to drive the plot forward, Stranger Things manages to evolve organically within its own mythology and with a refreshing sincerity. Whether it's the asshole cop who rises to the occasion to become a hero, or the douchebag boyfriend who turns out to be a decent guy, the show celebrates well worn tropes while putting enough of its own spin to avoid feeling obvious or derivative. It's a show which celebrates the simple conceit of its source material while maintaining the modern sensibilities that help the characters and setting ring true in a way that even its greatest sources often failed to do.
Then there is the cast. Winona Ryder takes the top billing as one might expect, but arguably it's the fabulous David Harbour who takes the main plaudits. The child actors themselves are a surprising delight. Child actors can be an annoyance when used poorly, but this astoundingly talented array of young actors never put a foot wrong. Pay particular attention to the name Millie Bobby Brown, who is surely destined for great stardom after this breakthrough performance. These few that I have mentioned are no exception, the casting is spot on right down to the smallest role.
Stranger Things then is a deftly written, brilliantly acted, and impeccably produced few hours of television. But the show's success lies in how all these qualities sum together to form something that's even better than it should be. It's show of which every fiber, every character, every moment is so full of love and care that it will win over even the most skeptical viewer with its high quality, and its sheer sense of fun. Will the Duffer Brothers ever produce something of this magnitude again? It's too early to say, but what they have created here is truly hard to fault, and if you haven't watched it yet, you simply must.