Review: Stranger Things (Season 1)

I really do love that Stranger Things has gone down so well with such a wide audience. I can barely check in on twitter or Facebook without seeing someone recommending it or sharing a link to its fantastic soundtrack. The show ticked so many of my own personal boxes (Monsters! Mystery! Superpowers! The 1980s! Poltergeist references!) but I’m pleasantly surprised to see that everyone else is connecting so strongly to it as well. I don’t know if they’ve all been secretly harbouring a fondness for the same cult cinema as me, or if they’ve simply been caught up in the show’s engaging story, characters and lore. Either way, I hope that its success prompts people to hunt down some of its cinematic references, or even better, that it kicks off a new cycle of retro-inspired TV, because I really, really dig this style.

Credit: Netflix

Credit: Netflix

In fact, I would go so far as to say that this is my favourite new show in a long time. I’m quick to lose patience with TV if it fails to grab me instantaneously, but from episode one of this Netflix original, I was completely enthralled. I was immediately captivated by its compelling blend of Spielbergian and Stephen King….ian (is that right?) influences, as well as its delightfully retro style, seen in everything from it’s opening credits to its oh-so brilliant score… Have I mentioned that the soundtrack is ace?

Of course, the recent 80s revival has been incredibly strong in terms of cinema (with films like It Follows and indeed, one of my own personal favourites, The Guest), but as far as I can tell, this is the first time that it has been incorporated onto the small screen, and it works perfectly. For those who grew up on cult sci-fi and horror films, this is a treasure trove of homages and neat little references, hearkening back to movies as diverse as The Thing, E.T, It, Stand by Me and Alien. These key films crop up in everything from character types, to narrative events, to set-design and locations, and even just direct name-checks in dialogue. For nerds like me, it was instantly endearing, but you don’t need to have knowledge of all of these things in order to get Stranger Things. 

No, just like with J.J Abrams’ criminally underrated Super 8 (one of the best films of the last decade. No you shut up!), this piece of nostalgic sci-fi still holds up on its own thanks to well rounded characters, a palpable sense of affection for the genre, and a strong heart underpinning the whole thing. By the time I reached the end, I found myself attached to every single major character, and even some of the secondary ones too.

Credit: Netflix

Credit: Netflix

‘But what’s the show actually about?’, I hear you ask. Well, it’s about childhood, innocence, family, friendship and coming of age. ‘No you pretentious dick, I mean what’s the story?’. Oh…. Well it is about those things too, but in terms of actual plot, a lot of it hinges upon a central mystery, so here’s the short and deliberately vague version.The show takes place in Hawkins, a small town in Indiana, taken straight out of Close Encounters or The Goonies. As we are introduced to Hawkins, we see a group of geeky child outcasts playing Dungeons and Dragons in a basement (see the E.T homages yet?). Eventually, the game comes to an end and the boys set off home, with one of them, named Will, having to cycle quite a distance in the dark. He never makes it home.

The suburb is subsequently swept up in a paranoid frenzy, with the local law enforcement left grasping at straws and parents enforcing early curfews on their children. Yet Will’s mother and his close circle of friends refuse to believe that his disappearance is in in anyway normal. We then flit back and forth between the young boys, Will’s family, the Sheriff, and a group of teens, as they each lead separate investigations, coming across a mysterious government facility, a strange runaway girl and the town’s dark history.

I don’t want to give away any more than that, suffice it to say that these ostensibly disparate elements gradually start to fit together. What’s so great about this, is that the narrative reveals and character connections are littered throughout each episode and at just the right pace to boot. You’ll therefore get addicted before long. As I mentioned, all of the characters are brilliantly developed, and people that initially seem like genre tropes actually evolve into complex, believable human beings. For example, even the school jock/ dickhead type shows genuine decency and charm. That in particular was impressive, as for once you could actually understand why the stereotypical popular teen was actually popular. Similarly, stock characters like the deadbeat dad or the comic-relief kid all exceed their usual limitations and have distinct traits that make them more than just cliches. The latter character, Dustin, was probably my favourite, as he got many of the best lines (‘Why are you keeping this curiosity-door locked?”) and even a couple of surprisingly tender moments with his friends.

Like I said though, the important thing is that everyone is strong. Normally I’d expect to find one or two sub-plots annoying or dull, after all, not every storyline can be gripping from start to finish. Even television greats like Game of Thrones have their lesser characters and sub-plots (*COUGH* DAENERYS). Yet lo-and-behold, in this particular case I was excited to see what would happen to everyone, I even cared about the teen drama bullshit for once. Every single time we cut to a new character, I was eager for new developments. They all offered something; the young kids brought the charm and heart, the adults brought the pathos and mystery, whilst the teens brought a good chunk of the action and horror.

Stranger things

Credit: Netflix

Speaking of the horror, oh boy did I love the Demogorgon. The monster was central to most of my favourite scenes, and I loved the way that its presence would be indicated by a certain telltale sign, it made for some great suspense building.  Don’t worry, this isn’t a spoiler, you know there’s a creature right from the beginning and they tease you with it throughout. It’s design wasn’t the most original, but every time it showed up I sat bolt-upright and fixed my gaze to the screen in gleeful anticipation. I do love me some monsters.

Just like in Super 8, they find great ways to stage the attacks and imply the creature’s presence without showing it very much. It’s truly cinematic, and necessitates the kind of ingenious creativity that I wish we saw more often in monster movies. These scary sequences more than hold up when compared to the films that the show is aping, and they were extra tense because I had formed attachments to the potential victims. I just would have preferred it if the monster looked a little more interesting, as it’s unique behaviour, backstory and rules were all to a much higher standard. Still, that’s a comparatively minor criticism.

Honestly, I can’t recommend this show enough. From the performances (I didn’t even get into Winona Ryder and David Harbour’s quality work), to the beautiful cinematography, and again… that bloody amazing soundtrack; this is expertly crafted genre television. There’s so many great original ideas, and equally loads of smart adaptations of concepts borrowed from other sources. In the space of just eight episodes, I felt more invested in Stranger Things than the majority of shows that I’ve been watching for years. It packs in emotional depth, smart dialogue, great visuals and plenty of mystery. And for nerd types like myself, it has a rich mythos to dissect, leaving me hungry to find out more about the ‘upside down’ and all the crazy goings-on in Hawkins. ALSO THE SOUNDTRACK!

Bar a disappointing creature design, I seriously have no complaints. The Duffer brothers have created a modern sci-fi gem that pays tribute to the past and simultaneously offers something fresh and inventive. I cannot wait for its return. Long live the retro-revival!

RATING: 9/10

Stranger Things Season 1 is available in its entirety on Netflix. 

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