Here at The Digital Fix, there is one show that has had a number of our writers talking over the last couple of weeks; new Netflix series Stranger Things. The brainchild of Matt Duffer and Ross Duffer (best known for writing and executive producing Wayward Pines) it is an eight-episode series steeped in 80's nostalgia.
The plot follows the disappearance 12-year-old Will Byers on November 6, 1983 in the suburban town of Hawkins, Indiana, Will's mother, Joyce (Winona Ryder) frantically tries to find Will aided by Police Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour), while Will's friends: Dustin, Mike, and Lucas discover a psychokinetic girl in the woods. As the mystery deepens, they learn about a sinister government agency and a portal to an alternate world, home to a terrifying monster that is trying to break through into their reality...
Stranger Things was rejected by at least 15 networks before the Duffer Brothers got the green light from Netflix. They were told to make it into a kids show or make it about Hopper investigating paranormal activity around town. They stuck to their guns and now the rest is history, with the show being critically well received and for many one of the TV highlights of 2016.
But what did our writers think? Rather than just review the show myself, I brought in a couple of fellow writers to get their thoughts. And here are our reviews...
Colin Polonowski (The Digital Fix Editor)
Netflix latest original series, the Duffer Brother’s Stranger Things, is also one of their best; a gripping, largely well written and brilliantly creepy homage to the best of Spielbergian cinema. Benefitting from a tight eight-episode run it’s a wonderfully self contained mini series that would have worked as a standalone if it a second season hadn’t been commissioned.
Set in 1980’s middle-America, Stranger Things tells the story of the mysterious disappearance of Will Byers; dealing both with what happened to him and the affect on his friends and family. Set against the backdrop of a secretive Government-run lab and the small town of Hawkins, Indiana, it captures the feel of eighties cinema taking in the likes of ET, The Goonies, Stand By Me and more recently, Super 8. Indeed, it’s peppered with homages and references from start to finish; from the obvious visual notes to almost direct character lifts.
Stranger Things does so much right - the monster is teased more than seen but is a palpable presence throughout. The child cast is also excellent with no glaring clunkers in terms of delivery or performance and Winona Ryder turns in a career-best performance. Millie Bobby Brown’s portrayal Eleven / El is outstanding - with so little to actually say, but lots to do, this central role could easily have been undercooked with a lesser actor.
The series remains gripping from start to finish with a largely satisfying conclusion.
It’s not ALL perfect though - firstly, the redemption of Nancy Wheeler’s (Natalia Dyer) love interest, Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) is trite and feels weak given his treatment of Nancy once he feels he’s been ditched; including some pretty nasty slut-shaming. It could be argued that this whole strand of story isn’t needed but I think it does add some depth of character, it’s just a shame that Keery’s character seems to flip within the space of one episode in order to make him seem more sympathetic. Also, the school bully, a 12 year-old happy to pull out a flick knife in order to force his target to commit suicide feels wrong; a clear homage to Kiefer Sutherland’s character in Stand By Me, he’s a character who seems so heavy handed in what is an otherwise beautifully nuanced story - is he needed? Maybe, but the juxtaposition between this young teen and the older Sutherland character is jarring.
For the most part though, this is first rate stuff. While we now know that a second season following the events of the first has been commissioned, it would have been nice to leave this as it is and maybe move onto another town as some sort of anthology series rather than dilute what we’ve already seen. Sometimes being left with a little bit of mystery and intrigue is a good thing.
Stephan Burn (TV Writer for The Digital Fix
Stranger Things very nearly didn’t happen; reportedly up to 20 TV networks said no, or would have wanted it to be reconfigured to be more of a kids TV show, or to drop the kids and have Chief Hopper investigate paranormal phenomena in the area. But the Duffer twins, alumni of writing for Wayward Pines, stuck to their guns and eventually found a home at the infamously creator-friendly Netflix. This has turned out to be quite the coup for the network as Stranger Things has very much taken over the conversation. The demographic of people who grew up on movies such as E.T., The Goonies and Stand By Me, and later TV shows such as The X Files has been this well catered to, homaging rather than pandering.
The casts are excellent throughout; and I say casts because until the finale each generation of town inhabitants inhabits their own world, investigates the strange goings-on separately for the their own reasons and in their own ways. This works really well, and allows an on-form Winona Ryder to not overpower the younger cast members, who spark well off each other. Chief among those is Finn Wolfhard as Mike, whose cheekbones recall a young Shelley Duvall; he manages to project just the right level of boyish intensity.
Overall, in amidst the science fiction plot, Stranger Things manages to project authenticity, and the audience roots for the characters, an easy emotional attachment is formed. This is definitely a show that deserves the second season that’s already been announced.
Baz Greenland (TV Editor at The Digital Fix)
Something about the show just clicked for me the moment I saw the trailer. The sense of horror, conspiracy and sci-fi nestled at the heart of suburbia, wrapped up in a bow of 80's nostalgia, though of course that was exactly what the Duffer brothers intended. After the first episode, I described it as Twin Peaks meets The Goonies meets
The Stand By Me vibe is prevalent in the friendship of the the three amazing kids Dustin, Mike and Lucas. Teenagers Nancy and Jonathan are straight out of John Carpenter's Halloween or Nightmare on Elm Street. Matthew Modine's Dr. Martin Brenner and his cronies are heavily inspired by ET. But the show doesn't just layer on these themes thickly and expect the wave of nostalgia to carry it through alone; Stranger Things is a rich mix of great performances, a strong sci-fi mystery, chilling horror and throwbacks to our childhood in one.
The kids were wonderful. Millie Bobby Brown was a revelation as the tortured, innocent Eleven, a lifelong subject of a sinister government experimentation into ESP. But while the moments where she unleashed her powers on the bad guys were spectacular to watch (from the take down of the bullies at the quarry to the truck-flipping actions as the kids made their perilous bicycle escape) it was the quieter, sweet moments where she got to dress like a girl or bonded with Mike that were the most endearing. And the performances from all three friends were consistently strong, with Gaten Matarazzo's Dustin possibly my favourite character in the entire show. With his gap-toothed lisp, cap over his shaggy hair and ability to get his friends to cut the crap and take action, he was a joy to watch from beginning to end.
Winona Ryder had an incredibly tough job as missing Will's mother Joyce. Bar a couple of flashbacks and the [happy?] ending, she spends the entire series frantic, exhausted and to the rest of the town seemingly crazy; it is only because we witness her encounters with Will and the monster from the Upside Down that her motivations become compelling rather than tiresome. David Harbour as the sheriff has a great journey, starting as a dismissive, downbeat law enforcer out of his depth and still mourning the death of his daughter years earlier and emerging as a hero as he takes on Matthew Modine's sinister government organisation. In Will - and later Eleven - he finds a child he can rescue where he failed to save his own and it is another compelling performance.
The teen angst is a little less engaging and good girl Nancy (Natalia Dyer) only gets really interesting as a character when she stops trying to embrace her wild side with local jock Steve (Joe Keery) and helps Will's brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) to take on the monster. Sadly for her, her best friend Barb meets a more grisly fate than young Will.
The cinematography is amazing too. The scenes with the gateway to the other realm in the facility are pure Aliens, and the Upside Down is breathtaking. The falling ash effect really adds to the sense of death ad decay, making every scene in that place filled with absolute menace. The attention to detail in making this 80's America is perfect too; from the wallpaper to the perfectly quaffed hair, you are immediately transported back three decades and not for a moment do you find yourself snapped back into reality. Adding to this is the great score - from Toto to The Clash - and the soundtrack by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein is powerful and evocative without being too apparent. There was a strong sense of a Tangerine Dream feel in the music and it is one soundtrack I will seriously consider buying (it's out in September btw). Even the title sequence is pure retro, the icing on a show imbued with nostalgia.
Stranger Things has moments of pure horror and the moments the creature attacks literally tear through the comfy veneer of the town. It adds a sinister undertone to everything that takes place and the show offers up clues to this alternate reality - and the experimentations on Eleven - in small doses over the course of the series. But there is also plenty of mystery left come the final episode's end; Will might be home and Eleven may have nobly sacrificed herself to save her friends, but there is still that sense that that horror could return at any moment. There is enough closure to keep audiences satisfied but enough questions to warrant more.
And that is where I am torn. There is talk of a second season and I will definitely be watching, but I hope it does something special. Stranger Things was eight episodes of near perfection; I knew it was my favourite show Netflix had done around the halfway mark. If this was it, I would be more than satisfied, but I'm also eager to peer behind the curtain into the Upside Down and see more...
What did you think? Was Stranger Things a hit or over-hyped? And are you looking forward to a second season? Please let us know in the comments below...