NOTE: This review may contain mild spoilers for the debut season of, “Stranger Things.” That said, the review is written to accommodate those who have not yet watched the series, and as such, will avoid discussion of major story developments.
Stranger Things is a love letter to the finest and most iconic elements of 1980’s cinema. Incorporating elements from E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, The Thing, Firestarter, The Goonies, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Stephen King’s It, among others, this sci-fi/horror thriller series marks something wholly refreshing and new for Netflix’s catalogue of original shows. It’s also an easy contender for one of the best Netflix seasons of 2016 at this point, standing alongside Daredevil’s second season and Orange is the New Black’s fourth season as a must-binge, especially for those who are actively attracted to the 80’s throwback elements throughout the production.
Created by the Duffer Brothers, best known for their work on Wayward Pines and little else, Stranger Things’ debut season spans eight brilliant episodes that unfold within the tiny town of Hawkins, Indiana, which has been shaken by the disappearance of young boy, Will Byers. The mystery is taken on from three predominant perspectives; Will’s child friends, who happen upon a mysterious, dirty and nearly-bald girl who may have a connection to the disappearance, a teenage outlook shared between Will’s brother and another of the kids’ sisters, who eventually discovers a threat and wants to take the fight to it directly, and of course, an adult outlook, shared by the desire to understand and find answers while coping with the tragedy, an outlook shared by Will’s distraught mother, Joyce, and the local police chief, Jim Hopper.
Immediately, Stranger Things succeeds as a celebration and observation of the power of youth, with its youngest personalities often being the biggest heroes in the piece, despite having the smallest perspective on the strange situation unfolding around them. Another thing that the show really nails is how it manages to carve three equally valid spins on the same incident, using its three perspectives. The greatest concern of the children, for example, is reclaiming their missing friend, and trying to hide the runaway girl from their parents. The greatest concern of the teens, meanwhile, is fighting and overpowering the growing threat around them, but not considering the possible consequences of a direct assault. Finally, the adults, with more real-world burdens and concerns, are focused primarily on their jobs and lives, taking the time to understand a situation rather than truly tackle it, even if Joyce does maintain some of the more direct desires of the younger characters when it comes to fighting whoever or whatever has taken her son.
The way that the multiple age groups approach the mystery is very intriguing, and gives Stranger Things loads of character to go with its highly impressive atmosphere. The retro-synth soundtrack drips with 80’s nostalgia, the garish retro font harkens back to the cinematic classics of Stephen King, and while some scenes do feel like they could have been shot with far less darkness, it still contributes to the feeling of a series that clearly relishes in resurrecting vintage filming techniques. This in turn adds a lot of authenticity to the show’s setting of 1983, which even manages to leap off of the small screen with incredible immersion. The lack of lighting does sometimes add to the spooky atmosphere too, even if the show could have done with adding some more lighting to some of the scarier scenes, since it’s too difficult to tell what’s going on in some of those moments, even if you have excellent eyesight.
Without giving away the details of how the mystery unfolds however, I can say that the entire progression of Stranger Things’ storyline feels nigh on flawless. The way that the show sets up and executes its mystery is excellent, and each episode feels exceptionally paced, and highly engrossing. It’s also appreciated that the series doesn’t overstay its welcome in its first season, using the eight-episode order that it’s been given to answer whatever questions it needs to, and flesh out the characters enough to make them well worth caring about, which in turn further invests the viewer in the overall emotions of the show, primarily of locating the missing Will Byers.
The only slight flaw with the season as a whole is that it does feel like some of the final couple of episodes intentionally gloss over pressing questions regarding the backstory and overall mystery. Sometimes, this is fine, especially in the desire to clearly emulate classic Stephen King stories. At times though, it’s problematic, since it feels like the show is intentionally withholding crucial story answers for a potential second season, deliberately avoiding addressing them in this initial season, so that it can save them for later. Considering how excellent this show is, and how predictably well it’s been received, it’s no doubt inevitable that Stranger Things will be renewed for Season Two, but the ending of the first season is a little bit frustrating, since it could have resolved a bit more.
For the most part though, that’s a nitpick, since so much of Stranger Things is so superb in its debut season. Both the youthful angst and world-weary uncertainty of the various characters perfectly go together with the creepy, satisfying mystery, which only gets more tantalizing with every passing episode. The modest length also makes Stranger Things pretty easy to enjoy in a quick binge session, and this is a storyline that will easily hold your attention throughout the seven or so hours that it will take to burn through all of Season One. It’s difficult to go into a high amount of detail regarding what exactly makes the story, mystery and atmosphere in Stranger Things so good, for want of avoiding spoilers, but it won’t be long before you start seeing the huge amounts of heart and creative inspiration throughout the production.
As it stands, Stranger Things is one of the most cool and creatively satisfying Netflix shows to come along yet! People who grew up in the 80’s will especially love it, since it does such a fantastic job of re-capturing the sensibilities of the time, while also examining universal themes of growth and youthfulness. The show is so good in this first season in fact, that even those who don’t normally care for horror or sci-fi media will definitely want to check it out. This is the kind of show that you will easily enjoy and incessantly muse about with friends, offering your own theories about what’s happened, and what’s to come. That latter point is very important too, since, once these eight episodes have concluded, much more clearly remains to be discovered in the world of Stranger Things. Hopefully, it won’t be too much longer before Netflix confirms when we can make our return to Hawkins!
- Excellent characterization and use of multiple perspectives
- Captivating mystery that gets better with every episode
- Outstanding period detail within a potent sense of atmosphere
- Ending portion leaves a bit to be desired