Stranger Things is a spooky summer delight
At first my biggest complaint about Stranger Things is that I almost wish it had come out closer to Halloween. Three years ago Over the Garden Wall came out in September and the timing, coupled with that show’s sense of nostalgia, made it feel like I was watching something that was already an Autumn tradition.
But I think Summer was right for this show. There is something about summer that has a spooky vibe all its own. Perhaps its the coupling of freedom from school and lazy days with nothing to do but dream whatever one is compelled to dream that makes trees seem more sinister and full moons like beacons for things unthinkable.
Reviews of Stranger Things tend to talk about its nostalgia for the 1980s up front, so I’m going to veer away from that; my frame of reference is a bit too late to appreciate all the homages and nods, though there are undoubtedly many (enough for me to pick up on quite a few). Besides, nostalgia alone has never once been the difference between a good and a bad show, and Stranger Things is a very good one.
Showrunners Matt and Ross Duffer are deft storytellers. They begin with a story that could be a one-shot fable: a young boy named Will goes missing in the woods in his small hometown in Indiana. From there, they mix in elements both familiar and fresh, creating a cocktail of plotlines that feels like it truly ought to be muddled. A monosyllabic girl with a buzzcut and the number 11 tattooed to her forearm appears out of nowhere. A government agent with white hair pursues her, flanked by a neverending stream of lackeys. A strange creature keeps popping up in shadows and on the edges of photographs. There’s even a John Hughes nod with a romantic triangle involving three teenagers. That plot is pretty disposable, though I credit the Duffers for resolving it in a way that is as surprising as it is entertaining.
Much credit goes to the cast. Every major character is splendidly cast. Good chemistry can bring perfunctory scenes to life. Consider the opening of the show, when we see a group of four boys, all about 11 or 12, playing Dungeons and Dragons. This is an establishing scene, yes, but the dialogue sounds perfectly authentic and the young actors bring these characters to life. Right away we get a sense of their personalities, the emotional weights and balances in this group. A scene that was likely purely expository in the script becomes a window into the bond these characters have; a bond that is crucial for the show to make the leap from silly entertainment into realm of pop delight that it reaches. It’s not enough to simply get to know these characters. We need to feel like they know each other.
This group of friends who form the show’s heart. Will (Noah Schnapp) is quiet and kind-hearted. Mike (Finn Wolfhard) is the Elliot to the show’s E.T., his reserved nerdiness masking a deep well of resolve. Lucas (Caleb McLaughlan) is righteous to a fault, but the sort of person who you know from the start will rise to the occasion when needed. Dustin (Gaten Mararazzo) is the jolliest, most unabashedly nerdy of the group. Like any good summer tale, all of them will get a turn in the sun. Dustin’s moment to shine was the most entertaining for me, as he talks a science teacher and mentor into helping MacGyver a sensory deprivation tank when they need one (and yes, they very need one, very badly).
After that first scene, Will goes missing in the woods. His mother Joyce (Winona Ryder, God it’s good to see her again) becomes convinced that his disappearance is not as simple as it seems. However, the town’s sheriff, Jim Hopper (David Harbour) is refreshingly aware of his surroundings. Far from a stock bureaucrat, Hopper searches relentlessly for answers until he finds them, no matter where that search takes him. He begins to see the shape of the patterns that Joyce insists are there. Part of that pattern is the emergence of a monosyllabic girl (Millie Brown) with a buzzcut and a trail of bodies in her wake. The girl, nicknamed Eleven because the number is tattooed on her arm, eventually runs into Mike, Lucas, and Dustin as they launch their own search for Will.
Ryder has always been a whirlwind of an actress, balancing between scenery chewing and a sort of heightened brilliance. She gets to play a very short role here, and at times I think she was the only actress alive who could pull this material off. Joyce is a difficult character. We need to believe in her completely while understanding why everyone else thinks she’s losing her mind.
But my highest praise goes to Millie Brown. Eleven could so easily have become a cross between a MacGuffin and a walking Deus Ex Machina. But time and time again Brown, often speaking only a handful of words at a time, makes her into the show’s most fascinating character. To watch her perform is to understand how much an actor is responsible for a character being “shrouded in mystery”. We don’t need her to talk much to see the confusion and horror and power and fleeting moments of joy and discovery in Eleven’s face throughout the show.
The Duffers never lose control of the story. The plot never feels bloated. One storyline might spin its wheels for an episode or two, but no plot is ignored or left to flounder entirely in cliche. Even the show’s most generally disposable plot- a love triangle involving Mike’s sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer), Will’s brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), and the town’s stock charming bad boy Steve (Joe Keery)- takes a turn right when I was ready to zip through it that is as satisfying as it is unexpected. Much of Stranger Things alludes to its inspirations, but the Duffers are not here simply to praise their idols. This is their story and they tell it well. It is much more than a barrage of homages. Its roots are not just in movies and books, but in hot summer nights, when the shadows of trees are tall and the dark seems full of mystery and possibility.