Stranger Things is one of two televised series I really got into this summer, for very different reasons, but I’ll get onto that another time. The Duffer brothers’ short series is one big love letter to the works of Steven King and Spielberg (though pretty much specifically E.T, in the case of the latter), brimming with all-too-familiar tropes drawn from both, yet very much its own animal, and a pretty energised one at that.
What the Duffer brothers have excelled at here is in tying together familiar themes and plot elements with an engaging aesthetic, simple but rounded characters, and the pace and level of scenic progression you very rarely get outside of film. I can’t think of a single series since Fargo which I had so much difficulty walking away from between episodes, and I’ve certainly never been so glad that a Netflix Original has been released in its entirety.
I’m also, conversely, actually quite glad that, at eight episodes, the series is relatively brief. Not just because this makes the series more readily digestible, but because it avoids the penchant of so many other television series (I’m looking at you, Jessica Jones) for padding out its content with unnecessary subplots, and worse, obligatory filler episodes, which ultimately undermine the pace.
Where the emphasis in so many series is on giving the audience just enough to keep them coming back, each episode here works as a pretty rounded unit as well as in tandem; it’s a pretty rare thing to find in television. If you’re going to tell a single story in a televised series, and tell it well, six to eight episodes (allowing for length of program) should generally be enough.
Set in an 80s Midwest fictional small-town of Hawkins Stranger Things vitally keeps the essential elements of the plot relatively straightforward: Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Will (Noah Schnapp), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) are typical slightly geeky kids intensely invested in their D&D shenanigans. One night after a protracted campaign session at Mike’s, as they ride home separately on their bikes, Will finds himself pursued by a strange shadowy creature with a sinister resemblance to the Demogorgon monster of their campaign.
The next day, Will is missing and his friends, mother (Winona Ryder) and brother (Charlie Heaton) struggle to make sense of what’s happened. Goaded by an equal mix of concern for their friend, a lack of confidence in the efforts of the gruff alcoholic town sheriff Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) and the simple imperative of undertaking the quest, in and of itself, the kids ride off to find their missing party member. Instead, they find a strange, seemingly half-feral girl with inexplicable abilities (Milly Bobby Brown) who is on the run from the shadowy US Department of Energy and the Demogorgon they have unwittingly unleashed. She can barely communicate at first and the only name she can give herself is ‘Eleven’ in what is obviously a Spinal Tap reference.
The aspect of the show which has probably garnered it the most critical brownie points is the excellent performances from a predominantly young cast of actors, especially the four main kids: El, Mike, Dustin and Lucas. What really helps for the main gang is the naturalistic writing; they curse and revel in trying to seem more grown up than they really are, but are clearly just children grappling with forces they don’t understand, quite literally so in the case of Eleven.
Brown, as the mysterious El, gives one of the most impressive performances seen from a child actor in recent years. You could even say she dials it up to eleven! (Sorry). Affectionately dubbed “the freak” by Lucas and Dustin, over the course of a few episodes El grows from a frightened and desperate enigma struggling to comprehend the world into a developed heroine. W.C. Fields famously gave the adage that directors should ‘never work with children or animals’, but performances like Brown’s and Jacob Tremblay’s in recent years are testaments that great performances from child actors are perfectly possible with good direction and, vitally, strong, naturalistic dialogue.
Of course, the kids aren’t the only good part of the show, most of the characters and performances are very strong, in fact, it’s hard to think of a single, actual character who feels undeveloped or poorly written. A testament to this is the somewhat ironic popularity of Barb (Shanon Purser) in social media, a character who the Duffers have stated was deliberately written as an unassuming and somewhat dowdy wallflower who wouldn’t distract audiences from the main cast and would make her friend Nancy, Mike’s sister (Natalia Dyer) stand out by virtue of comparison.
Harbour is particularly strong as the weary Chief Hopper, who’s initial disinterest in the case of Will’s disappearance quickly gives way to a genuine concern and, gradually, obsession, as more and more lose ends appear. Ryder’s performance has also been widely praised as Joyce Byers – Will’s beleaguered mother who veers between extremes of seemingly demented paranoia to virtual inertia and apathy during the strange course of events. It’s certainly a demanding role, and Ryder’s sheer range of emotional performance is fantastic; if a little jarring and exhausting at times for me personally.
Other great additions to the cast include Heaton as Jonathan Byers, Will’s older brother, who grapples both with the guilt of not being there for Will compounded by his own sense of failing in his assumed responsibility as the man of the house- as the older son in a single parent family. Jonathan’s violent resentment of his estranged father and his one-sided, only half-recognised feelings for Nancy also make for some of the series’ best writing. Even Nancy’s boyfriend Steve (Joe Keery) who for most of the show is framed as the stereotypical 80’s douchebagjockboyfriend character is allowed sympathy and multiple dimensions.
The other area where Stranger Things really shines is in its ability to present an appealing aesthetic. It might just be in part because I have a soft spot a mile wide for 80s music and films, but there’s something undeniably brash, bold, and simply fun about nearly all things 80s. It’s also an essential element of the plot- in much the same way as the gritty, hardboiled depiction of 70s Manchester is essential to Life on Mars – with radios and walkie-talkies being the characters’ only means of communication, and no smart phones to take the monster viral or tweet about the USDE’s nefarious dealings. The setting also provides a great excuse (as if one was needed) for a fantastic 80s soundtrack with an original by Michael Stein and Kyle Dixon plus a host of great numbers like ‘Elegia’ (New Order) the Peter Gabriel ‘Heroes’ and ‘Atmosphere’ (Joy Division) add heaps of great… well, atmosphere to already great scenes. The simple synth of the title score likewise hits just the right note, with its ever-so-slightly nightmarish tone.
There are, however, a few flaws. The Demagorgon works great as a shadowy, predatory presence for the vast majority of the series, and the Duffers are careful to leave it just out of focus in all its scenes – building up the image of an indescribable horror, literally blurring the lines between fantasy and reality – right up until the last two episodes. When the monster is finally revealed it’s… well… I’ve seen far worse CG but it was the first time in the series I was really aware that I was watching a television show with a television show budget.
It’s worse in the final episode where the monster is so much pride of place. It doesn’t really defeat the suspense, which is as finely pitched as ever, but something is lost when you realise the phantasmal horror is just Slenderman meets Day of the Triffids. It’s also incredibly inconsistent in terms of its abilities and ferocity, but that’s only to be expected of an extra-dimensional ghast I suppose.
The parallels between Eleven and the Demogorgon, as a sort of dark reflection of herself and what she has become/is/was becoming are referenced throughout many episodes, but the analogy rarely seems forced. I was very happy with the ending, not to give anything away – beyond all the stuff I’ve just given away – but it’s enjoyably well rounded, satisfying without being overtly schmaltzy.
There’s certainly room for another season or three, yet at the same time the Duffers were sensible about writing and creating a series which reaches a self-contained plot with a natural conclusion: with the majority of plot arcs seemingly tied up and just a hint of things yet to come. As fond of Game of Thrones as I am, it makes a very refreshing change.