Winona Ryder in Stranger Things
Set in 1983 in Hawkins, Indiana, a sleepy little town next to a mysterious government facility, Netflix’s latest original show, Stranger Things, centers on the disappearance of Will Byers (Noah Schnapp). When Will doesn’t make it home after playing Dungeons & Dragons with his friends Mike, Dustin, and Lucas—in the biggest divergence from the actual 1980s in the show, Dungeons & Dragons isn’t demonized as part of Will’s disappearance—his friends begin a campaign to find and save their friend, despite everyone except Will’s mom believing he’s dead. What happens next involves MKUltra, monsters, inept town cops, bullies, a girl called Eleven, and Christmas lights. It’s difficult to explain without spoiling some aspect of the mystery, but Stranger Things is a perfect mix of Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, and Unsolved Mysteries.
Stranger Things is steeped in its 1980s setting down to the smallest details, like the nap on thick-pile carpets, and anyone with actual memories of the 80s will be caught in an odd vertigo—you KNOW this is fake, and yet it feels completely real, like it was actually made in 1983. And it’s not just the aesthetics. Stranger Things taps into three of the biggest 1980s fears in America: Single mothers, disappearing children, and Russians. Disappearing children is the main plot engine, but the Cold War paranoia and the tacit abhorrence of single mothers is so closely woven into the fabric of Stranger Things that they inform everything from what assumptions characters make to how they speak to one another.
The creators of the show, Matt and Ross Duffer (Hidden), capture both the “simpler times” feel of a bygone era, but also the grim reality of that time, with the perpetual threat of war and the way heinous crimes were so often swept under the rug. Will’s disappearance sparks a town-wide manhunt and media coverage, but when a second child vanishes, it’s dismissed as a teenage runaway. The cops in Hawkins aren’t bad people, they’re just small town and inexperienced, and maybe a little lazy, and Stranger Things subtly highlights how huge mistakes can be made in those conditions (see also: Ramsey, JonBenet). But as the chief of police, Hopper (David Harbour), a former big city detective, goes through the motions of an investigation, his alcoholic haze dissipates and he starts making connections his less experienced officers are unwilling to see.
The first glimpse of the Byers home reveals a house at the edge of squalor. The Byers are clearly poor, and we quickly learn that they’re a single-mother household, and the state of the house isn’t due to slovenliness but overwork—mother Joyce simply doesn’t have time to pick up after her sons. Joyce is tired and stretched thin, and there’s an air of fragility around her, aided by the “Winona Eyes”. Winona Ryder is wonderful as Joyce, convincing in both her ferocious motherliness and sensitivity—it makes perfect sense that Joyce is the first person to begin to suspect the strange and unexplained is behind her son’s disappearance.
One of the best things about Stranger Things is that very few characters are all bad. Hopper at first seems like your stereotypical macho asshole cop, but he turns out to be devastated by personal loss. The popular high school guy, Steve (Joe Keery), is neither Steff nor Blane but a realistic combination of the two. And the children are simply wonderful. These are the most authentic movie/TV kids in a long time. The trio of Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) form the nucleus, with Mike’s older sister, Nancy (Natalia Dyer, who looks eerily like Mia Sara circa Ferris Bueller), and Will’s older brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), rounding out the crew.
The way the kids talk to one another, the way they hassle and tease, is the best part of the show. Once the mysterious Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown, who is EXTRAORDINARY) shows up, the fault lines and fractures that form between Mike, Dustin, and Lucas inform the storytelling as much as Will’s disappearance. Stranger Things perfectly captures the moment between childhood and adolescence, when new friends and interests—and interest in new friends—can either make or break lifelong friendships.
The only real problem with Stranger Things is that the show’s slavish dedication to the 1980s often overwhelms the story. It can be scary at times, but it doesn’t get much more emotional than that, since nostalgia resides where the story’s heart should be. Too often scenes elicit an “I remember that!” response than an actual feeling. Stranger Things is, ultimately, more interested in evoking memory than emotion, and that keeps it from being the kind of transcendent experience it’s honoring, like E.T. and Alien and Stand By Me.
But it’s still a very fun watch, and at just eight episodes, totally binge-able. The soundtrack is amazing—and coming soon!— and the pacing clips along, integrating expository flashbacks smoothly so that Eleven’s past unwinds alongside the current mystery of Will’s disappearance. And the internet loves Nancy’s dorky friend Barb, but I would argue that Nancy and Mike’s dad is the best character on Stranger Things. He’s an A+ Useless TV Dad. There are so many references and homages that nerds will get plenty of satisfaction just from trying to find them all, and even casual viewers are sure to spot some of the more famous moments being referenced. Stranger Things is a creepy, fun trip down memory lane.