STRANGER THINGS (2016) premiered on Netflix earlier this year to instant acclaim from critics and audiences alike, which is no surprise since it’s one of the best new shows on television.
It’s one of those rarities of rarities in that its eight episode first season was pretty much perfect. Nearly everything in this show worked and worked well. And I say first season because it’s already been renewed for a second season.
STRANGER THINGS takes place in the 1980s, which is the first fun thing about this show. It captures the mood and look of the 80s perfectly, from vintage movie posters like from John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982) to the hairstyles, clothing, and sets, from the old style televisions to land line telephones.
The whole thing plays out like a long lost John Carpenter movie. Even the music score by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein is reminiscent of Carpenter’s film scores.
There are a ton of other 1980s film references and homages as well. So many in fact I could write an entire column just on its 1980s horror homages alone, from the episode names themselves, like “The Body” a reference to the Stephen King novella, to character names, to other neat touches like having the sheriff’s uniform and his vehicle as well as the deputies’ uniforms being identical to the ones used in JAWS (1975). Okay, so that one’s a 70s reference. So, if Sheriff Jim Hopper’s uniform had you thinking of Roy Scheider’s Chief Brody, there’s a reason for that!
STRANGER THINGS takes place in a small town in the 1980s. It opens with a man running in panic from some unseen threat inside what looks to be some sort of research or government building. We hear growls, and the man is snatched away by an invisible presence.
The action switches to four middle school friends. Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin), and Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) are playing Dungeons and Dragons in Mike’s basement. After their game, they bike home.
Alone, Will sees what looks like a monster in the road, and he flees as fast as he can back to his home. When he gets there, no one is home. The unseen monster pursues Will into his house.
Later, when Will’s mom Joyce (Winona Ryder) and older brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) come home, they discover that Will is missing. Joyce goes to their sheriff, Jim Hopper (David Harbour) and demands that he find her son. Hopper advises her to take a deep breath, that nothing sinister ever happens in their town, and that he will look for her son. Hopper actually has deep wounds when it comes to children, since his own daughter recently passed away from cancer.
The news of Willl’s disappearance rattles the town. Friends Mike, Dustin, and Lucas decide that they have to be the ones to find their missing friend. One night in the woods while they are searching for him, they find a mysterious girl who’s about their age wandering in the woods. She says she is running from some bad men, and so they take her back to Mike’s home, where they hide her in his basement. Her name is Eleven (Millie Bobbie Brown), and she also seems to know about Will, as she tells them he is still alive. More than this, she possesses certain powers which Mike and his friends cannot ignore.
Meanwhile, Joyce receives a strange phone call in which she hears weird cackling sounds, but she’s also convinced she heard her son’s voice on the line. She believes he’s still alive. Her oldest son Jonathan blames himself for Will’s disappearance, because he wasn’t home that night, and he makes it his mission as well to find his little brother.
And while he initially expected this to be a simple case, the more Sheriff Hopper investigates, the more he realizes that something very sinister and deadly is descending upon his town, especially since the clues lead to a top secret government research base located just outside their town run by a shady scientist Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine).
There are so many cool things about STRANGER THINGS it’s difficult to know where to start. If you’re a 1980s horror fan, you can have a field day with the show based on its references to that decade alone.
But aside from that, the story itself is a strong one, and it’s tight. It fits perfectly within the eight episode season. There’s no fat on this monster, and there aren’t any dull episodes either. (Hear that, FEAR THE WALKING DEAD?) STRANGER THINGS starts out intense and it stays that way, never letting up. And the intensity actually increases during the final couple of episodes.
The main story of Will’s disappearance works and is the force which drives this series along. Who isn’t drawn into a story about a missing child? And then it builds. What exactly is going on inside that strange government facility? What is Dr. Brenner up to? What exactly is that monster that is on the loose and where did it come from? Where’s Will? What is up with Eleven?
And the characters and the actors who play them are phenomenal.
When talking about STRANGER THINGS though, you have to start with the kids. Finn Wolfhard who plays Mike, Gaten Matarazzo who plays Dustin, and Caleb McLaughlin who plays Lucas, are all excellent. Wolfhard is also going to be starring in the upcoming remake of Stephen King’s IT. Noah Schnapp who plays Will is also very good.
But the best performance by a child actor in STRANGER THINGS is Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven. Brown is amazing in this role. Eleven is the most interesting character in the series, as you don’t know much about her at all at first and the more you learn about her, the more interesting she becomes. The best part of Brown’s performance is she captures Eleven’s sensitive side. Her scenes with Mike are tender and innocent. Of course, she can make an effective bad ass as well when she has to use her powers.
Natalia Dyer is very good as Mike’s older sister Nancy, especially later on as her character becomes more involved in the hunt for the monster. Likewise, Charlie Heaton is excellent as Will’s older brother Jonathan. I thought Heaton’s performance was one of the best in the series. I really enjoyed his scenes later in the season when he teams up with Nancy looking for the monster.
I’ve seen David Harbour in a bunch of movies, from the Daniel Craig Bond flick QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008) to this year’s SUICIDE SQUAD (2016), but I’ve never seen him as good as he was here as Sheriff Jim Hopper, with the possible exception of his chilling portrayal of a sadistic kidnapper in the Liam Neeson movie A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES (2014). Harbour was excellent in that movie as well.
But this is a terrific role for Harbour. He’s perfect as the responsible yet haunted small town sheriff, the man who does his job well in spite of the ongoing pain of his young daughter’s death. One of the reasons I enjoyed Harbour so much here in STRANGER THINGS compared to other things he’s done is simply because a lot of his previous roles he played weasels and jerks. It was fun to see him play a hero for once.
For me, though, the best performance by far in this show belongs to Winona Ryder as Will’s mom Joyce. Honestly, I’ve never been much of a Winona Ryder fan. She blew me away in this show, and for me, this is easily the best thing I’ve seen Ryder do. She’s flawless as the panicked mother who refuses to believer her son is dead. She’s terrific to watch in this series.
And Matthew Modine makes for an effective cold-hearted scientist as Dr. Martin Brenner.
The monster here is pretty cool looking too. It reminded me of the CLOVERFIELD monster’s baby cousin. And it was just as frightening.
STRANGER THINGS was created by Matt and Ross Duffer, who work under the name The Duffer brothers, and they deserve a lot of credit here. They also wrote and directed most of the episodes.
I loved STRANGER THINGS from start to finish and can’t wait for Season 2.