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Television
by Tim Pratt

STRANGER (YET ODDLY FAMILIAR) THINGS


STRANGER Things is an original sf/horror series from streaming subscription service Netflix. All eight episodes were released on July 15, 2016, and the show was viewed by about fourteen million adults in its first month of availability. I was one of them, gobbling it up over the course of two or three days, and it was a high point of my entertainment for the year.

Set in 1983 in a small town in Indiana, the story begins with four twelve-year-old friends—Will, Mike, Lucas, and Dustin—playing Dungeons & Dragons in Mike's basement, facing off against the terrifying demogorgon (complete with miniatures). It's a great character-introduction sequence, and offers some of the best foreshadowing I've seen on TV: those kids will have to face monsters, and their only hope of success is to work together and depend on each other.

When the game ends, the kids set off on their bicycles through the night to their respective homes. Will (who we already like as a loyal, honest kid) cuts through the dark woods near a Department of Energy facility. A strange creature menaces him in the forest, and he abandons his bike and flees on foot, first into his house, and then into a shed in the back yard when the thing pursues him. When the creature appears mysteriously inside the shed, the electric lights stutter and dim, plunging the scene into darkness, and when the lights come on again, the room is empty, and Will has vanished.

The rest of the series is devoted to finding out where Will went…and dealing with the thing that took him. Those searching for Will include his friends, his mother (played to grief-stricken, determined perfection by Winona Ryder), his older brother, the local cops, and more. There's another major plot engine, though, and that concerns a twelve-year-old girl known as Eleven, played in an astonishing breakout performance by young actress Millie Bobby Brown. We first encounter El as a runaway in a hospital gown, her hair buzzed so short she's mistaken for a boy, her mannerisms strange and stilted. She tries to steal food from kindly diner owner Benny, who catches her and treats her with compassion when he realizes the strangely silent girl has suffered some terrible trauma. We soon discover that Eleven has psychic powers (beginning with telekinesis) and that she's being hunted by government agents who won't hesitate to murder innocent citizens to capture her. When Mike, Dustin, and Lucas find Eleven while searching for Will, they offer her a refuge. Her powers—and her past—turn out to be integral to finding out what happened to their lost friend.

I won't go full-on spoiler, but I don't think it's revealing too much to say there is a monster from another place, and Eleven was present when it came to our world. The creature hails from a parallel dimension, a dark and twisted shadow version of our own world the kids eventually call "the upside down." In proper horror-story fashion, we catch only glimpses of the monster early on, but when we do get a look at it, it's impressively grotesque—a little bit H. R. Giger, a little bit Lovecraft by way of Guillermo del Toro.

Over the course of eight harrowing and exhilarating episodes, we're treated to monsters, mad science, alternate realities, government conspiracies, loyalty, treachery, friendship, tragedy, sacrifice, and triumph. Stranger Things is full of great, pulpy storytelling stuff. It's also very firmly eighties stuff, and the show is absolutely steeped in references to film and TV of that era. Stranger Things doesn't so much wear its influences on its sleeve as wear a suit woven almost entirely of influences. The subtle and overt homages to the eighties work of Stephen King, John Carpenter, James Cameron, and Steven Spielberg (among others) permeate just about every frame. Spielberg's E.T. is a major visual touchstone, the flashbacks to Eleven's captivity in a government lab strongly reference the film version of King's Firestarter, and the dynamic of the kids is very Stand By Me, but that just scratches the surface—there have been whole articles dissecting the various references and nods you can find in the series.

That kind of gesturing-backward can be a huge weakness. I don't have much patience for copycat exercises that genuflect toward some beloved set of signifiers, hoping the audience's passion for the source material will translate into fondness for some extruded nostalgia product. In particular, I'm thinking of things like the film Super 8, which tried to out-Spielberg Spielberg but missed out on the emotional core that made Spielberg's eighties films so effective.

However, Stranger Things isn't just a Frankenstein's monster of stitched-together references. Creators the Duffer Brothers aren't recombining bits from movies they loved as children as a cynical marketing ploy, or because they lack imagination. They're genuinely trying to recreate the feeling of those films, to create a new story of small-town life transformed into a world of horror, or wonder, or both. I have a lot of sympathy for that mission (though I'm pretty close to their target demographic, as I turned ten in 1986, so consider my possible bias). With Stranger Things, the Duffer Brothers succeeded in creating something that has the feel of those eighties adventure movies but with a very modern approach to character.

And oh, those characters! The "boy gets stolen by extradimensional monster, government tries to cover it up, unlikely band of kids and grownups try to find the truth" premise is a compelling story, but it's the characters who make this worth watching. The kids are the core. Mike, the dungeon master, is the one most willing to take big chances and formulate a plan of action (not that they're necessarily good plans), and he refuses to give up on Will even when all hope seems lost. Dustin, the goofy kid with the missing front teeth who at first seems like our designated comic relief character, eventually steals every scene he's in, gives some rousing call-to-action speeches, and demonstrates astonishing insight into the dynamics of his group. (He also knows how compasses work, which turns out to be crucial.) Lucas is argumentative and suspicious of Eleven, but his anger is born out of tremendous loyalty to and worry for Will. They're all great characters and their dynamic is a joy to behold. Eleven is profoundly traumatized by her captivity, but she's also desperate for human companionship—for friends, something she's never had—and seeing her bond with Mike and discover a capacity for joy (if only in brief waffle-related intervals between threats and horrors) is immensely satisfying.

Will's mom, as I already mentioned, is fantastic, and her relationship with the misanthropic local chief of police is wonderful. She tries to make contact with Will (who seems to be communicating from the upside down, somehow, by manipulating electrical fields) regardless of how crazy everyone thinks she is. The chief doggedly hunts down the missing boy, even as it puts him in direct conflict with shadowy government forces. When they team up, they kick ass. Will's older brother Jonathan, a teen with a reputation as a weirdo and a penchant for photography, is also great, and with the help of Mike's popular-but-not-shallow sister Nancy, they do most of the work of tracking and fighting the monster, especially after Nancy's friend Barb also vanishes under mysterious circumstances.

While many of the minor characters are necessarily caricatured or shorthanded (the teen bullies are exactly what you'd expect, Will's no-good absent father is scum, and the evil head scientist is irredeemably evil), a lot of them are given impressive depths. Nancy's boyfriend Steve transcends his "glib jerk" origins by the end; I'd watch a whole prequel series about Benny the diner owner; and though she had only a few lines and scenes, the resolutely unfashionable Barb captured the imagination of the internet, with fans lamenting how limited her arc was.

Now let me spend a few lines singing the praises of my favorite deliverer-of-exposition on television ever (yes, even better than Giles on Buffy, the Vampire Slayer): Mr. Clarke, the boys' science teacher, played with vast dorky charm by Randall P. Havens. He is unflappably affable and helpful, whether the boys are asking about portals to parallel universes, how to build a sensory deprivation tank, or the metaphysical underpinnings of Dungeons & Dragons. He gets excited about science, encourages the boys in their hunger for knowledge, and neither talks down to them nor talks over their heads. I love him so much.

The show isn't perfect. I could quibble about the pacing, and there were elements of the resolution I found unsatisfactory (the plot arcs and character arcs don't dovetail properly, damn it), but as a whole I enjoyed it so much that I can forgive the flaws. Stranger Things twists and turns; it provides regular spectacles and revelations; there are wonderful set pieces and terrible setbacks; there are moments of fist-pumping triumph and nail-biting tension. Everything that needs wrapping up is resolved in the end, but the final moments provide enough hints of future complications to make me eager for the recently announced second season.

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