Stranger Things seems to have dropped out of the brains of The Duffer Brothers and onto our Netflix world this weekend. The digital platform continues to move from strength to strength with original series, particularly capitalizing on the summer TV scheduling graveyard, making TV seasons all but redundant to those who’ve cut the cable cord. The show is creating instant buzz from the binge-watchers and those with more discipline alike (we’re split along the middle, mostly due to starting it later last evening).
From the instantly recognizable title font that conjures up innumerable idyllic memories curling up with so many Stephen King paperbacks in the summers of youth (and adulthood) to the Spielbergian homages that feel true and never cloying even when they are sometimes on the nose, to the heart-rendingly good musical cues circa 1983 (and before) (Joy Division’s Atmosphere for one), Stranger Things comes perfectly gift wrapped for viewers. Couched in all of this wonderful instant familiarity (of something so missed in entertainment and culture) is a worthy product made by life-long film watchers and students of the medium that know that there is very little new under the sun, that very few modern tricks and effects can ever better the established formal techniques and visual choices that the masters of film have done for a century, long before the internet and Netflix were even a germ of an idea of a place to watch television.
At the halfway mark of the eight episodes of season one, Stranger Things has immersed us fully in the 1983 world that feels authentic to those that were there and also celebrates the left of centre world of the early eighties which is just as real to us, embedded as it is in our psyches, memories and hearts: the world of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, of E.T., and also, of Firestarter and Carrie, of Star Wars action figures and blanket forts, and friendship being a life sustaining force and parents being well-meaning but sometimes clueless overlords in station wagons, of BMX bikes and the last slice of pizza as an offering to an older girl-crush, of awkward growing pains and painted cinderblock classroom walls. It’s about the best time of all modern life and many of our best narratives of all time: when the protagonists have one foot in childhood with innocent belief in superheroes and superpowers of the self, and the other in the utterly scary world beyond the childhood comforts we know. It’s about the promise and potential of both of these sides of youthful identity: agency, fear, secrecy, lawlessness. It’s about good guys and bad guys when we knew what those looked like and we could see them coming a lot more clearly than they do as the world grinds on in the new century. Even with the chilly subject matter and good old creeper feelings it creates, this well-told television show is a comforting warm blanket, a fact maybe partly due to the dark cynicism of so much entertainment and “must-watch” TV today.
Less is more with reference to plot details: the supernatural world is present as well as questionable ethical science and simple electrical weirdness as an easy, yet always potentially frightening symbol for how dark things can get and how quickly. There’s a disappeared boy and now a teenage girl, a small town, a strange girl with strange powers, and shadowy men in pursuit. It’s all the makings of a good Television Event like the days of old, when time moved slower, for smack dab in the middle of summer in 2016. You know you’re going to binge it so clear a weekend and at least try to stretch it for a couple of sittings, order pizza, and keep your sweetie or your trusty animal close. Failing that, grab an action figure for a talisman/company.
(Stranger Things is streaming on Netflix now (Canada/U.S./ U.K.) with a great slate of newcomers as well as Winona Ryder in a career-redefining performance and a suddenly all-white Matthew Modine in fine, chilling form in a chilling white lab coat, along with Mad Men’s Cara Buono almost unrecognizable as a dark brunette. The town’s all-important flawed but quietly heroic Sheriff is played delightfully by TV veteran David Harbour. Mention must be made for the stellar series music by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein.)
By Jacqueline Howell
Jacqueline’s favourite and most re-read of the many great summer defining Stephen King books are Different Seasons, The Shining, The Stand and The Green Mile and has never stopped pining for how magic the ordinary world felt in the era of E.T., an era that continued for approximately 3 years in the early 80s. Her favourite Spielberg film of today, though, is Jaws.