Netflix has had tremendous success with their original shows, but their attempts at science fiction and horror have bared mixed results. “Hemlock Grove” was a more clumsy and unintelligent version of “American Horror Story,” and “Sense8” is plagued by the Wachowskis’ lofty ambitions and flawed execution. Netflix’s newest offering, “Stranger Things,” is a massive improvement for the genre and one of the platform’s best programs.
“Stranger Things” follows members of small-town Hawkins, Indiana, in the wake of a young boy, Will Byers, seemingly vanishing one night. Winona Ryder stars as the boy’s mother, Joyce, while David Harbour (“The Newsroom,” “Black Mass”) plays the town’s chief of police, Hopper. Also in play are a shady government organization, a mysterious little girl with special powers and Will’s three Dungeons & Dragons-playing friends, Mike, Dustin and Lucas. There’s a number of characters running around, but for the most part the show handles its stacked roster by smartly coupling people together. It does a great job of keeping individual plot threads separate until late in the game, when they come together naturally.
Created and directed almost entirely by Matt and Ross Duffer, “Stranger Things” is clearly inspired and influenced by Stephen Spielberg, and more recently, J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8”– itself inspired by Spielberg. It manages to stand out by avoiding cheap imitation and using Spielberg and Abrams’ work as a stylistic jumping-off point to ultimately create the Duffers’ own vision. It even surpasses the world of “Super 8” by creating a town that feels like a real place rather than a perfectly crafted stage. Hawkins feels like an authentic midwest town in the ‘80s, and “Stranger Things” is as strong a period piece as “Mad Men.”
Contributing to this vibe is the show’s incredible score. The synth-heavy soundtrack is reminiscent of “It Follows” or any good ‘80s slasher flick. The horror influences in “Stranger Things” are abundant, and the show isn’t afraid to move into darker, and scarier, territories as its story progresses.
Unfortunately, the narrative isn’t always clear, as it gets bogged down both in its own mythology and its human element. Without spoiling anything, as the weird science of the show is expanded upon, it becomes increasingly vague to fit the narrative’s plans. It isn’t a huge problem that will tamper a viewer’s enjoyment, but it could become one as the show moves into later seasons –which Netflix will inevitably order).
Likewise, “Stranger Things” too often focuses on minute subplots involving Mike’s older sister, Nancy (Natalia Dyer), and Will’s older brother, Jonathan (Charlie Heaton). Although they eventually service the greater story, it’s an unnecessarily roundabout way of getting there. It adds an element of melodrama to an otherwise well-made show.
Despite this, the performances of “Stranger Things” are all pitch-perfect. Unlike the overly clever children that serve as the protagonists of “Super 8,” the three young boys, as well as the teenage characters, all talk and act age-appropriately. It’s refreshing that in a show like this that covers more abstract topics, the younger characters don’t get swept up in the jargon or logic. Harbour also gives a star-caliber performance as Hopper, one of the few TV cops to actually believe the unreal things happening around him. Unfortunately, Ryder is underutilized as a mother that doesn’t have much dimension past worrying and crying. There are other complaints to be had about the broad strokes with which side characters are painted, not to mention the bad guys who are never fleshed out beyond being bad, but they aren’t enough to detract from the overall experience.
When it comes down to it, “Stranger Things” is wildly entertaining, legitimately scary and well worth the watch. It would have been better with one or two fewer episodes and a contained story, but the setup for the next season doesn’t get in the way of the first season finale. And unlike Abrams or Spielberg, the Duffer brothers aren’t concerned with some feel-good after school special sentiment. “Stranger Things” is pure entertainment and storytelling, through and through. Speed bumps aside, it’s one of the best and most effective TV mysteries in recent years.