Review: Stranger Things - Season 1

Written by Jake Wood

Remember Super 8? The 2009 J.J. Abrams film, produced by (and largely inspired by) Steven Spielberg? Well directed, solidly entertaining, but shallow and derivative? This review is about Stranger Things.

For the people who have Ad-blocker on (and thus missed out on the ads for it on every Youtube video in existence), Stranger Things is that new Netflix series your buddies watched in one sitting the other day.

Is it worth watching yourself?

You liked Super 8, right?

Because I’m new to this, and I’m already testing your patience – Yes. If you have any interest at all in seeing Stranger Things, then you should absolutely check it out. It’s Amblin Entertainment nostalgia-porn, somewhat visually interesting at times, kinda touching in places, and I want more things like this to exist.

Still here?

That’s cool too.

I hope I don’t unconvince you.

It’s a little over-simplified to just call Stranger Things “Super 8: The TV Show,” but for the most part – it kind of is. In a nostalgic time period (1983 in this case), small-town U.S.A. has a monster problem, with some confusing government conspiracy involved. It’s also “Super 8: The TV Show” because it’s aiming directly for that Classic Spielberg hole in your heart; it looks like it at times, it feels like it at times, but it doesn’t fill you up like the real deal (*snicker*).

The show ultimately revolves around three storylines:

Police Chief Jim Hopper and Joyce Byers (David Harbour and Winona Ryder) are the adult leads of the show. Their story has the most in common with Close Encounters (and a lil Poltergeist); with Joyce being the obsessed adult destroying her family life, as well as the sad mother whose child is abducted by the monster (so she’s both Richard Dreyfuss AND Melinda Dillon in Close Encounters).

Stranger ThingsJim Hopper is basically your less-likeable Chief Brody surrogate. They investigate the conspiracy involving the local nefarious research facility (that they always had their suspicions of), the monster, and the disappearance of her son, Will.

The second storyline is the least derivative of Spielberg movies; this one focuses on Nancy Wheeler and Jonathan Byers (Joyce’s creepy older son), admirably played by cutie Natalia Dyer and reanimated corpse Charlie Heaton. Their storyline is pretty much a teenie-bopper monster movie: Boy likes girl from a distance, girl has a douchey boyfriend who pressures her in to having sex for the first time, creepy boy creepily takes pictures of girl taking her clothes off before aforementioned dicking, and wuh-oh there’s something in the background of one of his creepy pictures.

Hey you liked Super 8, right?

Their storyline is actually inconsequential to the over-all plot, and has no real satisfying conclusions. Pity.

The third storyline revolves around Mike Wheeler (Nancy’s younger brother), a mysterious girl in a buzz-cut named Eleven (Elle for short), and Mike’s annoying friends – the token black one (also the ONLY minority character of significance in the show), and the token one with a speech impediment (also fills the "fat kid who likes food" role). Mike and the other two boys were Will Byer’s friends. They team up with Eleven, who has a connection to the monster, and also has psychic powers - because the writers ask a lot of you.

Oh they also dress her up at one point, with a wig and everything, just like in E.T.

There’s an infamous clip from the ad campaign of Terminator Genisys, where James Cameron says

“The movie starts – and I start to see things I recognize.”

This is the movie-going (and now TV-watching) experience these days. Nostalgia is the name of the game, and has been for years. Is it all bad? Kinda. I mean, not all the time. Just most of the time. Okay almost all the time. On the whole, we’re scraping for literally anything recognizable to make a movie or show out of. But this is different. If only slightly. Classic Spielberg is basically the pinnacle of entertainment to me. From 1975-1993, that dude just fucking cranked out masterpiece after masterpiece.  It’s nice to see a few take a step back, and at least aim high. Aim high. You might hit low, but you can’t hit high if you don’t aim high.

So yeah, The Duffer Brothers (they may want to work on a more showbiz-friendly last name) aimed high. Didn’t quite hit high.

The visual touchstones of the show are lovely, easily the most cinematic looking show produced by Netflix. I’m a sucker for Christmas-light lighting, so I loved how prominent they are, I loved seeing Winona stringing them inside her house like a crazy person (this is her Devil’s Tower mockup in the living room), or her clutching a clump of lights until they glowed. They aimed high. However, the look of the show is a bit too modern, too slick. I’m not a celluloid film snob, but it has its place, this is one of those situations where it needed to be shot on film.

And the monster looks like a Tremors: The Series reject.

The music, both score and soundtrack are great to listen to. They aimed high. However a synth score is more indicative of something like a John Carpenter film, not Spielberg. The show needed a more traditional score; I don’t know jack about music but I’d call the type of music John Williams did “dingly.” It needed a dingly score. With xylophones or whatever. Hell, the trailers for the show had that.

Winona Ryder is pretty shrill and not-believable – I think she got hung up on being "unhinged." I can’t stand almost all of the child actors (not that they give bad performances, I just hated them), don’t ever give a kid with a lisp that many lines ever again; the exception being Eleven (played by the unfortunately-named Milly Bobby Brown), Hollywood - do not ruin that girl. The rest of the actors are all serviceable in their parts: creepy boy Charlie Heaton is a serviceable creepy boy, douchey boy Joe Keery is a serviceable douchey boy (I want to punch his haircut), and David Harbour acts gruff or something.

Natalia Dyer is a standout. If anyone’s going to breakout from this – I would expect her to; it’s nice to see a girl-next-door role played by a more mousey girl these days. If this were any other show, I would’ve expected an MTV Original Series boom boom young woman. Bella Thorne. I would’ve expected Bella Thorne.

Oh, and Matthew Modine is an evil science guy with white hair. There wasn’t anybody else available?

It’s frustrating at times, especially when ‘Stranger Things’ almost hits something truly special. The ending to episode three is where the story itself reached out for something daring and interesting, if only the producers took that route and ran with it – that sequence, set to a cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes” (sung by Peter Gabriel) is genuinely haunting and a hint at what the show could’ve been.

I have no idea whether this is a mini-series or not, because it was my understanding going in that this was a one-and-done story (and after a quick google, I still don’t know). There’s a lot in this show that doesn’t make a lick of sense (even after suspending my disbelief that all this wacky shit can happen), ESPECIALLY if this was supposed to end with some finality.  I already said the teenagers’ story doesn’t have a satisfying conclusion, but none of the other storylines really put a button on it either.  At best, the main story of “Does Joyce Byers get her son back?” gets a definitive yes or no.

…Or does it? Fuck you.

It’s not perfect. Far from it. It’s not amazing. It’s watchable overall. But only just.

Like Super 8.

But I want more people to try more things like this.

I want more Stranger Things to exist and less The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt or whatever. At least I think I do.