Fans of Stephen King’s milieu will love Stranger Things, the Netflix program created by The Duffer Brothers, Matt and Ross. Given the show’s setting, themes, and aesthetic down to the font of the “chapter” titles that open each episode, it is easy to forget that Stranger Things isn’t actually adapted from a novel by King. Check out the opening credits:
The show has the feel of King story adapted for the screen, directed and scored by John Carpenter, co-written and produced by Steven Spielberg in the mid-80’s. It’s all really, really great.
Set in 1983 in an Indiana suburb, the show kicks off when Will Byers, one of a quartet of pre-teen boys introduced playing and impassioned game of Dungeons & Dragons, goes missing, nabbed by a shadowy someone or something. When it becomes apparent that Will has not simply run away, the investigation is on, led by Police Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour), a drunken layabout with a tragic past, with the boy’s desperate single mother Joyce (Winona Ryder), high school outcast brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), and three best friends, MIke (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) taking it upon themselves to conduct their own investigations. Mysteries and riddles accrue as Chief Hopper’s search leads him to a nearby research facility, Joyce begins to believe that her son is communicating with her from another plane of existence, and the boys come across a girl in the woods who identifies herself only as “Eleven” (Millie Bobby Brown) and who has an unnerving habit of moving things and people with her mind.
The setting and characters are unmistakably King-esque: the fully-realized small town community, the drunk, tragic male lead, the mother alone in her frantic attempts to save her child, the child with incredible abilities on the run from a shadowy government agency, the teens who are as concerned with their first forays into sex as they are with the supernatural phenomena happening around them, but the tone and feel of vintage King is present as well. The Duffer Brothers treat childhood as King does, fondly but without romanticism or sentimentality; being a kid is a scary business even when there aren’t extra-dimensional monsters running about. Being a nerd doesn’t make a character safe in this narrative, nor does being a bully mean death; sometimes it is the coolest guy in school who gets the girl, not the misunderstood weirdo, and sometimes that cool-guy/bully isn’t that bad a guy, and sometimes the good-guy/weirdo is actually a little bit of a creep; Stranger Things may cater to the nerdy, but it does not pander to them.
While Stephen King is likely the biggest influence upon Stranger Things, Stephen Spielberg is the more obvious one, especially when the story focuses upon the youngest faction of the cast. Even while the audience is invited to chuckle at antics of Mike, Dustin, and Lucas, and the seriousness with which they treat those antics, one never doubts the sincerity or depth of their bond, or the realness of their pain. The boys’ dynamic and their, either literally or effectively, absent parents, is the stuff of old-school Spielberg, and the Duffers are not shy about showing off their muse. A scene in which the boy, along with their new, supernaturally gifted, friend flee on bikes from government operatives is not a subtle homage, and it is made all the more satisfying for its obviousness.
The cast is perfect, top to bottom. Ryder is panicked and frustrated without ever crossing over into shrillness (it may be alarming to some that Winona Ryder can now realistically play the mother of teenage boys); Harbour has the everyman quality of 80’s B-movie leading men while possessing talent for acting; Matarazzo, McLaughlin, and Wolfhard are likeable, not cloying or obnoxious or, rather, when they are obnoxious it is because the script calls for it; Matthew Modine is so perfect as the head of the nefarious government agency (with a tremendous shock of white hair) that it’s hard to believe he hasn’t been cast in this kind of part before; as the male sides of Stranger Things’ teenage romantic triangle, Heaton and Joe Keery each possess the right combination of appealing and repellent; and as Nancy Wheeler, the third side of said triangle and the missing boy’s brother, Natalia Dyer is so perfect in look and affect that she seems transplanted from a half-remembered horror film from 1985.
The Duffers nail the aesthetic. The 80’s setting is not only an artistic choice, they, of course, want to recall the Spielberg and King works to which they pay homage, but also the search for a missing child is more visually and narratively dynamic when characters do not have access to the internet or cellphones. With the exception of a few musical selections, nothing is too on-the-nose when it comes to artistic choices; the show is set in the 80’s not “The 80’s!” Naturally, some cultural touchstones are remarked upon; Jaws and Evil Dead posters adorn the walls of the the Byer boys’ bedrooms, a treasured pair of tickets to Poltergeist are presented, but the Duffers never hit the audience over the head with them; the world feels complete and lived-in.
A brisk eight, hour-long, episodes, Stranger Things never feels rushed nor unnaturally stretched. There tension and mystery builds without the obnoxious cliffhangers that might be present if the program were on television rather than a streaming service. There is enough left undiscovered and unrevealed at the conclusion of the eight episodes that a second season seems called for, but the story is wrapped-up enough that the season could be a very satisfying standalone miniseries. It’s a complete story, but you want more. That’s a good thing.
Creator: The Duffer Brothers
Cast: Winona Ryer, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, Cara Buono, Matthew Modine