Katie and I just finished watching Stranger Things season 1 for the second time and you can definitely put us on the bandwagon of people who love this series (so far). It’s a nostalgic (’80s), sci-fi, supernatural creature feature, coming-of-age tale, small-town drama, adventure. Following is a brief review, but the TL;DR version is that it features interesting characters, superb writing/directing/acting, and a compelling plot. WARNING: THERE BE SPOILERS BELOW!
- The writing is really good. From the interwoven sublots to the dialog itself, it all starts with the writing, which is excellent. This is especially noticeable in the kids’ dialog, which actually sounds like things kids actually say.
- The acting is really good. With rare exception, all of the actors really inhabit their roles. They seem very believable and it is easy for you, the viewer, to immerse yourself in their world. This is especially impressive given that so many of the cast are children.
- The directing is really good. To elicit such strong performances from a cast ranging from Oscar winners to C-listers to rookies is no small feat; kudos to the [multiple] directors.
- The early ’80s nostalgia is on point! From the “Coke Is It” commercial to the clothes, cars, music, and hair, Stranger Things goes all-in on the early ’80s. They even ran the HD “film” through a filter to replicate the exact graininess of movies from that era. They had a vibe they were going for and they really nailed it.
- The character development is really good. Having eight hours to work with (rather than two +/- in a feature-length film) gives Stranger Things the opportunity to develop each of its characters – even the smaller ones. There are many side characters who don’t drive the plot much and who never would have made it into a feature film but, because they do have some development in Stranger Things, the story is richer and more immersive.
- The tension and sense of dread is really well done. Rather than beating you over the head with a CGI monster, Stranger Things takes a Jaws-like approach and builds tension with what you don’t see. When we finally see more than brief flashes of the monster toward the end of the series, it is almost anticlimactic; I’m so glad they were reserved with it.
- Any reference to D&D in popular media is OK in my book! 🙂
- The coming of age tale aspect of Stranger Things is really charming. These goofy, nerdy kids testing the bounds of friendship, grief, hope, and resolve is funny at times and heartwarming at others.
- There are strong female characters. They aren’t written as male characters who just happen to be female; they are female from the ground up. They are vulnerable, passionate, emotional, fallible, and strong. I love watching Joyce’s transformation as she stands up to Lonnie – and El is inspiring every time her nose starts to bleed.
- Hopper is overpowered. There are strong male characters, too, and Hopper is clearly on the list. It’s hard ever to believe he is in any real danger, though, when he just beats his way out of any situation. I wish they hadn’t relied so heavily on the Deus Ex Hoppera factor.
- There are numerous inconsistencies because . . . plot convenience. El, for example, seems perfectly capable of age-appropriate speech sometimes but then goes all “What is ‘friend’?” at others. Mike shows empathy and compassion one moment and then screams, “WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU?????” at El the next. These types of convenient inconsistencies reduce the believability of both the characters and the plot.
- The love arcs were very forced. Also undermining the believability of the plot was the shoe-horning of romantic tension into the Nancy-Jonathan and El-Mike relationships. The entire series takes place over one week – one incredibly stressful week of life or death danger and supernatural phenomena. I find it hard to believe that characters in that situation – even if they’re hormones-firing teens – would be tarrying to dabble in the romantic arts. You can make the argument that this is just one more homage to a nearly omnipresent element of early ’80s movies but E.T. – which is referenced left and right in Stranger Things – managed without a love interest and this should have too.
- And speaking of love interests, Steve’s redemption was totally unearned. He just flips a switch and goes from being a total jerk to helping save Nancy and Jonathan. Despite no indication of any athletic talent or fighting skill (quite the opposite, in fact), he instantaneously becomes a bat-twirling monster beater. I call BS.
Stranger Things season 1 is really quite compelling. It walks such fine lines – between homage and ripoff, between cliche and familiarity – but it winds up on the right side because it is just so well executed. At the end of the day, one of the best metrics of how good it is is that we are still talking about it, dissecting it, and analyzing it weeks after having seen it; shows that elicit that response are few and far between.
If you’re interested in movies that evoke a similar vibe, there are the obvious ones that everyone is already talking about: E.T., The Goonies, Super8, and several Stephen King movies. My strongest recommendation, however, would be Explorers. Just ignore the third act (Studio tampering!) and focus on how good the rest of it is! Or, if you haven’t yet seen Stranger Things, GET ON IT!