You Should Be Watching This: Stranger Things
So you may have heard this over and over from different websites at this point, but in a lot of ways it's been one of the worst summers at the movies, especially when it comes to blockbusters. While there have been some big bright spots (Captain America: Civil War, The Conjuring 2, Finding Dory), for the most part Hollywood's penchant for sequels and reboots has come back to bite them this year. Studios asked if people wanted to see a second Independence Day or Alice Through the Looking Glass and the answer from movie-goers turned out to be a pretty emphatic "NO".
Thankfully, the summer hasn't been a total waste. Due to the majority of the big tent-pole flicks falling flat, my demand to see them hasn't been as great, so instead I got to catch up on some awesome smaller releases (Swiss Army Man, The Shallows) as well as being able to watch some pictures I missed in the theater (10 Cloverfield Lane, Midnight Special, and The Witch). In a year packed with incredible showstoppers these might all still be blindspots for me, but in 2016 the little guys gotten a few more looks than usual.
To be honest though, the most entertainment I've gotten this summer has come from my TV screen. I can't honestly say that I've loved anything in 2016 more than I loved this past season of Game of Thrones, especially considering the last two episodes alone put most Hollywood epics to shame in terms of spectacle, suspense, and intrigue. It started in March, but The Americans closed off in June with their best season to date, and ESPN's O.J.: Made in America was probably the best documentary I've ever seen in any form. Add in inaugural seasons for both Outcast and Preacher and you've got a potent mix of genres that could make any fan happy for whatever you've been looking for and missing in a theater this summer.
Which brings me to the potent mix of genres over at Netflix. It's incredible how far the streaming service has come up to compete with cable titans such as HBO and FX. Sure, Marco Polo and Game of Thrones aren't in the same league, but with House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, Master of None, Narcos, and the sensational heroics of Marvel series such as Daredevil and Jessica Jones the $9.99 monthly app gives you more than your money's worth where most of the other big channels might have only one or two great shows.
Netlfix thrown so many series at the wall, at least one couldn't help but stick (much less a handful), but now with the premiere of their new show, Stranger Things, premium cable's biggest competitor has produced the most geek-friendly series since Walking Dead and Game of Thrones started ruling the airwaves. So sit back and relax as we talk about 80s nostalgia and faceless monsters.
It's Clobberin' Time!
Stranger Things (2016- )
Starring: Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, and Millie Bobby Brown
Created by The Duffer Brothers
To be upfront with you guys, and I know this isn't a terribly controversial stance, but I want to say that I'm a big proponent of nostalgia. I know there are people out there that sort of rail against it, but if it's done in the right way, there's an almost subconscious feeling of comfort that can hit you, immediately causing an emotional connection to whatever property is using it at the time. On the other hand, there's a tightrope that has to be walked because overuse of the technique can lead to the feeling of pandering or emotional manipulation. Some creators use it as a crutch to tell their story, while others can use it as a launching pad to try and extend those warm emotions into a new direction. It's why a movie like The Force Awakens worked, but why something like say, the new Ghostbusters, ended up losing me along the way.
Watching nostalgia really work and then grow into something new is pure magic, and it's that kind of magic at play in Netflix's Stranger Things. As a kid that loved E.T. and The Goonies, and read Christine and Firestarter, this show speaks to me in a way that Spielberg and Stephen King haven't been able to in a while. I'm not saying their abilities have lessened, it's just that their voice has changed and Stranger Things makes me miss the times when those voices simply brought pure wonderment. This isn't just a series of lazy callbacks of my childhood; this is a conscious melding of genre tropes into something that feels familiar and yet innovative and exciting.
The show revolves around a small town of Hawkins, Indiana in the mid-1980s, and mainly focuses on a small group of grade-school friends. And let me tell you, as we're introduced to each of them while they play D&D in a dingy basement my nerd heart sang with delight, and I knew I was in good hands. Sure, it's fun to see posters for Jaws and The Thing on their wall, but it's these kids that keep you coming back to this story over its eight episodes. If this small group of friends didn't work or if they felt out of place or disingenuous then the entire series would fall apart, but that doesn't happen. You love these kids almost immediately because you feel their kinship and chemistry. It's why it also hurts so badly when one of them (Noah Schnapp's Will Byers) comes up missing.
For show creators, The Duffer Brothers, the sheer amount of world building here is incredible. This isn't just some cliche-fest of in-jokes and pastel ties and jackets; this is a lived in world of working class people. All the art direction from family plates to the wallpaper look completely legitimate, and it's this entirely believable reality that allows you to take the leap when the rest of the group, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), find a runaway named Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), who may or may not have super powers.
I don't want to spoil too many of the twists and turns of the series, but suffice it to say that if you're a fan of 80's versions of horror, kids' films, video games, Spielberg or Stephen King then this show has something for you. The series stages meet-cutes and scares with equal aplomb, showcased in an early episode as Mike's sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) makes out with her new boyfriend while another character fights for their life against a horrible faceless monster. The dichotomy of the two sequences makes for riveting television; the show cutting back and forth while showing off just well its can pull off the mundane and the fantastic.
Horror fans should flock to this. The series is brilliant when it comes to displaying the kids' friendship and has a plethora of clever action sequences, but boy when this show is trying to scare you it really goes into overdrive. Whether it's dealing with human monsters or actual monsters, the series really feels like it's in its element when it's trying to frighten the hell out of you.
Of course, all the monsters and government conspiracies in the world won't make you care if the series' performances aren't any good, but top to bottom everyone here is pretty stellar. In fact, considering how difficult it can be to find likable child performances, the show is a bit of a miracle. All the child actors simply exist in this reality as if they were not acting; they just ARE these people, and that's a special kind of performance that you rarely see onscreen. This goes double for Millie Bobby Brown, who is able to get across the oddness of Eleven so often with just a simple word or look. Her quiet desperation and loneliness is always there as she adapts to being with these new friends on her journey. Also, it's an absolute blast when she finally has to go into kickass mode to be able to keep the boys safe.
As for the adults of the show, Winona Ryder shows off her terrific dramatic range as Will's single-mother, Joyce, having to modulate from manic to forceful determination to loving parent. In many ways Joyce is the heart of the series just as much as the kids are, and her devotion to Will is pretty obvious and inspiring. As a parent myself, the lengths she goes through to try and find her son without hesitation is something that rings, at least with me, universally true .
The other great non-child performance in the show is of Hawkins' Chief of Police Jim Hopper, played by veteran actor David Harbour. Cut from the same cloth as Roy Scheider's Martin Brody from Jaws, Harbour personifies the sort of "everyman" hero that used to be the center of many Steven Spielberg's most cherished directorial efforts. Harbour effortlessly gets across Hopper's world weariness, and how he's just trying to skate by and survive in his low maintenance job. When called into action, though, he has to step up, and watching him come out of his shell is one of the absolute best parts of the show.
Both these characters are indicative of the smart, realistic personalities that occupy this world. You want to be around them, and they help ground and humanize your journey as the kids go off on an increasingly fantastic adventure. I'd love to go into detail about almost every character in the series, but I'd like to leave plenty of surprises. Suffice it to say, I don't believe there's a single character arc for a main cast member that feels underutilized or half baked. The way show either uses characters to embrace or defy genre tropes is half the fun.
Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the incredible score by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein. As far as I can tell, this is their first work for TV or film, but all that's on display here is a complete mastery of mood and place. From the opening titles of each episode, you are transported to a time when Atari ruled and kids rode their bikes everywhere they went. The synth score is an essential piece to the puzzle that is the greatness of this show, and I can't wait to hear the work of these two going forward.
If you're a fan of E.T., The Goonies, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Poltergeist, A Nightmare of Elm Street, Alien, The Thing, It, Carrie, Pretty in Pink, The Twilight Zone, Firestarter, and maybe ever Home Alone, this is the show you've been looking for. This is eight episodes of not only pure joy, but joy, fear, sadness, dread, exhilaration, back to fear and then again back to joy. Stranger Things transports you without pandering and manages to make you feel just like the properties that influenced it did when you first encountered them. There's already talk of a season 2, and when it comes out (and I'm sure it will) I'm ready for where this show wants to take me.