Stranger Things Has Turned Me Upside Down
Netflix's smash hit series which is a pastiche of 80s classic films and shows has given me faith in TV again
In late 2016, I had signed up for a 30 day free trial of Netflix, a service I had previously only used to rent DVDs and blu-rays five years previously. I had gotten curious to see what all this binge-watching fuss my Facebook friends were posting of was all about. Immediately I asked for recommendations on some fun shows I could watch. At least two people recommended a show I had never heard of, a supernatural type show where the heroes were kids, set in the Fall of 1983, all of which appealed to me, entitled Stranger Things.
I've always been a creature of habit. When I was a little boy, from the age of about eight to about seventeen, I had a regular TV viewing schedule I stuck to at all times. Every cartoon I watched every Saturday morning, every show I watched every weeknight, even the reruns the local stations ran every afternoon. If I watched a show regularly, I made absolutely certain I never missed it. I had a habit of getting really passionate about TV shows I enjoyed watching, a habit I am sure I inherited from my late mother.
As I got older, however, I started to become less interested in television and more interested in films and the Internet. Other than Doctor Who--which I was going to be invested in as a rule since I always have been--and WWE programming (at least when they had something worth being invested in), I had no shows I was invested in any longer. Stranger Things changed that.
The story of Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), a 12 year old boy from Hawkins, Indiana who is abducted by a mysterious force while biking home after a day of playing Dungeons and Dragons with his best friends Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin), and Dustin Henderson (the delightful Gaten Matarazzo) and the search for him by the boys, their new friend Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), a near mute young lady with Carrie-like supernatural powers who has been living most of her life in a nearby laboratory, Will's mother Joyce (Winona Ryder), his big brother Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton), Mike's older sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Hawkins' Chief of Police Jim Hopper (David Harbour), instantly captivated me.
The supernatural subplot of the Demogorgan who took Will into the alternate world the Upside Down is very reminiscent of something Stephen King might have conceived in 1983--likely why the font used for the intro on the show is identical to the font to the cover of King's novel Needful Things--and in fact King himself is on record as saying he loves the show.
It wasn't just the throwbacks to things like He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Atari, Eggo waffles (favorite snack of heroine Eleven), etc., or the extremely retro music in the show which did this. At the center of the show were a very Goonies-like group of kids in the Party, which Mike leads, and they and their relationships are just as intriguing as the premise of the show itself.
The best example is the relationship between Mike and Eleven. When the boys first discover the nearly-hairless young lady in the first season, despite Lucas and Dustin distrusting her, Mike hides her in his basement and slowly develops a bond with her as he tries to teach her about things that she doesn't understand, which are many since she has been sheltered in a laboratory most of her young life. Said bond develops into a crush to the point where these kids' romance is arguably the most important thing on the show. On a personal note, if they end up like Kevin Arnold and Winnie Cooper on the Wonder Years (a non sci-fi but similarly nostalgic series from my own youth), I'm going to be very upset.
A lot of times when television shows add new characters to a core group, said characters throw off the balance, are unpopular with fans and ruin the show, and I am looking at Seven Bundy when I say that. For the three seasons Stranger Things has been on Netflix, this has never been the case. Case in point: In Season 2, newcomer Max Mayfield (Sadie Sink) arrived in Hawkins from San Diego, eager to join the Party and belong somewhere despite Mike being reluctant. He did not want another girl to take Eleven's place after she disappeared on them the previous season. Gradually, especially as she started to learn the truth about their exploits, the sassy tomboy Max became accepted by the group and blended in pretty well, despite the efforts of her ornery older stepbrother Billy Hargrove to sabotage this. And I am pleased that by the current season, she is one of them and fits like a glove. She has particularly great chemistry with Eleven now. I'm happy to say that because there was (one-sided, to be fair) tension between them last season and I didn't like that at all.
During the current season, former Hawkins High School resident douchebag (as Lucas called him) Steve Harrington (Joe Keery), who by this point has not only evolved into a kinder young chap, but also into a sort of big brother figure to the kids, particularly Dustin, befriends Robin, his coworker at the ice cream shop in the Mall. Robin is played by Maya Hawke and, like Max a season before her, she is a welcome addition to the cast. Her storyline this season with Dustin, Steve and amazingly Lucas' little sister Erica (Priyah Ferguson, who reminds me a lot of Dee Thomas on the 70s sitcom What's Happening!) is fun and engaging. It is easy to see why the show has attracted a lot of guest stars whose work in the 80s either influenced or is referenced in some way on the show like Sean Astin, Paul Reiser and Cary Elwes.
The adults on the show leave a bad taste in lots of peoples' mouths. Mike and Nancy's parents in particular are totally clueless--although Mrs. Wheeler becomes slightly less so in the later seasons--and Joyce Byers is called a bad mother by some viewers, although I disagree because in the 80s, it was far easier to assume your child was with their friends as usual and not in trouble because the technology to know this for a fact just wasn't there. Plus, Hopper was criticized for making everybody forget about Barbara Holland, Nancy's best friend, who died in the first season. However, much like in most films John Hughes made in the era of the show, the adults are not the selling point of the show. The kids are and they rule. They are a fun bunch of lads played by a fun bunch of talented young actors. Toothless Dustin Henderson, who'd likely stick out like a sore thumb amongst any other group of kids in Hawkins, is my favorite of the kids, though MIllie Bobby Brown is by far the best actress of them all. If I weren't about to say so, you would never guess in a million years that she was British, much the same way you'd never guess that Dacre Montgomery (Billy) is Australian.
In the summer of 2011, JJ Abrams wrote and directed a movie called Super 8 which was also a throwback to the films of Steven Spielberg during the late 70s and early 80s (set in 1979), also had a group of kids as the heroes and also dealt with an alien invasion of a small town. While the film was a good, solid piece of entertainment (and I say that with all sincerity, I recommend the film all day long) with great characters and a nostalgic feel that I loved, it was nowhere near as good as Stranger Things. Perhaps if it had been a television show too it would have been because then it would have been able to flesh out the characters and their values more.
Since getting hooked on this show, I have also come to be hooked on Cobra Kai on YouTube, which I don't need to cover because I wrote an article on that show a while back, and GLOW, also on Netflix. Would I have ever gotten hooked on them if not for Stranger Things? I can never know for sure but probably not. I understand the show will wrap up within the next one or two seasons. Understandable as you don't want to drag it on until nobody cares anymore. But I've seen a lot of series which wrapped up unsatisfactorily. I hope this not only wraps up in a good way but also leaves room to make reunion movies down the road.
The show has earned that much.