Right now, many of my friends are obsessing over a new eight-part Netflix series named Stranger Things, and there's a lot of chatter about it on Facebook. I rarely get excited about TV series, even really good ones, but I took a chance on Stranger Things, and became an instant fan. So why are so many people raving about this show? Here are four of the reasons why.
4. The Show Skillfully Balances Elements of Horror, Mystery and Science Fiction.
A large part of Stranger Things' appeal is in how well it manages to balance different themes and story elements without sliding too far in any direction. That's a pretty neat trick, because the horror parts are scary without being too gory or frightening for people who are put off by that stuff, and the sci-fi is handled well without being distracting. It's all wrapped together in a mystery that's paced exceptionally well, which gives viewers just enough information at key points to keep them glued to the screen.
3. It's an Homage to Lots of Things We Love.
Many fans of this show are noticing how well it recycles some of the best plot lines that others have created in the past. The story feels original enough, and is especially solid with character development, but there are a lot of Stephen King and Steven Spielberg influences, with certain plot elements lifted directly from their work. There are bits taken from Firestarter, E.T., The Goonies and quite a few other sources, but the writing on Stranger Things is clever enough to make those elements satisfying in a way that seems interesting and not unoriginal or boring. Strictly speaking, the plot is derivative, but in an entirely entertaining manner. The overall effect is that the show feels like something new but is evocative of the best of King, Spielberg and quite a few other creative people who were at their peaks in the 1980s.
2. The Show Gets the 1980s Right...
...or pretty close to how I remember the early part of the decade anyway, with funky, boxy-looking cars, wood-paneled walls and shag carpeting; like most decades, the '80s had a "look," but it's one that rarely seems to be captured in films taking place back then. There always seems to be a tendency for filmmakers to throw as many decade-specific visual cues into period pieces, but they often overdo it. Stranger Things gets the look and feel of the early '80s right. There's no attempt at inserting a "new waver" into the mix of characters, or to have people wearing parachute pants or other extreme clothing styles as a reminder of when the story takes place. That's a good thing, too, because too much of that sort of visual dating feels artificial after a point, and can be distracting. In one episode, the characters find a bunch of cans of Snack Pack chocolate pudding, and it was a subtle visual reminder of something I used to see almost every day as a kid but hadn't thought about in more than 30 years. The show is peppered with those types of details, but they're handled well.
Stranger Things also makes very good use of music, too, both in the songs people are listening to on the radio and in its score, which sounds authentic compared to the scores from movies of the period. Even the title screen and fonts used in the credits look as if they could be from a film released in 1984. Stranger Things is a rarity in that it makes interesting use of nostalgia, but rather than feeling artificial or saccharine, it works.
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1. The Acting Is Exceptional.
A few people have commented that Winona Ryder's performance as a mother whose son has gone missing is over the top and jarring. I didn't find her acting to be off-putting, but could concede that it pales in comparison with that of some other cast members. That's not a slam on Ryder, but the talent on display in Stranger Things is exceptional, especially among the younger actors. The group of nerdy friends played by Finn Wolfhard, Caleb McLaughlin and Gaten Matarazzo feels authentic, and each actor seems natural as his character.
Natalia Dyer is perfect as a teenage girl who is equally convincing dealing with the normal pressures of coming of age as she's battling a trans-dimensional monster. Joe Keery plays her "maybe he's a jerk, maybe he's not" love interest, and suggests the preppy asshole characters from John Hughes's films, but with more depth. There's an abundance of acting chops on display in Stranger Things, but 12-year-old Millie Bobby Brown's performance as a telekinetic girl is a step above the rest. She is perfect at communicating a wide range of emotions with a character who has very few lines, and must rely on non-verbal acting.