You know that feeling when you can instantly tell that a TV show or movie has been designed to pander to your exact demographic? It kicked in big time for me as I watched Stranger Things, a new Netflix series that’s one of this summer’s most pleasurable TV sleepers. As a ’70s baby who spent his formative years in the ’80s watching Steven Spielberg movies and reading Stephen King books, I wasn’t sure at first whether I could trust my reaction to this valentine for the youth culture of 1983. Was Stranger Things actually good, or was it just exploiting my sentimentality for the era of Atari and synth pop?
Heavy pangs of nostalgia kicked in straight away during the pilot, which sets up the twin storylines that dominate Strangers Things‘ inaugural eight-episode season. First, a young boy named Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) goes missing under mysterious circumstances while biking home after a marathon session of Dungeons & Dragons with his friends, sending his already overwhelmed mother Joyce (Winona Ryder, in a meta ’80s child star-turned-Dee Wallace role) and outcast brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) into hysterics. Then, a young girl (Millie Brown) known simply as Eleven shows up in town with a small army of government spooks in hot pursuit, driving her into hiding with Mike (Finn Wolfhard), the missing boy’s friend.
Eventually, with the help of Hopper (an effectively grizzled David Harbour), the town’s troubled sheriff, and Mike’s rascally clan of pals (Gaten Matarazzo and Caleb McLaughlin, who look teleported from a Goonies casting call from back in the early ’80s), the plights of Eleven and Will Byers merge into a battle against a mad government scientist (Matthew Modine) and a monster from another dimension.
In form, Stranger Things is intended to evoke the summer movies of the past — namely, E.T., Poltergeist, and Stand By Me, with dashes of John Carpenter (particularly the horror master’s electronic scores) and King books such as It and Firestarter. At least co-creators Matt and Ross Duffer — who mined similar territory with less élan as showrunners for Fox’s Wayward Pines — don’t pretend to be original. To the contrary, they’re upfront in the press materials about their influences, openly professing a deep knowledge of the show’s most obvious reference points. For example, the opening credits are modeled after the work of Richard Greenberg, who’s known (among uber-nerdy cinephiles, anyway) for designing title sequences for Alien, Superman, and The Goonies. (The typeface of Stranger Things‘ opening credits also recall the covers of so many ’80s era Stephen King paperbacks.) Like Jeff Nichols’ sadly under-seen Spielberg homage Midnight Special and Adam Wingard’s crafty John Carpenter update The Guest (which was also scored by Stranger Things‘ Michael Stein and Kyle Dixon), Stranger Things isn’t merely set 30 years in the past, it’s also meant to feel like it actually originated back in the Reagan era.
I suspect the Duffer brothers wouldn’t even mind Stranger Things being described as “derivative”; being derivative is sort of the point, though in the early going, the show relies a little too much on retro atmosphere. Nevertheless, Ryder is game in a part that requires her to perpetually teeter on the edge of emotional collapse. For viewers of a certain age, it might be disconcerting to see the iconic on-screen avatar of late ’80s/early ’90s Gen-X angst trying to hold it down as a 40-something mother. Was Heathers and Edward Scissorhands really so long ago? Bless her — she’s a sympathetic, if occasionally overwrought, protagonist — but Ryder is like a living, breathing version of one of those “You wanna feel old?” internet articles.
Given that Stranger Things ultimately addresses the central obsession of prime-era Spielberg/King stories — the division between kids and grown-ups, and how childhood fear of the scary adult world gets manifested in fantastical horror — Ryder’s casting has a kind of thematic logic to it. (The only actor who could’ve supplied more subtextual firepower is Drew Barrymore.) As Stranger Things unfolds, Brown and Wolfhard take center stage, along with a love triangle between Heaton, Mike’s sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer), and school heartthrob Steve (Joe Keery, saddled with that preppy Andrew McCarthy hair from Pretty in Pink).
All of the young actors are good, but Brown emerges as Stranger Things‘ most engaging performer. As the mostly mute Eleven, Brown plays a young-woman version of E.T., even donning a dress and blonde wig for a comical sojourn out of Mike’s womb-like basement. Of course, none of the adults catch on that she doesn’t belong.
Spielberg long ago graduated to making films from the perspective of fathers, but Stranger Things recalls the unique empathy he once had for children and his singular understanding of their codes and customs. Stranger Things is at its strongest when it shows (as Spielberg did in E.T., still the best film ever made about childhood) how kids construct their own cultures away from aloof, clueless parents behind the locked doors of their bedrooms and basements.
While the parents on Stranger Things (which also include Mad Men vet Cara Buono) are well-intentioned, much of the action takes place outside of the purview of adults. This is the nostalgia button that Stranger Things presses most deftly — it recreates a place that existed for kids before ubiquitous technology made it impossible for them to be off the grid. The underground kid network of the early ’80s — traversed by bike and communicated via references to movies that no adult ever watched — felt instantly familiar while watching Stranger Things. (Also dig the the rotary phones, 22-inch tube TVs, and walkie-talkies the size of Winnebagos.) It reminded me of how depressing it is to watch desperate adults in 2016 try to home in on the slang and proclivities of young people, whether it’s gleefully “me, too”-ing the latest pop stars or turning previously cool social media networks into lame hangouts for olds. Before the internet, keeping adults in the dark (which is where adults belong) was so much easier.
I can’t delve too deeply into the plot of Stranger Things without spoiling the mystery, though after having binged on all eight episodes last weekend, I should warn you: If you’re one of those people who feels they “wasted” their time with a TV show unless the resolution is completely satisfying, look elsewhere. Stranger Things is afflicted with that old Stephen King bugaboo where the monster is interesting only until it becomes literalized, at which point it looks like any one of the millions of other monsters you’ve already seen in movies and TV shows. And while Modine strikes a sinister posture in the early episodes, in the end he feels underutilized.
But the journey to the season finale is largely enjoyable and fairly breezy, no small feat given the tendency of Netflix shows to over-stuff to the point of sluggishness. (Don’t get me started on the torturously slow Bloodline, where each episode feels like sitting through an entire season.) The first season of Stranger Things is relatively tight and compact, playing like an extended cut of the pleasingly old-fashioned blockbuster that this summer has lacked.
So, stock up on Jolt Cola and watch the entirety of Stranger Things during a sleepover at a pal’s house. Just be careful on the bike ride home.