Binge Watch This: Stranger Things

Do you like sci-fi? How about 80s horror films, a-la Stephen King? Are you a huge fan of the Goonies and Stand by Me? Did you play Dungeons and Dragons as a kid? If you answered yes to any of these questions and haven’t watched the Netflix original series Stranger Things, then stop everything right now and go watch this show. I’m serious. It’s that good. Binge-watching to avoid spoilers is worth clearing your schedule this weekend. Still not convinced? Here’s what you need to know (and why you need to watch this show).

Stranger Things is the little show that could. Rejected by 15 networks, twin-brother creators Matt and Ross Duffer finally found a home at Netflix. This, in itself, is remarkable, as Netflix usually partners with “brand name” directors like House of Cards’ David Fincher. However, Netflix aren’t concerned with initial release ratings and don’t share their viewership numbers for any particular show. What they do concern themselves with is whether a show has the ability to draw subscribers. It’s possibly this aspect of their business plan that led Netflix to take a chance on the word-of-mouth and cult potential of a quirky show from relative unknowns like Stranger Things.

Why this matters: A show succeeding under this model is a massive boon to us, TV and movie fans. It means the door is cracking open just a little wider for the kind of smart shows that have done critically well and have built a cult following, but historically haven’t gotten network support. (See: Firefly, Futurama, My So Called Life, and Freaks and Geeks, for example.)

What’s also unique was the brothers’ ability to retain creative control. The Duffer brothers had their hand in nearly every aspect of Stranger Things, and it shows. The tone is consistent throughout the entire viewing experience. It’s one thing to have a show that’s set in the 80s, it’s another to have it feel as though it was filmed in the 80s.

So many details, from the set dressing (the corded phone plays a huge role), to the eerie electronic opening theme, to the oddly  familiar title sequence font, place you in another era. This was all carefully constructed so that from the opening note, you found yourself psychologically back in the days of E.T. and Firestarter. As a kid of the 80s myself, I really responded to those subconscious triggers.

Additionally, genre fans will delight in the numerous references and homages to ‘80s films. (I mean, did you look at that promo poster?) The Dark Crystal, Stand By Me, E.T., The Manhattan Project, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Empire Strikes Back, Poltergeist and many films of the era get a tip of the hat. Yet these references are blended in so seamlessly, nothing feels forced or derivative. And, like many ‘80s films, the kid roles are played by actual child actors.

Oh, and by the way, the actors are fantastic. Matt and Ross Duffer spoke with NPR recently about the casting process and how child-lead actors definitely posed some production schedule challenges. (Seriously, Millie, where did that glitter come from?) However, the brothers were intent on casting kids that felt real in the way child actors in the 80s felt real: acne, imperfections, and playing their own age. The actress playing main character Eleven was actually 11 years old during filming. In an era where actors in their late 20s often play high schoolers, seeing real kids on screen is refreshing. The naturalism of the young cast in Stranger Things had me occasionally wondering if the dialog was scripted or improvised.

The adults are great too. Winona Ryder is incredible in a role unlike any other she’s done before; harried, unglamourous, and relate-able as a mother in an impossible situation, and David Harbour is brilliant as the town police chief struggling with his own demons. There isn’t much more I can say without verging into spoilers, but suffice it to say their characters face the implausible and impossible, and the entire cast handles it deftly.

Because the cast’s acting choices never smack of artificiality, the incredible events that unfold in the story seem as though perhaps they could have truly happened. So much so, in fact, that The Department of Energy (a fictional version of which is featured in the show) released a statement saying that they don’t, in fact, conduct super-secret operations. When a government agency feels the need to address a TV show, you know you’ve struck a nerve.

And that nerve runs deep. From Stephen King to Shonda Rhimes to Guillermo del Toro, industry insiders on Twitter have been confessing their obsession. Funko designers made a mock up of Pop Vinyl figures.  A nerd gym in Los Angeles recently did a Stranger Things themed workout. In other words, it’s only a matter of time before someone you know lets a spoiler slip. In fact, it’s been tough for me writing this piece without giving anything away. So do yourself (and me) a favor and go watch it. When you’re done, I’ll meet you in the Stranger Things Reddit page.

hk2000's picture

I did. Can't wait til the new season.