Saturday, July 16, 2016

Stranger Things

   Stranger Things is the TV show that Steven Spielberg, Steven King, Tobe Hooper, and John Carpenter never made, all together. Yet... here it is. It's apparently created by The Duffer Brothers... guys who at this moment have no wikipedia page. Just to give you an idea of how intensely this show blindsided me. I'd seen the ads and the banner for the show on Netflix, and out of the corner of my eye I made a mental note to check it out when it eventually came out. If I had known how much I was gonna love this show, I would've been counting down the seconds til it was available to me. To put this as plain and as simple as I can... This. Show. Is. Awesome.

   A few raving reviews from friends popped up in my facebook feed today reminding me that the show even existed and I figured I had time to kill, so why not binge it? If I didn't like it, I could always just turn it off and do something else. So I sat down and started watching it with my mom. By episode two, the rest of the family was sucked in and we couldn't even bear the 14 second delay for autoplay to start the next episode. The show is a throwback to 80's sci-fi/mystery/horror/adventure. It's part The Goonies, part Stand By Me, part Carrie, part E.T. The Extraterrestrial, and part Poltergeist. Yet not even all those comparisons do it justice.

   While 80's throwback stuff is 'in' right now, as evidenced by the popularity of things like Kung Fury, few movies, shows, or clips get it as right as Stranger Things does. Not even Super 8 and Midnight Special, both of which tried and succeeded to some extent to capture that retro magic. The difference is that while Super 8 and Midnight Special feel like movies about the 80's, Stranger Things feels like a product of the 80's. It's still stylish and unique unto itself, but the whole show feels like it's from back then without rubbing our faces in it (not too much at least). Sure, as a fan of all things 80's, I was in heaven with this show, but the Amblin-era magic would've all been for naught if the show itself wasn't good.

   The mystery and the characters at the core of the show are so engaging and interesting that I was genuinely drawn into this little drama. So while things like the soundtrack and the opening credits cut loose with it's 80's-ness, the stories being told function regardless. That's the key. That's why Super 8 didn't work for me. It was trying too hard. And partially why I only 'really liked' but didn't 'love' Midnight Special. So while Super 8 tried too hard, Midnight Special was content to remind us of that era, while leaving it's canvas mostly blank. Stranger Things is brimming with personality and homage. So while the kids in the movies remind me of The Goonies, they also remind me of the kids from Stand By Me... and Explorers... and so many other 80's movies. But never just one. They're not aiming for such a specific feel.

   It helps that the younger cast members deliver fantastic performances. They feel like a group of real friends plucked out of time and stuck in front of a camera in 2016. They have a strong camaraderie, and their acting is never forced. When they're being geeky and doling out Dungeons & Dragons references or movie references, it feels authentic. That's quite a feel. It's also pretty great that the showrunners love this era as much as it's target audience does. While the constant nods to the genre flicks of the era might take some out of the moment, I felt they were handled with enough care that they flowed, and felt smooth. Enjoyable even.

   The show itself is about a young boy who goes missing in a small town and his mother's frantic search to find him and get him back. It's such a simple premise and it works so well. In a lesser show, every episode would've had a new person disappearing, and it would've devolved into episodic nonsense, but this show doesn't do that. Each episode is a chapter, quite literally, in one big story. It's plots and themes aren't broken up by the confines of a TV show, to the contrary the show feels like an 8 hour movie, or a four part mini-series. It uses the length it has to flesh out the characters and the world they're in. Could the story be told in 2 hours? Sure. But why would you want it to be?

  I'm a major 80's fan, and I love the genre flicks from that era with a passion, so this show was right up my alley. But it's not only for fans like me, this is just damn good TV regardless. Winona Ryder is absolutely powerful as the missing boy's mom, and David Harbour is surprisingly likable as the town's police chief. I never spotted a weak link in the cast, which is uniformly awesome, but special praise has to go to young Millie Brown. She plays an enigmatic little girl around which a large portion of the show revolves. It's a huge and extremely emotional role and she nails it. I was just floored at her range and she can't be much older than 12. Amazing.

   I'd be fine if there's no season 2, because season 1 is perfect as is, but with the teases the show ends on... I can't help but be excited for more.

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