Hawkins, Indiana, 1983. Four young schoolboys spend their time watching movies, playing Dungeons and Dragons and avoiding bullies. One of the boys, Will, abruptly vanishes. Shortly afterwards, a mysterious girl appears in the woods. Known only as “Eleven” she agrees to help the three boys find their friend, if they help keep her safe.
A few moments into watching the first episode of Stranger Things it is entirely possible you will forget you are watching something made in 2016 and come to believe that the Duffer Brothers have somehow opened a space/time portal to 1983 and gotten their hands on a contemporary TV show that they have spruced up with modern editing and effects. Setting a story in the early 1980s is one thing, but Stranger Things takes a step forward in authenticity by making it feel like it was written and filmed then, with a battery of different techniques used to sell the period detail. It is a remarkable achievement.
It would be, however, all for naught if the show was not well-written and good enough to stand on its own feet. And it certainly is that. Stranger Things takes its cue from the 1980s but is clever enough to use more than just a few tropes and basic ideas. Stretching a single Steven Spielberg or Joe Dante movie idea across eight hours would, no matter how good the plot, result in a badly padded and stretched story. Instead, the Duffer Brothers throw a lot more into the mix. You have a kid-focused storyline reminiscent of The Goonies or E.T., a teenage-focused storyline that seems to be riffing briefly on The Breakfast Club but also every teen horror movie ever (and occasionally even The Evil Dead and John Carpenter’s films) and an adult-oriented mystery story riffing more on Close Encounters of the Third Kind (with lightbulbs replacing mashed potato), The X-Files and Twin Peaks. But Stranger Things uses these things as flavourings and touchstones. The story and characters are more than strong enough to stand on their own.
At the heart of the story is the disappearance of Will and the impact this has on his friends, his older brother and his mother Joyce (played with aplomb by Winona Ryder, whose casting provides a neat, authentic tie-in to the decade in question). This ties with themes of childhood, innocence lost, the worst fears of parents and helplessness in the face of an uncaring world. This very relatable theme informs everything else that goes on in the story. Similarly, the discovery of Eleven (12-year-old Millie Bobby Brown providing the breakout performance of the story) and the abuse she suffered at the hands of a coldly uncaring government institution only interested in results and advantages taps into societal beliefs about the innocence of children, the morality of scientific research and notions of corporate responsibility. The complexity of these elements, emphasised by Eleven’s Stockholm Syndrome-like relationship with Dr. Brenner (a career-resurging move for Matthew Modine), is an element where Stranger Things differs from its forebears, where the likes of Close Encounters and E.T. ultimately had well-meaning government agents whom the heroes eventually team up with. In Stranger Things the bad guys remain relentlessly bad.
Other elements of the story also evoke traditional tropes but stand them on their head. Nancy (Natalia Dyer) is caught in a love triangle between the cool Steve (Joe Keery) and the shy, more geeky photographer Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) which is so 1980s it hurts, down to Steve’s cruel jokes and Jonathan being almost too shy to talk to Nancy but later proving his worth with a baseball bat ordained with nails. However, the show complicates things by showing Steve as having more nuance and depth than it first appears and by giving Jonathan some rather unlikeable traits (like taking pictures of people without their knowledge or consent). Nancy herself is also a more interesting character than many of her inspirations, with her later belligerence and disregard for her own safety (but deep concern over the safety of others) in tackling the monster being quite impressive. Police Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) feels a bit under-developed as a protagonist in the opening episodes but he acquires more layers as the series proceeds and the final episode sets his character on a path which is downright intriguing.