By now you’ve probably heard the hype about the latest major Netflix original. You’ve seen people freaking out about it on social media, you’ve read Buzzfeed posts about the cast members, and you’ve probably had at least a couple of friends make the recommendation: you just have to watch Stranger Things.
Stranger Things is actually a hard show to explain, in that a synopsis or quick description doesn’t actually make it sound that unique. Basically, it’s a show about a small town where (you guessed it) strange things happen. A young boy goes missing, a mysterious young girl with odd powers is roaming free, and a sinister research lab practices who-knows-what in a heavily guarded facility at the edge of town. Eventually, additional disappearances, monster sightings, and unexplainable freakish occurrences lead to a full-on investigation of paranormal activity.
But why do you actually have to watch this show? Aren’t there a million similar projects out there that have already driven these themes into the ground? Maybe, but there are a number of things that set this show apart as something not just stranger, but better.
The Pacing Is Phenomenal
Around the time I started watching Stranger Things I noticed an article at The Ringer that made the argument that Mr. Robot had a pacing problem. Forgetting that specific show, it made me pause and think about pace and television in general, and specifically the fact that a lot of our most popular shows seem to get by with boring lulls and thrilling highs. It can be effective, but it can also make you feel like you’re just waiting to get through the meat of a season. And in particular, shows with dark themes (crime, horror, terrorism, etc.) tend to try to lull us into a state primed for shock.
Stranger Things is remarkably different in this regard. It unravels over eight episodes in a very natural manner, such that even the quieter and slower bits are never boring. There’s always tension, but never too much, and while there are legitimate shocks, they never feel like their purpose is to make up for lulls or to force you to watch the next episode.
The Kids Carry The Cast
In more ways than one, Stranger Things is reminiscent of J.J. Abrams’s Super 8, even if they’re not very much alike. Both involve paranormal activity in small towns, and both are set a few decades in our past. Both also rely largely on child actors. When Super 8 first came out, MTV’s news section said of its child actors, “not since The Goonies has an ensemble of misfits been so entertaining.”
With no disrespect to those children, that statement is now outdated. The kids in Stranger Things are wonderful, and arguably more distinct than those in Super 8. If you watch this show, know that you’ll go nuts for the lovable, toothless Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), or that Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) and Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) will make you think back to your high school crushes. Know also that you might be seeing a rising star in Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown).
The ‘80s Flavor Is Delightful
Too often, ‘80s atmospheres in film or television are constructed lazily or comically, through the presence of a few songs or obvious symbols. Hot Tub Time Machine kind of mocked this fact with its hysterical caricature of ‘80s culture. But in Stranger Things nothing feels forced or comical—it just feels like you’re watching from within the decade. And it’s all basically done through little props. Gala’s bingo pages actually include another spoof-ish take on the ‘80s, in the form of a “1980 Club” bingo room. But while the description there teases “big hair” and “shoulder pads” for its bingo atmosphere, the actual imagery reveals some of the subtle props that legitimately make us think back to the decade: tape cassettes, roller skates, VHS tapes and the like.
And it’s similar elements like those that are sprinkled artfully throughout Stranger Things. Kids talk to each other on walkie-talkies the size of rolling pins; phones have chords; bicycling around town is a way of life; a Millennium Falcon toy is on the table in the background. They’re all small details, sure, but put together they make for a rich and fully realized atmosphere.
The Stars Are Shocking
OK, the kids are the stars also. But the two adult leads in this show are both completely shocking. One is Winona Ryder, who plays Joyce Byers, the mother of the boy who disappears. It’s a little bit of a one-note performance—she’s borderline crazed searching for her son the whole time—but it’s a very good one for an actress who’s been out of the spotlight for a while now. It feels like a crowning achievement for Ryder.
The other lead is David Harbour, who plays Chief Jim Hopper (or “Hop”), the local police chief seeking to get to the bottom of everything. Harbour’s been around for a while in supporting roles, but this marks as distinct a leap to stardom as you can imagine. He deftly transitions Hopper from gruff and almost off-putting to brave and heroic. By the end it’s hard not to think of him as something like a rural ‘80s Han Solo (some spoilers in that link, but it’s a nice take on Harbour’s work).
It Makes You Think
Most paranormal shows are nonsense. You wrap things up and think, “well, great, an alien was there” (or something of the like). Usually there’s not a lot of depth or philosophy involved. I don’t mean to suggest that I think the events in Stranger Things are any more plausible than those in Super 8, but they’re at least presented in a way that gives you something to think about. This show makes you wonder about the secret things that lurk just out of sight or just beyond reach, not the fact that some alien might jump in front of you one day.
So, yeah, you can add me to the list of people buzzing in your ear: you need to watch Stranger Things.