Stranger Things series one: spoiler-free review

Small town USA, 1983. Cycling home from a game of Dungeons & Dragons with his friends, young Will Byers suddenly disappears. Last seen late at night in the forest known as Mirkwood, Byers’s disappearance shocks the whole community.

His friends Mike, Lucas and Dustin refuse to give up hope even as the search becomes ever more desperate. Meanwhile, Will’s mother begins to wonder if she is losing her mind. Weird phone calls arrive in the middle of the night and the lights in her home flash uncontrollably. Then a mysterious girl arrives from nowhere…

Stranger Things is a bold homage to the 1980s. It perfectly captures my childhood in 1980s Pennsylvania so much that I could tell my wife: yes that’s exactly what I was doing at that age (well, except for being pursued by creatures from the underworld, that is). It’s so authentic that you wonder how series creators, twin brothers Matt and Ross Duffer, managed it, considering they weren’t even born until 1984.

It’s all history to them. The importance of history is that is reminds us that the world was not always the way it is now. That is to say, that not only are there alternate ways of living, but that whole societies have existed and thrived without any of the rules and behaviours that we take for granted.

When it comes to the 1980s, what this boils down to is freedom. Middle schoolers Lucas, Dustin, Mike and Will are basically left to do whatever they like. They fill their freetime exploring and playing role-playing games, making their own fun. Unlike kids today, their every hour is not watched and pre-programmed with endless after-school activities. Their parents are busy, and as long as the kids turn up at dinner time, nobody bothers too much about where they are.

It must be a revelation to modern kids to see their 1980s predecessors running out of the house and jumping on their bikes. Nowadays, when kids go cycling they wear so much body armour it’s like they’re heading off for a tour of duty in Helmland province.

The adults have a lot more freedom of manoeuvre too. Hopper, the local police chief, is determined to find Will to exorcise ghosts of his own. His muscular style of police work would get him on a charge and dismissed pretty quickly today, but in this time before computers and smart phone videos, he is left to his own devises to find the missing boy.

Played by David Harbour, Hopper is already my favourite TV cop. He is every inch the small-town hero as he walks in darkness after forces that he cannot possibly understand. Just as good is Winona Ryder as Will’s grieving mum. She’s a complete revelation after having been away from our screens all these years.

There is a fine line between homage and cliché, and Stranger Things doesn’t always stay on the right side of it. In one moment, some teenagers are making out in a house party while something evil stalks the surroundings, something that was already being satirized twenty years ago in Scream. Fortunately, the rest of the show is so breezy and fun that it’s easy to let these little lapses pass.

Stranger Things is a Netflix original (yes, I have now joined the cult) but I’m sure it will be available on DVD soon. It is worth the subscription on its own. It will turn your world upside-down.

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11 responses to “Stranger Things series one: spoiler-free review

    • As for me, I was just a bit younger so this was more like my life in 1986-88. I thought Lucas was particularly hysterical when he dressed up as the Karate Kid to go and rescue Will all on his own!

  1. I loved Winona Ryder’s acting. To the outside world she’s unstable, and she knows how others see her, but in her world it all makes sense and her goal is to save her child. Plus she conveys a bit of innocence at the same time – so willing to believe, or so desperate to find her child that she’ll believe and string those lights. Especially in the early episodes, when viewers aren’t quite sure what’s happening yet, she creates a person that viewers are also left wondering – maybe she really is unstable. I thought her ability to keep us off-kilter was due to her acting ability, and the writers. And I remember the freedom of childhood like this, although mine was in the 70s!

  2. Great review. I’d love to see it but have not yet joined the cult. Perhaps, this will be the voice in the wilderness.

    “The importance of history is that is reminds us that the world was not always the way it is now. That is to say, that not only are there alternate ways of living, but that whole societies have existed and thrived without any of the rules and behaviours that we take for granted.”

    Wonderfully put.

    • Thank you!
      I held out against Netflix for ages because I resented paying even more for my TV, but now I have the zeal of the convert. Their series are so good (as are those of HBO and Showtime) that they are raising the bar for everybody else.
      I also don’t have room in my flat for any more DVDs…

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