All 8 episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
At one point in Netflix’s perfectly titled Stranger Things (no plot spoilers, pinky promise), one of the show’s plucky, impeccably nerdy heroes, Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), loses his mind over the short run-time of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Defacto leader Mike (Finn Wolfhard) rebuffs: “It was 10 hours!” By the time the credits roll, Stranger Things more than earns Dustin’s meta joke: it’s hard to leave the sleepy, Amblin-inspired hamlet of Hawkins, Indiana behind, even when you realize you just spent 8 hours embedded in its strangeness. Like Dead of Summer (although far more lovingly, obsessively detailed), Stranger Things first-and-foremost perfects its tonal period balance between a charm- and menace-filled Spielbergian kids’ adventure, and the hyper-modern update of that, à la Super 8.
In Hawkins, shadowy figures roam an abandoned lab in the middle of the forest, a group of pre-teens debate the correct way to dispatch their D&D nemesis, The Demogorgon, and a rockin’ 80’s soundtrack never gets in the way of the fun (in fact it enhances it – a specific banger by The Clash becomes a plot point later on). The show suffers slightly from essentially meeting your expectations head-on (if you thought, Super 8: The TV Show! watching that first trailer, you were right), but it is such a well-made entry into the genre that it’s hard to fault it for so closely following expected pathways laid before it by its predecessors. Doubly unfortunate is when it follows those routes into (a few) of its brethren’s more woeful third act disappointments, but long, long before that Stranger Things is a straight-up, unabashed, warm summer night’s delight that’s essentially impossible not to recommend.
Kicking off its shenanigans is the disappearance of little Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), which spurns a town-wide hunt and panic in the otherwise idyllic Indiana paradise, whose only previous afflictions since the 1920s appear to be aggressive owls. Will’s best friends, including Dustin, Mike, and level-headed Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) are concerned for their lost pal, and then straight-up terrified once they find a junior G.I. Jane stumbling through the woods – dubbed “Eleven” (Millie Bobby Brown) and packing a few telekinetic surprises up her hospital gown’s sleeves – and realize something mighty odd is afoot in their hometown.
While the kids investigate Will’s disappearance through a series of shoddy, endearing 80’s tech (hands-free walkie-talkies!), the adults in the town treat Will’s slowly disintegrating mom, Joyce (Winona Ryder), with tentative kid gloves. They probably aren’t too far to blame, given that Joyce has taken to obsessing over hanging Christmas lights in every nook and cranny of the Byers household in the belief that Will is communicating with her, somehow, through electricity. Will’s teenage brother, Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), thinks his mom might be losing it too, until an errant photograph from his dark room obsession reveals something (take a shot) strange.
That’s the set-up, and that’s essentially all I can say about Stranger Things. Visually and verbally, all the characters are uniformly well-drawn and period-appropriate – I’m convinced they plucked the Hawkins PD secretary directly from 1983 via time travel – even when the callbacks and references threaten cutesyness, like Will’s goody two-shoes sis who is of coursed named Nancy (Natalia Dyer).
The highlight here is Ryder, expectedly, who mostly spends the 8 hours on the verge of tears or shuffling maniacally through her house following light bulbs, but there’s a caged craziness to Joyce that rings true to her situation. It also makes the show’s resolution, and one finale scene in particular (you’ll know it when you see it), shockingly emotional. Her frustration with not being understood, given that she’s the first adult to truly suspect Hawkin’s otherworldliness, is engaging and captivating. This is especially true in early-hour scenes between her and largely unknown Heaton, who probably has the most scenes with Ryder and repeatedly holds his own.