Stranger Things, a new series on Netflix, is a show about a parallel universe that is utterly corrupted, and it’s about what happens when a young boy named Will, from a small town in Indiana, becomes trapped in that universe. The show, which was created by the Duffer Brothers, draws from just about every significant horror and sci-fi creation of the 1970s and 80s: There’s a lot of Steven Spielberg and Stephen King, and a lot of John Carpenter (especially the synthy music score). What movies specifically does Stranger Things suggest/reference/imitate? How about: Stand By Me, The Goonies, E.T., Carrie, The Fury, and Poltergeist? But this pastiche of science fiction and horror classics has a heart, and that is what makes it compulsively watchable and truly endearing.
Winona Ryder heads the cast, playing Joyce Byers, Will’s mom, who’s naturally distraught when her 11-year-old son vanishes at the beginning of the first episode. Joyce and her older son, Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) fear the worst, that he’s been kidnapped or had an accident, but they have no idea how bad it truly is. Then, unexpectedly, Joyce makes contact with Will, via the lights, which flash with fury, like the sudden energy bursts that occurred when the spaceship landed in Close Encounters, or like Carol Anne, the creepy child kidnapped by ghosts in Poltergeist, who communicated through the television.
The show traces multiple characters, all of them essentially connected to Will’s disappearance. There’s Joyce’s heartbreaking and lonely journey as she becomes convinced her son is still alive, trapped in some ungodly place, despite the fact that no one believes her; there’s Will’s friends, Mike, Dustin, and Lucas, who encounter a disturbed little girl just escaped from a top-secret government compound, where she was a kind of human lab rat, controlled by a creepy white-haired scientist played by Matthew Modine. (The girl, called “L,” has telekinetic powers as in Carrie, and like the teenagers in Brian De Palma’s other telekinesis thriller, The Fury, the government wants to harness her substantial powers of mind.)
What makes Stranger Things so great is that, while it does tantalize us with suspense to keep us watching, the show never treats us with contempt. Nor does it become swallowed up by its cultural influences. This series may unabashedly celebrate a particular moment of early 80s pop culture, but it is an essentially human story, and it never loses sight of this fact. The references—they’re really more like impressions—to past movies and shows, which so often accumulate like baggage, feel as though they’ve been aired out here and given new life. And you don’t have to be a fan of those 80s movies to appreciate and enjoy Stranger Things, although the Duffer Brothers clearly meant this series as a valentine, both to the movies themselves and to the fans.
Say what I will about nostalgia’s burgeoning and sometimes negative impact on our current culture, I can’t help but adore this show. It’s super creepy and disturbing at times (there’s a terrifying monster, a more terrifying government agency, and the always disturbing fact of a child missing and imperiled, whose mother suffers just as much as he does in not knowing where he is or what’s become of him or how to help him.) Winona Ryder, playing a part that would have surely gone to Dee Wallace if this were 1982, exudes warmth and compassion and sympathy, and anchors the series to reality. Likewise, David Harbour, playing the local police chief (who has his own demons and tragedies to contend with), acts as a kind of security blanket for the timid viewer, as he becomes increasingly enrapt in the investigation of the missing boy. At various times, we are Joyce, the cop, the boys.
The boys, played by Finn Wolfhard (Will), Gaten Matazarro (Dustin), Caleb McLaughlin (Lucas), and Noah Schnapp (Will), are endearing from the onset (like the kids in Stand By Me, not the obnoxious little shits in The Goonies), when they’re embroiled in a passionate round of Dungeons & Dragons. It’s this game which first allows them to understand the dark universe into which Will has been thrown, and it’s their nerdy passions for ham radio and magic and sundry other outré hobbies that equips them to fight for their friend. Millie Bobby Brown, playing L, gives perhaps the most sympathetic performance in the show. L has had no childhood, and understands only a minimal vocabulary when she encounters the boys, who keep her cloistered in the basement, so that their unassuming parents won’t find out about her.
Natalia Dyer, as Will’s teenage sister Nancy, also plays a pivotal role in the series. She and Jonathan become unexpected partners-in-crime when Nancy’s best friend Barb also goes missing. Jonathan is the high school outcast, partly because his family is poor and he’s quiet and brooding; Nancy’s middle class, and just starting to discover boys and romance. (She’s dating Steve, played by Joe Keery, a seemingly typical jock who turns out to have a heart of gold.)
The creators and the writers, to their credit, imbue even the smaller characters with flesh and bone, according some of them, like the character of Steve Harrington, greater significance and depth as the series progresses. Moreover, this is a series that unearths the mysteries that fester particularly in small towns (much like Stephen King does), without insulting them: The people who live under the microscope turn out to be complex and full and fascinating; And there are problems associated generally with modern life, whether in a small town or a big city: We see Nancy's mom (played by Cara Buono) struggling to keep her family together without any help from her husband, who's snoozing most of the time and clueless when he's awake. She emerges as yet another supporting character who becomes increasingly more well-drawn. Like a good Shirley Jackson story, Stranger Things is generous to its characters, always investing in them for the good of the story and for the good of the audience.
And unlike so many other scary shows (The Walking Dead comes to mind), this series doesn’t take delight in the horrible things that happen to people. Stranger Things embraces the horror and science fiction genres with affection, but it never loses sight of the tragedy and the humor that imbue our lives with mystery, a mystery that these genres, at their best, bring into ever sharper focus.