STRANGER THINGS: AN APPRECIATION
By Shannon Watkins
(Warning: light spoilers.) By now your coworkers, cousins, best friend, and carpool buddies have all talked your ear off about the Duffer Brothers’ Netflix series “Stranger Things,” assuming you haven’t already done likewise to them.
“It’s like Stephen King wrote it!” they babble. “It’s sorta like John Carpenter directed it, but like, it’s even more John Carpenter than that!” Here’s the thing: in reminding us of two of the greatest creative horror icons of the ‘80s (though, of course, they’re both still working today), the show’s fans have pinpointed exactly what makes it tick.
From the opening sequence that invokes old horror paperback cover fonts to the pulsing music that recalls the deadly, flashing pumpkin from “Halloween III’s” Silver Shamrock commercial, the creators of “Stranger Things” are letting us know we will not be viewing the story through a lens of critical distance – this isn’t “That ‘70s Show” with its laugh track and disco-era references offered up with an obvious wink. It’s a sincere, full-immersion experience.
Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in its casting. Almost every actor who appears reminds you of someone else you can’t quite place, be it another actor from the ‘80s whose name escapes you or someone from homeroom you haven’t seen in years.
David Harbour as Jim Hopper is every lost, dysfunctional male protagonist written by King. Natalia Dyer’s Nancy Wheeler was surely the lead of some commercial for Noxzema in 1985 – but how’d she stay looking so young? Is the stuff THAT good? Joe Keery as her boyfriend, Steve Harrington, looks like every cool guy with a popped collar who ever tormented nerds, except he turns out to have a soul after all. Shannon Purser’s Barb Holland, with a granny perm, acetate glasses and high-necked sweaters that scream “prude!” is every studious good girl who made the honor roll but wasn’t great at catching male attention.
Even their names tell us we’re dealing with Middle America in all its wood-paneled, pussy-bow-bloused, green-lawned, Christmas-decorations-boxed-in the-attic glory. A different show might have chosen to delve into the seamy side of this idyllic existence, but instead we’re offered only a superficial glance.
That’s because we see the majority of suburbia from the main characters’ points of view: Mike, Dustin, Lucas, Eleven, Will, and, in Season Two, Max; kids on the verge of adolescence and the only ones with a clue how bad everything’s about to get. They have free rein to go outdoors as long as they’re home for dinner, which both allows for plenty of action and recalls a time when kids playing unsupervised was not only allowed, but encouraged.
“Stranger Things” realizes that the secret, wonder-fueled world of childhood is richer territory than the weary one of maturity. The few adults who make regular appearances – Hopper; Joyce Byers, Will’s mom, played by Winona Ryder – are able to partake of the weird and unnatural with belief and acceptance. Most other grown ups are flat, giving a cheery wave or a concerned frown to their offspring before being shunted out of the story again.
The plot of Season One, which I don’t want to spoil for the uninitiated, involves a government-run laboratory that isn’t quite as benign as it appears to be, the terrifying capture of a member of the kids’ group, and an escaped test subject who is both more vulnerable and powerful than her captors. Not to mention a towering monster from…somewhere else that looks like a mashup of the xenomorph from “Alien” and the creature from “The Thing.”
You can spend hours gleefully pointing out sly references “Stranger Things” makes to various 80’s source materials which make up its facade, but the beating heart of the series lies with the friendships, old and new, of the children.
Mike, Dustin, Lucas, and Will are four boys who play Dungeons & Dragons in Mike’s basement and geek out over stuff most of their peers aren’t interested in; if they’re a callback to anything from the ‘80s, it’s King’s “Stand By Me.” They spend the show communicating by walkie-talkies, searching for a missing member of their group, and befriending the confused and terrified Eleven.
Without any prior female friends, her arrival shakes up their group dynamic, partly because they have limited ideas how to deal with girls they’re not related to. Mike, her default caretaker, nonetheless creates a new friendship by showing her simple kindness, which she returns in spades, especially when he confronts a bully.
The biggest struggle, however, is Eleven’s, learning how to relate to peers in a way she’s never done in her life, trusting new people and using her skills to help them while fleeing the horrors of the familiar. Her development arc is a metaphor for adolescence itself, the way it often feels like navigating hostile, unfamiliar territory blindly and awkwardly, shot through with moments of unexpected camaraderie and pure joy. To tell more would be to spoil the show.
“Stranger Things” doesn’t paint the ‘80s in all primary colors, but it does paint vividly and with a sure touch, from the soundtrack to the hairstyles to the technology. Each episode offers both shrieks of terror and squeals of delight, and the cozy familiarity of the past, wrapped in the mystery of the unknown.
SHANNON WATKINS is a journalist in Virginia, a huge fan of all manner of speculative fiction, and really funny…