Stranger Things (2016)

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Last night, my wife and I finished the 8th and final episode of the Netflix original series, Stranger Things.  Most people are calling this Season 1 as it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that a second season is coming, but for now, as I have completed all 8 episodes, I can conclusively say that even if another “season” were never to be made, I would be OK with that.

Stranger Things debuted on Netflix on July 15, 2016.  Today as I write this, not even a month after it’s release, the Internet has lost it’s mind over this show.  Review upon review, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc, all have the same buzz, that this is the “must see” show of the summer.  CNN says “This summer’s best movie isn’t a movie, it’s ‘Stranger Things'”

Facebook has over 1.4 million likes.

StrangerThingsRottenTomatorsIt has a 94% fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes with a 96% positive audience score.

StrangerThingsIMDbIt has a 9.1 out of 10 rating in IMDb, based on 98,498 reviews.

According to Business Insider, in it’s first 16 days, Stranger Things was viewed 8.2 million times.

It has already been watched more times than the critically acclaimed “Making a Murderer” series or the first season of the Kevin Spacey thriller “House of Cards”.

This is a show that came out of nowhere.  There was no buzz.  Apart from an excellent performance by Winona Ryder, and the mostly forgotten, Matthew Modine, this show is filled with nobodies and child actors that most people have never heard of.  According to the previously mentioned Business Insider article, the creators of this series were turned down at least 15 times before finally being accepted by Netflix.

Then, on June 30th, the following trailer was released…

If you’ve been living under a rock these past 4 weeks and haven’t heard about this show, you might wonder, what is so good about it?  IMDb’s plot description is:

When a young boy disappears, his mother, a police chief, and his friends must confront terrifying forces in order to get him back.

TV.com describes it as:

In a small Indiana town in the early 1980s, a boy goes missing after finding something sinister lurking in the woods. Nearby, a girl with extraordinary powers escapes from a sinister government facility and joins together with the boy’s friends to get him back.

Heck, even Netflix themselves uses all of 22 words to describe it as:

When a young boy vanishes, a small town uncovers a mystery involving secret experiments, terrifying supernatural forces and one strange little girl.

So, the appeal of this show clearly is not in the plot.  A boy goes missing in a small town, and some people go looking for him, but find some type of supernatural mystery.  This by itself is not going to get the attention of most people.  So what is it that has made people go crazy over this show?  How about this?

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Okay, that’s pretty cool.  Whats the first thing you think of when you see this poster?  We already know that this show is set in the 80s, but the poster for the show reveals quite a bit.  For one, the poster is hand drawn.

All the best 80s movies had hand drawn posters.  How about the kids on bikes?  All the cool 80s movies had kids on bikes:

What about that eerie, red, glowing font?  Doesn’t it look familiar?

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Beyond the poster, upon viewing the opening title sequence you are prompted with something out of the first Terminator movie where upon the letters spelling out the opening title slowly creep in from the sides, spelling out each letter one by one, until finally revealing the full title of the show.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FpHNlx0pPIU

Unlike The Terminator’s title scroll which has letter in a cold blue color which hints at the “cold metal” of the Terminator itself, the Stranger Things logo is in a deep red hinting at something more sinister.

So far, I’ve concentrated on the visuals, but that’s only half of it.  The music.  Ooooh, the music.  A mix of orchestrated synth-wave and retro techno, all of the music in this show, including the opening title sequence is right out of every 80s movie you’ve ever seen.  All of the music is credited to two guys named
“Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein”, and while I don’t know who these guys are.  I picture them as very talented 37 year old guys like myself, who grew up on movies like “The Goonies”, “E.T.”, “Explorers”, “Cloak & Dagger”, “D.A.R.Y.L.” and “BMX Bandits”.  Their use of dark and eerie synthesized theme music is absolutely perfect for a show like this.

Volume 1 of the Soundtrack to Stranger Things is currently only available on iTunes, but has a perfect 5 out of 5 rating.  The second volume will be released on August 19th and will contain more of the “pop” songs from the show.  This volume will undoubtedly be a big seller as it is chock full of 80s essential hits that were on constant rotation during time that this show is set.  Some of the highlights are:

So clearly, this show is aimed at people in their late 30s to early 40s who grew up in the 1980s.  This is clearly a nostalgia trip, but it should be no surprise to anyone that nostalgia sells.  We’ve seen it before.  It’s cool for a short while, but the reason nostalgia alone rarely captures long term interest from anyone is that music, clothing, big hair, and some common themes alone aren’t enough to really capture what it was like to be there.  Growing up in the 1980s cannot be captured by just any lame attempt at appealing to our youth.  No, it takes more.

I’ll start with the casting.  I mentioned earlier that this show is mostly full of child actors you’ve never heard of.

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I present to you Finn Wolfhard, Caleb McLaughlin, Noah Schnapp, Gaten Matarazzo, and Millie Bobby Brown.  None of these kids were alive on September 11, 2001.  None of these names are household names.  None of these kids, with the exception of maybe Millie Bobby Brown had any significant roles in any show or movie before.  Chances are, for most people watching Stranger Things, this is your introduction to all 5 of these kids.

Now, children have been cast in major movie and TV roles in the past, but never before can I remember such a consistently excellent casting of 5 truly talented children.  Whether these kids just had it from the beginning, or there were some amazing people behind the scenes to extract these performances out of them I truly don’t know.  But what you get on screen is an extremely convincing group of friends who really are friends.  The adventure and loyalty portrayed by these 5 kids (technically 4 but that would kind of be a spoiler) starts to reveal what is so special about this show.

QuestI remember being a kid, and my parents would take me to the video store and I would gravitate to any colorful box on the shelf promising some kind of action or adventure, usually by a boy, in a mysterious land, with bad guys, supernatural forces, aliens, you name it.  If 10 year old Mike could watch this show, I would be hooked and it’s that part of this show that has the greatest appeal for me.  For everything awesome I can say about the logo, the poster, the acting, and the story, its how the whole package comes together, perfectly capturing what it was like to be that 10 year old kid in a video store.  Although released in 2016, this TV manages to duplicate not only what it was like to be a kid in the 80s, but also what it was like to watch a movie in the 80s.

To say this is a kid’s show isn’t correct though.  This is very much a show designed for people of all ages.  Sure, there’s the obvious nostalgia factor, but there’s some pretty dark themes here.  There’s some violence, there’s bullying, there’s guns, yet it never crosses that line to where it would be inappropriate to show to a 10 year old today.

The creators of this show clearly show their influences in the scenes to the movies.  There’s bits of Poltergeist, The Goonies, E.T., Steven King novels, Stand By Me, and of course the many references to Dungeons & Dragons, to which the 4 male protagonists are heavily influenced by.

StrangerThingsPhoneStranger Things succeeds where other “80s nostalgia” shows and movies fail in that it doesn’t fall victim to the typical caricatures of the 80s.  There/s no big hair, or neon spandex clothes.  No one is wearing zebra skin Zubaz pants or Jordache stone washed pants.  In fact, aside from the music, the cars, the old phones, and the obvious connections to 80s movies in the movie, it would take a new viewer quite a while to guess that this movie was actually set in the 80s because the decade itself isn’t really important, it’s all about the influences.

The show isn’t perfect.  I felt that many of the adult characters were simply placeholders to progress the story.  Had this show been longer than 8 episodes, perhaps we could have learned more about the boys’ geeky science teacher Mr. Clark who entices their appetites for communication via HAM radios, and gives them instructions on how to build a sensory deprivation tank.  Then there’s Mr. and Mrs. Wheeler, the completely inept parents of both Mike and Nancy Wheeler.  These guys are so bad at being parents and having any sort of awareness of what their kids are doing, especially at a time in a small town when children are going missing.  The most laughable line of the whole series is muttered by Mr. Wheeler, “I would know if a girl was living in my basement.”  Finally, there’s the strangely abrupt story line of Nancy’s friend, Barbara who seems to be nothing more than a plot device to get two of the main characters to meet (I’m being vague here to not to try to spoil anything).

StrangeThingsKidaStill, what few nitpicks I could find about the show are completely overshadowed by all that’s great about it.  Simply, Stranger Things is the best thing to happen to TV in a while.  Which is kind of interesting it of itself as it seems more and more of the “best” TV comes from non traditional means like cable or online services.  House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, and Silicon Valley are all some of my favorite shows, and none of them air on any of the ‘Big Four’ TV networks.

As I watched this show, my wife and I made it through the first 7 episodes pretty quickly, but prior to watching the 8th and final episode, we found ourselves somewhat dreading it because we knew it would be the last one.  We didn’t want it to end, but of course it does, as soon as it was done, I couldn’t wait to watch it again.

If it’s not obvious by now whether I am recommending this show to you, the answer is a resounding yes!  If you have access to Netflix, watch it now.  If not, find someone who does and ask to use one of their guest logins.  If you dont know of anyone who has a login, just ask me, and I can help you stream it yourself.

Yes, it’s THAT good!

Additional Resources

http://www.cnn.com/2016/08/12/entertainment/stranger-things-netflix-summer/index.html

http://www.forbes.com/sites/nickdesantis/2016/08/11/in-just-three-weeks-stranger-things-scared-up-more-online-buzz-than-any-other-new-netflix-series/#371a5abe5097

http://www.vox.com/2016/7/17/12201098/stranger-things-review-netflix-winona-ryder

http://variety.com/2016/tv/reviews/stranger-things-review-winona-ryder-netflix-matthew-modine-1201808737/

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