Genre: Drama, Horror, Mystery
Cast: Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Natalia Dyer
The new Netflix drama Stranger Things is both a celebration of the 1980s pop culture and the Stephen King stories of yore. Reminiscent of E.T., approved Super 8 and Stand by Me, approved this enviable enterprise successfully tells its own unique and powerful story while staying rooted in so many great stories of the past (which it references freely).
In the first episode of the eight-episode first season, treat a young boy named Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) goes missing. After playing a board game for a whopping ten hours with his close-knit friends Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Jonathan simply vanishes. His mother — played by a perfectly-cast Winona Ryder — becomes frantic but she and others quickly realize that there’s a darker power at play.
Without going into too many details, the sci-fi drama nicely balances the different genres it occupies. The friendship between the three friends — and a stranger named Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) who mysteriously arrives in their lives — sets the story up like E.T. or Stand by Me with beautifully innocent relationships serving as a focal point of the story.
Beyond that core though is Ryder’s character — a desperate mother looking to find her son. It’s she who seemingly realizes that there are supernatural forces at play here. Ryder, well-known for her performances in Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands (two features that also found her dealing with unique and strange characters), seems perfectly fit for the role here. She captures both the frantic position of a scared mother with the steely intensity of a warrior who would do anything to save her son.
Added to these stories are secondary story-lines that perfectly fit into the arc of this story.
Reminiscent of the stereotypical teenage good girl of 80s horror features, Natalias Dyer plays Mike’s older sister, Nancy Wheeler. Nancy’s budding relationship with the cocky jock Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) leaves her alienated from her friends and from the quiet boy who likes her from afar. Such a storyline feels familiar for fans of 80s features but works perfectly here as it blossoms out of its traditional confines.
Created by Matt and Russ Duffer, this short series perfectly pulls all of its unique stories together into one show. Because this world is so well-constructed, none of these elements stand out as not belonging with the others. That’s a tremendous achievement when you think about how disparate these genres are.
In one second, the show can feel like a coming-of-age story about boys who lost their friend. At another moment, it feels like a sci-fi drama about a creature on the loose. In other scenes, the enterprise feels like an 80s young adult program about making good choices.
This only covers part of what makes this show so brilliantly unique and endlessly entertaining. The show simply casts a spell that is hard to deny.
When the first season ends after eight hour-long episodes, it’s obvious that the show has succeeded more than you may realize. The season finale ends with such packed emotionally-charged moments that it will likely leave viewers in tears or more importantly, ready for the story to continue.
Netflix’s Stranger Things, with a first season that feels both self-assured and complete, is one of the best shows of the year and I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Review by: John Hanlon