Stranger Things: Season 1 (2016)

1 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Rarely do I review TV shows on Smith’s Verdict (and no, my Top 15 Favorite “How I Met Your Mother” Episodes post doesn’t count), but in the case of “Stranger Things” Season 1, I simply couldn’t resist.

“Stranger Things” is a Netflix Original series that took the world by storm within the first few days it premiered. Viewers go crazy for it, and I completely understand why. This eight-episode-long story within this first season provides an answer to the question, “What would happen if Steven Spielberg directed a Stephen King story?” There are callbacks to Spielberg’s earlier work (such as “E.T.,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Jaws,” “The Goonies,” “Poltergeist,” among others) as well as King’s earlier work (“It,” “Carrie,” “Stand by Me,” “Firestarter,” “Salem’s Lot,” among others), so it’s easy to tell products by Spielberg and King gave creators known as The Duffer Brothers (Matt and Ross Duffer) some inspiration to tell a story in tradition to them. The Duffer Brothers pay homage to these stories while making one of their own. Let me put it this way—I’m not blind to certain things that are reminiscent of this or that Spielberg or King story, but at the same time, I’m not thinking to myself, “Maybe I should watch that instead.” That’s a major strength of the series itself.

I’m going to review the first season overall as if it were one long movie, because that’s pretty much how I saw it anyway—a 6-7 hour long movie that I never got tired of watching. (Each episode runs about 45-55 minutes.) This is going to be roughly spoiler-free—any story details going past episode 2 will not be written about here.

Set in a small Indiana town in November 1983, “Stranger Things” begins with the mysterious disappearance of a young boy. While police chief Hopper (David Harbour) starts to investigate and the boy’s mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) and brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) put up “missing” posters while frantically looking for him, the boy’s friends—Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin)—begin their own search. The boys come across a strange girl named Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) with a limited vocabulary…and psychokinetic abilities. They find that there might be a connection between her and the boy’s disappearance. Meanwhile, something is out there, collecting people in town. The closer the boys, Joyce, and Hopper, along with Jonathan and Mike’s older sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer), get to learning the truth, the more they attract the attention of an ominous government agency…and something even more threatening.

As soon as I was done with the first episode, I knew I had to keep watching to see what was going to happen. The mystery is built up beautifully. Who is this girl? Where did she come from? What’s the story behind this government agency? What happened to the boy? What’s that thing out there? And so on. It shocked me how beautifully woven together many parts of the story were. We get many different stories that eventually connect together by Episode 7—we have the boys learning as much about Eleven (whom they dub “El”) as they can; we have Joyce discovering ways of otherworldly contact with her missing son (such as using Christmas lights to communicate); we have Hopper learning something suspicious about the agency; and we have the sexually intrigued Nancy whose priorities change when her friend Barbara (Shannon Purser) goes missing, leading to working with Jonathan to investigate. There are many characters to follow, but funnily enough, I never dreaded the moment one set of characters returned. I was interested in these characters and their stories, wanting to know what was going to happen.

And the touches of ‘80s pop-culture are fun too, with a Carpenter-like techno score and a soundtrack consisting of hits including an effective running use of The Clash’s “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?” This may not be the exact style we come to expect from a typical ‘80s product, but that’s because it was made in the mid-2010s (duh). That means we’re not afraid to go more outward in writing when we have something we feel passion for. (Look at today’s TV—it’s a great time for storytelling in TV.)

The acting is across-the-board solid. Winona Ryder is brilliant as the frantic mother who is desperately seeking answers and will not brush off the oddities she discovers as side-effects of grief. Harbour is pretty good too—his character, who is a drug addict on top of being a horrible cop, grew on me as the season went on; Harbour nails the dramatic scenes that are called for when we learn more about his past. The kids are all fantastic actors—not a single false note is found in either of them; what makes their team effort work is their ability to act like real friends. Heaton is excellent as well, as a shy high-school outcast who steps up as a hero. And then there’s Matthew Modine as the man behind most of the madness—let’s just say I wanted to punch this guy right in the jaw after I kick him in the groin.

Millie Bobby Brown gives the series’ best performance as Eleven. She had to convey emotions using just her eyes and body language and she is easily sympathetic while pulling them off. I hope she returns in Season 2.

“Stranger Things” is madly entertaining from the beginning to the end. It leaves room for a sequel season (Season 2, which comes out next year), and I’m excited to see it. What’s left to do? What’s left to see? What’s left to investigate? I’m excited to find out.

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