To steal from a single artist is what men call plagiarism. To steal from many artists is what men call originality.
This is Netflix’s Stranger Things.
Late to the Party
Assuming that you don’t have Netflix (in which case, why are you even reading this?), I should explain that Stranger Things is a Netflix-original television program that has served as a flagship series for the platform. It has been a breakout hit for the digital streaming service, and is a particularly strong case for the idea that streaming services will dominate distributed visual media, once broadcast television finally goes the way of the dodo.
A future that is already at our doorstep.
I have been putting off watching the show. When the first season premiered, I was chest deep in other Netflixing projects. And by the time I got to the point where I could fit it in, the second season was already announced.
So I waited. I put off watching season 1 until season 2 was close enough that I could watch them in succession. There were some drawbacks to this approach, as I was not expecting the show to be as detailed and intricate as it is. Each season could have easily had its own post—there is that much to talk about with this series. And like many good science fiction dramas, it is both layered and dense.
Needless to say, but there is a reason why this show is the most hyped thing on Netflix, and why Netflix itself has put Stranger Things at the forefront of its catalog. The strength of this series is intimidating enough that it can actually compete with theatrical releases for the public’s viewing attention, and its existence could maybe—just maybe—be a harbinger of change not only in the realm of television but in motion pictures.
So, what’s so special about Stranger Things? Let’s take a closer look.
References, References, REFERENCES
Stranger Things takes place in the 1980s.
Sorry: what I meant to say was, Stranger Things IS the 1980s.
It is an amalgamation of every popular movie made during that era. It revels in the same tropes, makes overt references, and even outright rips off some of the greatest storylines from the decade. And it could not have done a better job of it.
Stealing from many works of art is what men call originality, and this show steals from a long list of sources, including
- E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial
- The Legend of Billie Jean
- Monster Squad
- Adventures in Babysitting
- Close Encounters of the Third Kind (a 70s movie, but I’m counting it)
- Alien (1979 is still the 80s)
- The Goonies
- Carrie (Another 70s movie? Could we substitute it for a similar, 80s movie? Okay, how about:)
- Stand by Me
We still don’t have any Princess Bride or Spaceballs references. But I’m sure season 3 will delve into ever more obscure corners of the cassette-tape era.
Speaking of cassette tapes, the soundtrack is loaded with music of the 80s (and, yeah, also the 70s; so sue me).
But it can’t be said to plagiarize any one thing, because the themes and situations of the show are endemic to a lot of 80s movies. You have your monsters, your team of adorable children fighting the monsters, your angsty high schoolers living under the thumb of parents who don’t understand, your evil government scientists, your evil government coverups, and lots and lots of Dungeons and Dragons.
The series is oddly reminiscent of a couple of TV shows, as well. And, strangely enough, both those shows were made in the 90s.
I am of course talking about Twin Peaks and The X-Files.
Aside from certain thematic similarities, the cinematography of Stranger Things often shares a kinship with The X-files, and I found myself fondly remembering that show during my viewing. But the connection to Twin Peaks may be even stronger, as, much like David Lynch’s masterpiece of a show, it divides the storyline between the various generations. But where Twin Peaks only had two distinct divisions—the teenagers and the Adults—Stranger Things has four: the middle schoolers, the high schoolers, the adults, and the evil scientists.
Naturally, if you are a fan of any of the previously mentioned properties, you will likely find yourself enjoying this show.
Hawkins, Indiana is a sleepy little town where nothing strange ever happens.
The local police chief is James Hopper, who can afford to sleep in and smoke and drink all he wants because a serious crime has not been committed in his town since before he was born.
The local middle schoolers—Mike, Will, Lucas, and Dustin—play Dungeons and Dragons, the local high schoolers are experimenting with underage drinking and all kinds of naughty shenanigans, and the parents are all unwavering disciplinarians who don’t understand how hilariously anachronistic their backwards ways are. Aren’t parents just terrible?
But all that changes when the local branch of the Department of Energy, who are engaged in some sinister business, accidentally release an extradimensional, man-eating monster upon the town.
Will Byers, one of the D&D boys, goes missing, and right as people start looking for him, a strange new girl appears who no one has ever seen before. This is Eleven, the literal poster-child of the series. She moves things with her mind and can make Will’s voice appear on the radio.
But the evil government scientists are hunting her. They are more concerned with capturing Eleven than they are with stopping the monster or rescuing Will, and they will stop at nothing to throw the police and Will’s mother off their tracks.
Is Will gone forever? Can a handful of kids stop the monster? What kinds of mysteries will hopper and Mrs. Byers uncover? All of these are storylines of the first season.
The Story, Part 2 (Spoilers in this Section)
It’s no secret that season 1 ended in a dramatic fashion, with Mike (Will’s best friend) implicitly declaring his love for Eleven, right before she mysteriously disappears. The demogorgon (season 1’s big bad monster) is killed. Nancy and Jonathan (the two important high schoolers) try and fail to get their revenge. Hopper and Joyce enter the other world and rescue Will, bringing him back home in time for Christmas.
But tragedy has struck Hawkins, as an unspeakable new horror has appeared that will forever cast a shadow on the story: Dustin’s. Front. Teeth. Grew. BACK.
Wasn’t he such a ray of sunshine?
Also, there’s a giant monster about to destroy the entire human race, and people are going to die.
But don’t worry: the clueless kids from season 1 are back to stop the end of the world. Oh wait, they can’t, because Will is possessed:
Eleven has also returned and is secretly being protected by Hopper. And the evil scientists have been replaced by a batch of new scientists, who are well intentioned, but still morally dubious.
As a strange plague starts killing both crops and wild plants, Nancy is still seeking the revenge she didn’t get in season 1, and a new girl arrives at the boys’ middle school, and she ticks Lucas off like crazy. And Dustin gets a new pet who is not of this world.
I cannot, unfortunately, give you a detailed rundown on all the characters.
I can, however, tell you that the character chemistry, more than the mystery plot or bone-chilling suspense, is the real treasure of this show.
The kids are awesome. They act the way kids act, and their reactions (especially Dustin’s) are priceless. The teenagers are the same teenagers you meet in ever 80s movie, except now they fight monsters. The adults are sympathetic and believable. Winona Ryder’s Joyce Byers deserves special note, as she is not only well written but well performed. And the overwhelming sense of desperation she exudes, as the mother of a missing son, is both believable and touching.
Eleven is a delightfully complex fish out of water. Hopper is strongly played as the misunderstood gruff grump.
All these people are the reason that the show is so successful. The interactions are organic. The fun is real. And the connection the viewer feels with them is golden.
Stranger Things is destined to become a classic. It may well be era-defining, and it captures the zeitgeist, though not necessarily the zeitgeist of today.
The 80s nostalgia is turned up to maximum, but it doesn’t settle for just being nostalgic. Instead, it gives us unforgettable characters thrown together in a rip-roaring adventure of the kind we really haven’t gotten in decades. I am so thrilled that this series was made, and that it was made so accessible by being on Netflix.
So much of what used to be great about television is present in this show. And it is certain to please fans of The X-Files and Twin Peaks.
Watch it. Relish it. Make an event of it. Share it with your friends and your kids. You don’t want to miss this one. But you will miss it if you don’t have Netflix.
This series alone is worth the price of the subscription.