Netflix’s “Stranger Things” is the best thing I’ve seen all year. TV show, Movie, Web show, et al. The Duffer Brothers “Stranger Things” season one is eight episodes long at fifty five minutes each and it’s the easiest eight hours I’ve ever spent watching a series. There’s no filler, no flab, no pointless segues in to a sub-plot that wanders aimlessly. Every element of every episode is crucial and important and The Duffer Brothers have no time to fuck around.
The Duffer Brothers took everything we love about the eighties and injected it in to a genuinely engaging and emotional saga that combines Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter, and David Lynch in to one simple and brilliant tale about monsters, alternate realities, and corrupted youth. The Duffer Brothers don’t just know eighties pop culture, they understand it. They find the hidden dimension behind the love for the decade, and inject it in to their narrative as a way of instilling the magic that disintegrated when the overly serious nineties rolled in.
The Duffer Brothers focus the majority of their narrative on a mother looking for her son, three boys coming to age during a generation where innocence is lost very easily, a sheriff who is trying to honor the legacy of his daughter by finding where young Will Byers disappeared to, and a young girl simply named “011” (nicknamed “El) with no grasp of the concept of innocence. The Duffer Brothers begin their first season introducing these various elements, relay the information that everything we’re watching right down to a Coca Cola Can are intricate puzzle pieces, and by the final two episodes the pieces come crashing together in to one humongous emotional and compelling picture.
What’s more interesting is that the Duffer Brothers are in touch with what made eighties cinema so amazing; “Stranger Things” isn’t nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. Every element of the show plays a purpose, from a boom box blaring a “The Clash” cassette, to a giant toy Millennium Falcon. The Duffers even cast five really down to Earth realistic young protagonists, all of whom have some personal obstacle to overcome. In the end their imperfections end up being the traits that make them such unique heroes. For too long Hollywood has cast children that look like models off of a Sears catalogue. The Duffer Brothers go back to the time of “The Goonies” and “The Gate” where our heroes were overweight, or gawkish, or had thick glasses that hung down from their noses.
Michael is a bit of an overly skinny introvert with a belief in the magical, Lucas is the skeptic looking for a voice who is discriminated against by the local bullies for being African American, and Dustin is the science prodigy and comic geek who finds a voice after spending too long being ignored thanks to a condition called cleidocranial dysplasia, where his front teeth haven’t fully grown. Will Dyers is a young boy never quite accepted by his father, who is still trying to find an identity and is anxious for everyone to accept what he likes about himself. It’s their imperfections though that make them so easily relatable, and the minute you meet the five main characters that rocket “Stranger Things” in to motion, you’ll root for them to the very end, with warts and all.
Their dynamic offers some of the best moments of “Stranger Things” as they struggle to learn where their best friend went, and then have to confront their new comrade “El’s” own dilemma that sooner or later begins to parallel their own obstacles and personal turmoil. Eventually the only lingering thread that keeps El straddling the line between friend and foe is young Michael, who forms a connection with her, and realizes brand new feelings that neither he nor El fully understand. Even in the finale, there’s no indication that either of the characters can reconcile their affections toward one another.The Duffer Brothers are brilliant in employing subliminal imagery as well, presenting allusions to classic literature and dropping their monster in every corner to where you can never be sure what’s lurking in the dark. The pair evoke iconic moments from “A Nightmare on Elm Street” shockingly giving them a new sense of menace, even staging a clever iteration of the climax where Nancy uses traps to snare Fred Krueger. There’s even a very subtle moment where characters Jonathan and Nancy are sitting in their high school hallway with a picture of a large tiger on a wall right behind them, signifying the idea that our monster could be lurking at any corner and can snatch them any time.
“Stranger Things” has a wonderful grasp on its tone, balancing drama, science fiction, and horror just right, to where a sudden turn from menacing to dramatic feels so natural and balanced, and you welcome any turns and twists this rollercoaster of a series takes you on. Even the scenes of mother Joyce using Christmas Lights to contact her son Will Byers is both emotionally gripping and brutally scary, as you can never really be sure what’s unfolding. Is Joyce mentally incapable of handling her son Will is gone? Is there something else contacting Joyce tricking her, or is Joyce on to something no one else in her small town is? Millie Bobby Brown is the big star of “Stranger Things” playing the magnificent morally ambivalent protagonist “El” who emerges one day in a hospital gown.
She has no concept of good and evil, moral and corrupt, and once we garner a full grasp of her character and the life she’s led, we hope she ends up siding with our heroes. The good gets a fighting chance when she meets Michael and his friends during a rainy night, prompting an interesting dynamic where the trio figure out she possesses abilities that can perhaps lead them to where Will is, and how they can bring him back home. Once they begin peeling away at the layers in her mind, the terror pitch rises, and the battle becomes ever more harrowing. “El”’s own plight in to the real world becomes dependent on the cruelty and kindness of human beings.
She witnesses both extremes of light and dark, from a kindly restaurant owner, to the enigmatic man with the white hair who is willing to murder literally anyone if it means reclaiming “El.” In an age where every studio are reviving the eighties in some form, “Stranger Things” is one of the few original properties to properly resurrect the magic and inherent menace of eighties pop culture, where our heroes were young and facing puberty, and almost always walked in to imminent danger, be it flesh eating monsters, deadly government agents, or dark mysterious realms.
Since watching it in one whole sitting on Netflix three days ago I’ve had a difficult time getting the series out of my head, and I anxiously await the introduction of season two. If you haven’t yet familiarized yourself with what is easily the best series of 2016, stop what you’re doing and soak in the absolutely extraordinary experience.