It’s 1983. Stephen King has just published Christine and Pet Sematary, although “The Body,” the novella that birthed Stand by Me, was just published last year, and no one could have forgotten Carrie just yet. Last year was also the year that E.T. came out, where friendly aliens get sloshed at home, dress in Yoda costumes, and have to hide from unfriendly government spooks. Uncanny X-Men 134 tells the story of a vastly powerful woman whose recent behavior confuses her lover and her friends; they don’t understand the depths to which she has been tormented by a secret mastermind. So if you’re a D&D playing quartet of kids, and one of you disappears in the woods, and the remaining three discover a more or less silent girl with the power to move objects (and people) with her mind who is being chased by the government…I mean, how perfectly prepared are you for this situation? The entire post-Nixon zeitgeist has prepared you for this situation; all the pop culture has led you to this one reckoning.
The Duffer Brothers have done something really masterful here with their first season of Stranger Things: they’ve repackaged a series of deeply familiar, deeply loved plots into a tight season of television that, miraculously, feels fresh and exciting. The retro aspect of Stranger Things isn’t so much that it fools around with ’80s pop culture, but that it feels like an ’80s-vintage miniseries, that beautiful television creation that has gone the way of the fax machine. Some stories aren’t going to work as movies; some stories (like Stranger Things, I’m afraid) won’t work as seasons of television with twenty-some or even thirteen episodes. But some will be pitch-perfect in a limited run of two, three, six, eight episodes, with complete plots. Despite the ending of the season finale, which turns some stones over which could have been left unturned, Stranger Things could have ended for good with “The Upside Down” and we would have been just fine.
Netflix has shown a real ability to fire a first season of original programming like a cannonball. Orange is the New Black‘s first season, although it feels like a totally different show from the rest of the series’ run, is probably its best. House of Cards began self-parodying within the first season, but that doesn’t mean that Season 1’s not far and away the best of the bunch. Kimmy Schmidt is in the same boat, and so is (according to everyone else but me, apparently) Master of None. Stranger Things, in my opinion, outdoes all of them. It doesn’t get pompous or preachy like the dramas, nor does it look much too long into its own belly button, as Kimmy Schmidt and Master of None are inclined to do. (When Stranger Things steps into that latter territory, it’s mercifully brief; Jonathan, speaking face-to-face with the cute girl he’s got a crush on, gives a Reddit-perfect explanation of why said girl is shallow: she doesn’t have a crush on him too. It’s so geek-stereotype and so earnest that it made me hate the show for thirty seconds until I started pretending it just hadn’t happened.) Stranger Things recognizes that it has a wonderful, engrossing plot that just has to be binge-watched, and almost ten characters to root for unconditionally. Again, whether or not the plot always coheres is not the most important thing; we can just accept as a group here that if the electromagnetic field around a town were to be reversed, it would cause way more havoc than just messing up compasses, and that no science teacher in America will take a call at 10 at night to help his weird middle school cohort build a sensory deprivation pool. These are small details, in the grand scheme of the series: the heart of the plot, which entwines the fate of little Will Byers with the fate of psionic Eleven, makes relatively few missteps.
One of the shows that Stranger Things feels like most is Freaks and Geeks, although Stranger Things never ascends to the transcendent weirdness (or the genuine warmth) that Freaks and Geeks could parcel out at will. And just like Freaks and Geeks, Stranger Things is just more interesting when the little brother and his nerdy crew are running around; his older sister, who is more Ivy League academic than Ivy League social, wants to be just the opposite. Finn Wolfhard’s Mike is just as doofy and maladroit and good-hearted as John Francis Daley’s Sam, and Natalia Dyer’s Nancy, though every bit as determined and confused and fetching as Linda Cardellini’s Lindsay, feels less and less important as the series goes on. Nancy is eminently likeable, and even her opposite male numbers, Steve with the Bad Hair, and Jonathan, also with the Bad Hair, have their moments. Yet the monster, which looks like a Species 8472 translated via X-Files, is obviously the least important threat: Dr. Brenner (Matthew Modine, doing his best Dr. Cornelius) and his government pals are a much more constant threat than the monster. So does the monster exist because there’s a place for Nancy and Jonathan (and Steve and Barb!) in this show? Or do they exist because they take it upon themselves to fight the monster, which the Nouveau Losers’ Club seems largely disinterested in dealing with until it pops up in a classroom and takes El, Phoenix-like, with it? It’s the weakest aspect of the series, a monster-of-the-week which is intruding on the rich storyline with El, and which does so because it’s an expedient plot device, and, spoilers, appears to be the primary method by which we can draw a second season out of the show. It’s effective, but in a show where everything has been taken from the rags of other shows – meaning that Stranger Things‘ objective correlative is a quilt – the existence of the monster itself is a less intricate pattern. The most interesting thing Jonathan does is also the least likeable, when he takes pictures of Nancy from a distance in the dark. Only Nancy, who becomes, as Dustin notes late in the season, “kind of a badass,” has a great deal of personality, a pattern worth the second look; that’s because she keeps changing it. In eight episodes – in about a week, in other words – she goes from status-seeking teen to hand-slitting Annie Oakley and then, by Christmas, is much closer to the former than the latter. With the exception of El, no one character in Stranger Things is harder to get a read on than Nancy. And yet once we get El, we get her; Nancy doesn’t provide any such resolution.
If El and Nancy are runes to be deciphered, then Joyce (Winona Ryder) is a great big billboard in monosyllables. One can imagine the conversation between Ryder and her agent:
Agent: I’ve got this great part lined up for you. It’s a Netflix show, sort of a sci-fi bit. They’re offering top billing.
Ryder: I can get behind that. What would I be doing?
Agent: You play the mother of a boy who’s disappeared. Turns out he’s in an alternate dimension and the government wants her to think he’s dead.
Ryder: That’s not a bad role at all. Does she find out he’s alive?
Agent: Oh yeah. She knows the whole time, see. She communicates with him through the lights.
Ryder: Okay. That’s unusual.
Agent: There’s this fabulous scene – just killer, really – where she sits in a cabinet and cries and talks to her son, who is represented by a pile of Christmas lights.
Ryder: Jesus Christ.
It’s a scene that’s too clever by half, really. Whatever feeling we’d have in the moment is skewered by the fact that it’s so unbelievable, somehow the most unbelievable moment in a series with a interdimensional predator. The ones that follow immediately – where she sets up more Christmas lights, marks them with letters, and receives a chilling message from Will: “R-U-N” – are perhaps the best of the season. Ryder is especially good, the right mixture of harried and hopeful, alternately panicked, running to the car in total fear one moment, and then mindful again, looking at the flashing lights in her living room and returning inside.
Ryder is responsible for the hysterics, the wild loss of restraint in the show. There’s something oddly sane about her son’s friends. Mike, Dustin, and Lucas are a classic bunch of middle-schoolers. Lucas is willful and admirable, more hellbent on finding Will once he realizes there’s a way to do so than either Mike or Dustin, but more unkind to El than either one. Dustin veers between sagelike wisdom and utter fanboy geekiness, able to recognize El for what she is immediately and how important she is and totally incapable of restraining his love for pudding and awe at telekinesis. Both of them are responsible for some of my favorite individual moments in the show.
Mike, of course, stands alone in more ways than one. He is the unspoken leader, the Dungeon Master, the one who makes decisions for their group, and the one, of course, who gets the girl. His responsibility, interestingly enough, wanes at the same rate that Joyce’s does throughout the season. As El becomes more and more important – as she begins to dictate more and more of the action, flips vans, kills hallways full of adults as a main course and then a monster for afters, in other words – Mike becomes her keeper and her emotional protector. He works in that role; more than either one of his friends, he has that fatherly/brotherly gene in him (even if he doesn’t want to be either one of those to El). There’s not a TV show or movie or other creative intellectual property I’ve mentioned above that Stranger Things hasn’t been compared to before, but Mike reminds me of A Streetcar Named Desire, which has almost certainly not gotten the Stranger Things analogy before now. Mike sets everything in motion for El; she always depends on the kindness of strangers.