Spoilers: This article discusses plot aspects of Stranger Things that, while not especially revelatory, emerge fully around Episode Four of the eight-part series. If you want to see the show clean, don't read this article.
Stranger Things hangs its story on an evil, invisible reality attached to our own. This eight-part supernatural thriller plots itself around the possibility of a monstrous realm, a mysterious place where evil lurks.
But its exploration of this otherworld — and of our modern fascination with alternative realities — takes a backseat to another dimension, one which the show explores with gusto: the 1980s.
Set in 1983, Stranger Things is a Spielberg-esque tale of kids grappling with a dark mystery. When a boy vanishes from a small town in Indiana, these smart, funny outsiders follow clues and tackle baddies in order to uncover the truth.
The boy's mother, played by a quiveringly convincing Winona Ryder, leads a cast of adults who are trying to come to terms with the boy's disappearance, as well as a series of inexplicable events. David Harbour fiercely channels Harrison Ford as the local pill-popping, hard-drinking cop. A third teenage love-triangle plot is pointed by the boy's punkish elder brother, played sparingly by Charlie Heaton.
Back to the '80s
Stranger Things doesn't merely recreate the decor, fashions, drives and soundtrack of the '80s. It resurrects literally dozens of movie-making techniques and styles, previously forgotten or believed retired. Cinematic cuts, title fonts and knowing little angles are dug out of the ground, like an endless line of time capsules.
Yet the overall effect is entirely satisfactory. Creators Matt and Ross Duffer have managed to take a lost generation of cheesy, tired tricks, and make them seem not merely celebratory, but fresh, at least for this one instance.
The 1980s stalk this series with menacing determination. Stranger Things is so crammed with references to '80s movies, it can feel like hard work making mental connections between them.
Here are The Goonies, Nightmare On Elm Street, Aliens, Friday the 13th, Risky Business, The Breakfast Club, Stand By Me, Poltergeist. The list goes on, piling up, episode after episode. For anyone who isn't deeply fascinated by the '80s — anyone who isn't basically Ernest Cline — this might become something of a distraction.
Yet despite the overly-placed poster for The Thing, repeated plays of Should I Stay or Should I Go and loving references to Dungeons & Dragons, the 1980s of Stranger Things is surprisingly smart about its setting.
Cold War Paranoia
If you're of a mind to tune out the astonishing array of cultural references (and I accept that there are many people who will enjoy these) this is a world that feels natural and right. It gives us a small town that might easily exist now, or in the 1950s, or anytime in between.
The town of Hawkins is decrepit, isolated and self-absorbed. It feels lived in. It neighbors a U.S. Government military base that looks entirely manufactured out of bad 1980s bachelor apartment decor. This place is a hideous monument to macho Cold War power and paranoia. From here, we find the bad people, and the connection to that alternative reality.
Early in the series, a girl escapes from the military base, an ingenue called Eleven, through whom we observe the follies of the people of Hawkins as well as their most endearing qualities. She is capable of extraordinary, supernatural feats, which comes in handy whenever a villain hoves into view.
Her abilities are seemingly without limit, barring the inevitable low-power nosebleed signal, which somewhat diminishes tension. But she's played beautifully by Millie Bobby Brown, and she sits at the center of the show, pulling together the plot strands of kids, teenagers and adults.
As we watch her develop relationships with the other kids, and with the strangeness of regular old America, we rage against her oppressors, a fearful gallery of governmental gargoyles who menace and bully the locals though treachery and dishonesty.
Also to be feared is the monster, emanating from an alternative reality. It cleaves to the truest traditions of 1980s silliness, a terrifying being that, somehow, is able to be tackled by a bunch of kids and some Midwestern spunk.
The story falls down somewhat on consistency and logic, especially where the monster and the otherworld are concerned. Scant attention is paid to the notion of another place, which is a shame for us here in 2016, on the verge of the VR revolution, craving alternative realities to get us away from the one we're actually living.
We play Pokemon Go on our mobile screens, creating a kaleidoscopic zoology of creatures, painted onto the glum sidewalks of our gray lives. Social media slots an infinite number of other people's realities into our own. Streaming services pull a multiplicity of pleasures out of the past, layering our own cultural lives with inexhaustible possibilities.
Stranger Things suggests an interest in exploring this idea of other worlds slotting into our own, interfering and diverting, but ultimately retreats into giving us glimpses of a fairly banal supplementary world that exists as little more than a fairy-tale cave of darkness.
My other major beef with this show is that the lives of people who don't matter much to the story are tossed around with painfully cavalier abandon. I'm not sure if this is an ironic jab at the VCR era of trashy action films, or merely jarring.
Even so, Stranger Things is inventive storytelling, creating a series of mysteries and cliffhangers that demand resolution. It is Netflix at its best.
This is a compelling, tightly drawn story that pulls together strong characters and plenty of thrills, as well as a few laughs. The Duffer brothers have learned well the lessons of all those '80s movies, on how to craft a story around damaged people who feel like our friends and neighbors, who we recognize as kindred.
For all its culture-savvy tricks and references, Stranger Things is a bloody great TV show. Also, it comes with one hell of a soundtrack.