You’ve seen stranger things before in different forms under different titles. The ’80s-set chiller is a monster mash of Reagan-era pop culture. The young heroes—bike-riding AV-club misfits—are very Steven Spielberg. The synthesizer score is pure John Carpenter. The title font looks swiped from a Stephen King cover. At every turn, the show calls out inspirations. Posters for Jaws and The Thing hang on walls. The Uncanny X-Men #134—Dark Phoenix unleashed!—is so conspicuously emphasized, I’m tempted to turn this review into a 5,000-word theory analyzing its significance. This show is triggering for nerds of a certain age.
Created by brothers Matt and Ross Duffer (Wayward Pines), Stranger Things is delightful as a hooked-on-a-feeling mixtape and big-budget fan art. But it struggles to transcend nostalgia or produce consistently compelling entertainment. The Duffers bank heavily on our knowledge of the period and genre to get us to buy into the world and feel something for it. The setting, a hardscrabble Indiana small town, feels extrapolated from a John Cougar Mellencamp song. The characters are familiar archetypes, though they are well cast and terrifically acted. Winona Ryder is a ragged single mom. David Harbour is a grizzled, haunted sheriff. Matthew Modine is a sinister scientist. An ongoing subplot with randy high schoolers—a rich bully (Joe Keery), a virgin smarty (Natalie Dyer), an artsy outsider (Charlie Heaton)—is every ’80s teen romance and horror movie boiled to their essence and blended.
The story centers on a superfriends squad of Star Wars-quoting boys that includes big-eyed Mike (Finn Wolfhard), toothless scene-stealer Dustin (Gaten Matazzaro), and no-nonsense Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin). After a Spielbergian night of D&D and bike riding, the other member of this fantastic foursome (Noah Schnapp) goes missing, abducted by an otherworldly creature. Filling his void is another mystery, a runaway (Millie Brown) with limited vocabulary and telekinetic powers who goes by the name Eleven. The kids harbor and hide this proverbial Firestarter in Mike’s basement like their own little E.T. She helps them in their quest to find their friend, but it costs her in ways she lacks language to express and her self-centered boy benefactors fail to recognize.
Even as ’80s pastiche, there’s little unique about Stranger Things—the plot and novelty are stretched thin at eight hours. But it gathers momentum in episode 4 and generates pleasure in the convergence of various story lines. The themes of friendship, mortality, and collective responsibility are stirring if superficial. What moved me most was Eleven’s poignant heroism and metaphor for degrading exploitation and wish-fulfillment fantasy. There’s a beat that evoked, for me, Twin Peaks, that strange thing of the ’90s. Stranger Things has promise as a peculiar and critical historical survey of geek culture. For now, it seems content to just geek out on it. B