Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Small Screen: Stranger Things

Bear with me here, as I have never written about the medium of television until now. I watch plenty of shows and yet I have always resisted the idea of treating them the same as films and I think it's because I used to look at the two experiences differently. A movie feels like something that is meant to be studied, broken down and discussed where as I have viewed television as an escape from such analysis. Even the most fascinating and complex shows, the best of the best that still made me think days, months, even years after they aired, I would let simmer in my brain rather than actually putting the words together to express how I felt. Trust me, I have plenty to say regarding Breaking Bad and Six Feet Under, my two favorites of all time. Simply never felt compelled to.

It isn't that Stranger Things is the first series worthy of finally putting those words down. It's just the show that inspired to do it. I felt something special and wholly unique while watching the Netflix show, which is a bit ironic considering a lot of what invoked those feelings centers around the brilliant way the creators of the show paid homage to the films that inspired them. Like a wonderful hug from 1980's Amblin Entertainment, the Spielberg influence is obvious, but if you look closely you will also see John Carpenter, Wes Craven, David Cronenberg, Stephen King, and perhaps even a bit of Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko, not the mention the spellbinding musical score that plays like an amalgamation of the work of Cliff Martinez on the film Only God Forgives and Disasterpiece's perfect score for the movie It Follows.

Yes, Stranger Things is both utterly familiar and yet completely fresh. How is that possible? Ask Ross and Matt Duffer, or as they are credited on the series, The Duffer Brothers. I am not afraid to admit that I had to Google these two when I saw the names and even after finding the results they remained unknown to me, but they are not only on the map now, anything they touch will be can't miss going forward. I am not overstating this: Stranger Things is that good. It's great. It's can't miss television dripping with nostalgia and yet completely modern, a series that I somehow both loved in the early 90's and again in 2016 because I could feel the kid in me that was drawn to my then favorite show The X-Files screaming with joy over what I was watching now.

The cast of this series features Winona Ryder, Matthew Modine, David Harbour, and then the insanely impressive collection of young actors that have previously done little with their careers and yet every single one shined during Stranger Things. Charlie Heaton as Jonathan Byers. Noah Schnapp as his little brother Will. Finn Wolfhard (what a fucking name that is) as Mike Wheeler. Natalia Dyer as his older sister Nancy. Gaten Matarazzo as Dustin, who is a small child that has played two roles ever including this one and he stole so many scenes here, eliciting actual loud laughter from me with his timing and delivery of dialogue. Caleb McLaughlin as Lucas and last but certainly not least Millie Bobby Brown as the mysterious young girl known as Eleven. So little experience between them all and yet this show proves how irrelevant that can be as long as the talent is there and the showrunners know what they want and get the most out of their cast. It's not only fair, it's only natural to think of The Goonies as you are watching Stranger Things because the chemistry between the kids is similar and equally as noteworthy.

Alright, so just some basics on the series. Nothing more because spoiling anything doesn't help anyone. The less you know as each episode unfolds the better because the title is apt. The story just keeps getting stranger and stranger as the pieces of the puzzle start being put together. At the start of the first episode, a young boy named Will (the aforementioned Noah Schnapp) disappears and his family, friends and the community around him try to cope with their grief and also make sense of what may have happened to a young child in such a quiet town. Winona Ryder plays his mother and when signs of government conspiracies and supernatural forces start to appear before her eyes, she continues to fight to find the child she lost, even as everyone around her is ready to assume that he has died.

I could go on and on with everything that I loved about Stranger Things, but I want to single out one aspect now because I think it's important: the first season of this series is only 8 episodes long. Why is that important? Because God bless those that recognize the importance of pacing and telling the best possible story rather than filling their material with filler and fluff in order to extend a show and earn more money. Some of the dramatic series' on network television have exciting premises but they die under the weight of 22 or more episode seasons because staying compelling and within the frame of a streamlined narrative is virtually impossible when asking writers to cook up so much content. When the announcement regarding season 7 of Game of Thrones came recently, that it would only feature 7 episodes, many cried out for more where as I wanted to applaud HBO and those in charge of the show for being willing to admit they need to do less. Earlier I mentioned my two favorite series of all time, Breaking Bad and Six Feet Under. What do those shows have in common? Both lasted only 5 seasons and only 12 to 13 episodes per. They ignored the popularity of what they had created and the size of the checks rolling in as the ratings increased because going beyond the potentially perfect conclusion merely for money would kill what had been achieved thus far. If you want a negative example of what I mean, go watch Dexter and try to endure seasons 5 through 8.

Because of the desire to tell this story in only 8 episodes, the Duffer brothers managed to create a show that is literally always entertaining. Always. I was never once even the slightest hint of bored, always invested in the characters and the relationships and the horrors they are forced to face. There is no filler present on any piece of the series and they left the perfect amount of loose ends that still need to be sewn up without being annoying and unfulfilling. I am already so eager for a second season and yet I am more than willing to wait because I know what matters most is the team of people that need the proper amount of time to be creative and come up with the best possible next chapter to this story.

Over the course of only a few days I managed to sit down and take in all 8 episodes of Stranger Things and if it were up to me I would have watched them even faster than I did (being a husband and father and having a full time profession hampers the ability to binge an entire series as quickly as I wish I could). I want more so badly I will likely revisit this first season from the beginning and this is unusual for me so it speaks volumes. When I love a film, I will sit down and screen it 10 times within a two year span and the way it speaks to me somehow never feels redundant, and yet with television no matter how much I love a show I rarely feel compelled to start over and relive the whole thing again. Stranger Things will get a second viewing because each frame is so creatively ingenious and imaginative that I couldn't have possibly appreciated every nook and cranny like I want to.

I keep thinking about the fun, the fear, and even a few tears that were shed as I watched Stranger Things unfold. It's tremendous entertainment and should be able to connect to viewers from multiple generations. Those that are too young to understand the magical storytelling abilities of artists like Spielberg and Stephen King can experience a similar feeling today by watching this series by the Duffer brothers. Those that love the influences of this show can connect the dots and appreciate just how comfortably these 8 episodes meld together the warmth of familiarity with something new and inviting.

Stranger Things is right up there with House of Cards as the best two series thus far from Netflix. Watch the first episode and see if you can stop yourself from turning on the second. For me it was 3 before I even realized how long I had been sitting there.

If you don't have Netflix, order it. Hell, ask a friend for their login information and watch it for free, and don't you lecture me on stealing. Just find a way to enjoy Stranger Things.


  1. Absolutely Loved It!! The nostalgia was played to perfect effect. I can't wait for more. One of the best Netflix shows up there with House of Cards, Sense8, the Marvel shows, and Bloodline.

    1. I STILL need to watch Sense 8. Damn it. It's on the list. After finishing Stranger Things I am now running through Twin Peaks for the first time ever, with the goal to be fully on board and caught up so I can be ready for the new episodes next year.

      I have gone through a bit of a television resurgence lately, and I think it was partially because I watched so many films in a short span of time (probably 15-20 I didn't even feel compelled to review in a month) that I overloaded and found myself lost in some great TV. After Twin Peaks I will cue up Sense8 and finally experience it, I started it way back when but I only watched an episode of two and will need to start over.