Stranger Things, the insidiously addictive 8-episode Netflix series, is a definitive 1980s mixtape – media references and Easter eggs are plentiful and wide ranging. I consumed it ravenously, within a 30-hour period, and although I know it’s cinematic junk food I’ll probably watch it all again.
I’ll leave cataloging the shout-outs and homages to the fanboys (mostly, it’s Stephen King by way of Spielberg, absent the pop psych insight of the former and the camera wizardry of the latter. There’s also a soupçon of John Hughes, which I haven’t yet seen discussed in the pieces I’ve read.) The characterizations are all one-note throwbacks, which doesn’t mean they’re not affecting – their familiarity is the appeal.
Each episode is presented as a chapter, complete with throwback title font and almost subliminal emulsion specs (white dots on the film), which create the sense you’re watching something created thirty years ago. A pre-teen boy goes missing while riding his bike home one evening; his mother is convinced he’s alive and communicating via household lights; his friends resolve to find him. There’s a subplot with several of the older siblings, and another thread with a washed-up alcoholic sheriff haunted by the memory of his own deceased child. Oh, and a secret government agency that will stop at nothing to keep its secrets. Every chapter ends on a cliffhanger that all but guarantees you’ll keep watching, and there aren’t any irritating “previously on” clips to underline the obvious.
I like the feel the show’s creators have – not for the story itself, but for our affection for the influences. (Without those, it’s a flimsy enterprise – an off-brand comic book with too many elements.) The jolts are pleasantly predictable – we see the setup and anticipate the punchline (I predicted most, shouting lines at the screen in tandem with the characters, delighting in occasional variations.) I even like how the tension deflates as soon as the monster is finally seen – because that’s how these stories always work. What you imagine is infinitely scarier than something made literal.
Stranger Things leaves open questions in its epilogue, clearly intended to jumpstart season two. I can’t see a continuation working – none of the show’s influences had sequels that lived up to the originals, a problem that will be compounded here. I’d rather the creative team turn their attention to another pop culture decade, with a story inspired thereof.