The best film of the summer was eight hours long, was not released in theaters, and only starred one notable actress. It did not contain any huge action set-pieces, or flashy CGI, but instead relied on strong writing, great characters, and an engrossing story. Netflix’s Stranger Things was easily the surprise hit of the summer, as it quickly became one of the streaming website’s top-watched shows. With Season 2 greenlit, and with millions of newly-devoted fans waiting in anticipation, the question now becomes whether or not the show’s creators, Matt and Ross Duffer (credited as the Duffer Brothers) can recapture the magic of the first season. Fortunately, all signs point to the duo succeeding.
It is worth noting that while the show’s growing mythology seems to be the focus of most of the discussion, the great characters are what make Stranger Things such a success. The story is centered around the disappearance of Will Byers, and all of the characters find themselves brought together by the search. The highlights are easily the children. Will’s group of friends receive the majority of the screen time, but they never once feel irritating or grating. Dustin, played by Gaten Matarazzo, is a particular standout, but there is not a weak link to be found. Will’s mother, Joyce, portrayed by Winona Ryder, could have easily become a nuisance to the viewer, but Ryder plays her with just enough sympathy and toughness to keep the audience constantly rooting for her.
While the first few episodes set up familiar archetypal characters (the grizzled cop, the cool and arrogant high school boyfriend, the innocent teenage girl), the Duffer Brothers’ writing quickly and brilliantly subverts the typical clichés associated with these character types. David Harbour’s Hopper is, at first glance, a familiar womanizing, hard-drinking, just-a-few-more-days-until-retirement cop, but as the season progresses, his backstory and motivations are revealed slowly and he is given plenty of depth. Hopper becomes the hero to cheer for, and yet there is also an aura of mystery surrounding the character that keeps the viewers questioning him in the back of their minds. Steve Harrington starts off as the typical cocky high school prom king, although it is not exactly clear what makes him so great. (Is it the hair? It’s probably the hair.) But by the final episode, he is given a couple of great moments of redemption that keep him from being eyeroll-worthy.
Nancy Wheeler, played by Natalie Dyer, is one of the more frustrating characters on the show. She is the only character who acts very inconsistently (her reaction to Barb’s disappearance is questionable, at best), and Dyer’s inexperience as an actress is noticeable, but she does a commendable job of playing a very conflicted character. It is the relationship between Steve and Nancy that helps keep the show grounded. Indeed, the Duffer Brothers make sure to keep the focus on relationships throughout: the budding romance between Steve and Nancy, the friendship between the children looking for Will, and the protective relationship between Hopper and Joyce.
Without these solid, relatable relationships to ground the show, Stranger Things would probably be no better than a run-of-the-mill science fiction show. Fortunately, the show has everything: drama, romance, sci-fi intrigue, comedy, and horror. There is something in it for every viewer to like. What is important is that the Duffer Brothers never go too far down the rabbit-hole of their mythology. Nothing gets over-explained, and they leave just enough ambiguous to intrigue, rather than frustrate, the viewer. The mythology behind the show certainly appears to contain a twisted story, but the origins of the Upside-Down are never explained because they do not matter to the story that Season One is telling. The straightforward, simplistic storytelling is incredibly refreshing to witness.
The show’s production clearly draws inspiration from the films of Steven Spielberg. It somehow perfectly captures the look and feel of the 1980s, and the story is essentially a combination of a film of Spielberg’s like E.T. and an episode of the Twilight Zone. There are scary moments (the design of the Demogorgon is genuinely terrifying), there are funny moments, and there are plenty of tear-jerking moments as well. Few shows pull off this balance as adeptly as Stranger Things does. By keeping the focus on the characters and never getting too bogged down in its own mythology, the Duffer Brothers produce a masterful eight episodes that entertain, horrify, and engross the viewer. In a summer filled with underwhelming reboots and sequels, an eight episode Netflix show managed to steal all of Hollywood’s thunder.