Nostalgia is best served in small portions, so the relative secrecy around Netflix’s new series Stranger Things has worked to its advantage. The show’s in-production log line while it was still called Montauk—a young boy mysteriously disappears in 1982 in bucolic “real” America—suggested something closer to Mystic River than Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. But the trailer and key art evokes the latter film and other summer tentpoles of yesteryear, produced back when blockbusters were family-friendlier and there wasn’t a new supervillain trying to raze Manhattan every Friday.
Twin creators Matt and Ross Duffer wear their genre influences on their sleeves, and Stranger Things is a deliberate effort to replicate classic cinematic tales of young kids confronting ancient evils. Had the show been identified early on as a Spielberg homage with an unsettling synthesizer score, it would have been nearly impossible to reserve early judgment. The supernatural thriller has a slim margin for error even when it’s not stylized. Pulling off a faithful but not slavish tribute to Spielberg, John Carpenter, and Richard Donner is far more difficult, which J.J. Abrams learned the hard way with the lukewarm Super 8. Add in the format and length—eight one-hour episodes—and Stranger Things seems like a spaceship wreck waiting to happen.
In fact, Stranger Things is stylish, beguiling, and eminently bingeable, but it isn’t skeptic-proof. The Duffer brothers, who previously worked on Fox’s surprisingly compelling Wayward Pines, should know by now that open-ended supernatural mysteries are going to dissuade some viewers, particularly those who have felt duped by such stories in the recent past. But anyone willing to push through their resistance will find a borderline hypnotic show that could be to this summer what USA’s Mr. Robot was to last summer: a hyper-stylized niche series that feels essential even at its wobbliest.
Winona Ryder toplines the series as Joyce Byers, a mother spiraling out of control following the disappearance of her son Will (Noah Schnapp) from the eerily quiet Hopkins, Illinois. But Ryder isn’t the star. That title is shared by the middle schoolers trying to bring their friend back home, Will’s friends Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin). Stranger Things follows the trio in their harrowing quest to rescue their friend, who struggles to communicate to them from the beyond. Their adventure intensifies after they cross paths with Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), who between the buzzcut and the eponymous brand on her forearm, looks enough like the subject of a covert experiment that it hardly matters that she’s mute.
Stranger Things hits overly familiar notes, even as it combines tween adventuring with genuinely scary concepts and creatures. Eleven, naturally, has supernatural powers, and they can be easily telegraphed by anyone who’s ever watched television. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine), the sketchy doctor who oversees the experiment from which Eleven escapes, is predictably opaque, but is probably less malicious than he initially seems. But the same can be said for such films as Ti West’s The House Of The Devil. The line between lively homage and limp imitation is razor-thin, and there was no way for the Duffers to replicate the sci-fi family films of the ’80s without leaning on some familiar tropes.
What the Duffers lose in originality they make up for in the assured execution. The sibling team co-wrote and/or directed most of the episodes, and it’s the rare example of a freshman television series that knows exactly what it wants to be from its earliest frames. The direction and cinematography are stunning throughout, and the series nails all the appropriate period details from the costumes to the creepy production design. There’s also the irresistible, Imaginary Forces-designed title sequence, which is rendered with vintage fonts and mottled with faux film grain. Balancing style and substance is always challenging for a series like Stranger Things, but the show is perfectly calibrated. It feels like watching a show produced during the era in which it’s set, but with the craft of today’s prestige television.
The performances are terrific, but Ryder is far outshone by her young co-stars. That’s not entirely her fault. She makes an excellent hysterical mother, and her scenes of maternal agony are genuinely affecting. But there’s only one note to the character, and watching Joyce go from frenzied to forlorn and back again gets tiresome quickly. Meanwhile, the child stars get the most compelling characters and the most engrossing story. The most pleasant surprise of Stranger Things is watching as the youngest characters become the biggest draw of a decidedly adult television show. Wolfhard and McLaughlin represent themselves well as the man of faith and the man of reason, but Matarazzo is especially good as the pragmatist trying to cut through their bickering to find the best solution.
There’s been no word yet on whether Stranger Things was conceived as a limited series or whether it’s intended to be open-ended, so it’s safe to assume the show’s future depends on its popularity. The threat of the show dragging on with no hope of a satisfying resolution is the only reason not to plunge headfirst into Stranger Things, but it’s 2016’s show of the summer, and nothing it does in the future can take that away.
Reviews by Emily L. Stephens will run every other day starting Friday.