We were a couple of weeks late to the Stranger Things party (although it's nice to see it's still carrying on even now) because it's initial trailers and synopsis don't look that promising. Hey, it seems to say, you remember those 80s movies you liked, a bit of Speilberg, a bit of Carpenter, a bit of Stephen King? Well we made some fan fic about kids on bikes, scary monsters suspect government men in small town America. Enjoy!. But yes, I thought, I did like those things, but I'm not sure I need more of them. It turns out, however, that I did need more of them, and Stranger Things is rather more than the sum of it parts.
Spaced over 8 episodes, telling a single story about the dissapearance of a young boy in a small Indiana town, Stranger Things is a strange mix of homage and deconstruction of the cultural output of the period. Sometimes its hits those tropes pretty solidly, others in a less predictible way, which kept it interesting to watch. I've seen some criticism of it for this, actually, but it strikes me that not everyone in it's intended audience is going to be a 40-something who grew up on this stuff, and won't be as literate in it; Ewan watched it through with us and got really into it, like it was nothing he'd ever seen before.
So structurally we have three sets of characters associated with this initial dissapearance. You have the kids - the direct freinds of the missing, who meet up with and aid a young girl escaping from captivity. These are affectionately drawn D&D nerds straight out ET or The Goonies, and the most obvious of the shows collection of outsiders. Next we have the teenagers, who start out disparate and gradually come together through a mix of high school drama and dogged investigation. Finally the grown ups, a burnt-out Sherriff straight out of a Stephen King novel and the towns only (it seems) single mum, herself isolated and alone raising her two kids.
These three stories bend and twist around each other, giving the audience a fuller picture of the story than any of the main characters ever get. It's a credit to the show that they are able to keep these apart for so much of it's running time, as characters own emotional choices undermine their abilities to make the logical or smart choice. Most of the characters are too used to being alone, too used to not belonging, that it takes time for them to see the need to find each other. The shows love of the outsider is probably the most 80s thing about it.
I do think that the show is more than just an elaborate reassembly of older material though. For a start there is a more modern sensibility in how it handles it's female characters, most notably in the determined, sympathetic figure of Joyce and the ultimate romantic agency it grants to Nancy. Eleven feels more in period, but that shouldn't take away from her performance, alternating between wide-eyed innocence and ferocious bad-assery. Thats not to take away from the men, of course, but they feel more in line with period expectations and it's only douchbay Steve that feels like he steps away from his trope.
It's fair to say that we ripped through Stranger Things as fast as we could. It's exactly the right length to feel propulsive without leaving good characterisation behind, and leaves us poised for more to (hopefully) come. I really liked it (can you tell?) not only because I did grow up on this sort of stuff, but also because it is pretty great in it's own right. It's only 8 episodes too, so there is really no excuse not to check it out if you can.