Netflix dropped the 8-episode, Winona Ryder-starring, 1983-set series, ‘Stranger Things,’ with little of the advance fanfare reserved for its’ popular shows ‘Orange is the New Black,’ ‘House of Cards,’ anything with ‘Marvel’ in its’ title, or even something like its’ re-visit to ‘Full House.’ Perhaps the highly successful network didn’t quite understand the power of well-intentioned and well-manicured nostalgia. Maybe the suits didn’t want to spend huge marketing dollars on a title with no instant name recognition. It’s audiences though (especially of a certain generation **ahem** ‘80s kids) that are lucky that the streaming service took a chance on this marvelous microcosm of character-driven, small-town set Science Fiction/Horror.
‘Stranger Things’ quickly establishes its’ setting and introduces all of its’ main and supporting characters in the first episode. The storylines and character motivations are all laid out clearly through the steadily advancing plot. Opening on the young actors (Finn Wolfhard as Mike, Gaten Matarazzo as Dustin, Caleb McLaughlin as Lucas, and Noah Schnapp as Will, who form the core of the show) playing Dungeons & Dragons in their established leader, Mike Wheeler‘s basement, it’s clear that the audience is being transported back to a time when kids went on adventures both physically (riding bikes wherever they wanted) and mentally (creating collective scenarios unaided by digital means). One of them, Will Byers, goes missing after being chased on his way home in the dark and cornered by an unseen menace. The alcoholic, haunted by tragedy, but surface-genial sheriff (David Harbour nicely balancing a gruff edge and a heroic drive for truth), gets pulled into a mounting sequence of linked incidents, the likes this quiet town has never seen. The grieving, yet hopeful, blue-collar single mother (Winona Ryder, in a career reinvigorating performance that rivals her ‘Heathers’ co-fallen-star Christian Slater on ‘Mr.Robot’) staunchly realizes there is more going on in this story, and may or may not be losing her grip on reality. The older siblings Nancy Wheeler and Jonathan Byers wrestling with burgeoning hormone-fueled emotions, played to awkward high school perfection by Natalia Dyer and Charlie Heaton respectively. The mysterious young girl in a hospital gown with a shaved head who just might be the key to it all (a wondrously natural find in Millie Bobby Brown).
Creators/Directors/Writers Matt and Ross Duffer, collectively known as The Duffer Brothers, have come out of nowhere, aided by ingrained Hollywood producer/director Shawn Levy (‘Night at the Museum’ and many other comedies), and thrust what they refer to as a ‘novelized’ serial on a public obviously hungry for ’80s nostalgia with an original, unique slant (as opposed to regurgitation). From the brilliant synth score, to the authentic period clothes, hair-cuts, bicycles, art direction (wood-paneling galore), and various props (board games, posters, Tupperware, etc.), they build a contained world that is strangely both comforting and foreign, both relic and mind-expanding. Like the many genre films from the 1980s that form the foundation, tone, and overall feel of this part-horror, part- comic, part-drama, completely captivating cinematic series from start to finish, it is earnest, tragic, life-affirming, and melodramatic (in a good way) can’t-miss entertainment that many will be poring over in anticipation of the next chapter (hope, hope) . . .
* * * 1/2 (out of 4 stars) -OR- A-