A couple of weeks back, you would’ve been forgiven for not being overly excited about Stranger Things, the new Netflix original series that went live on 15 July. Sure, Netflix has created many critically acclaimed and popular series (House of Cards, Marvel’s Daredevil and Jessica Jones, Master of None, Making a Murderer etc.). But in a bid to generate nostalgia for the '80s (which is a thing now), it did also grant life to the universally-panned reboot Fuller House earlier this year. Let’s face it: nostalgia for the '80s and '90s is everywhere, and while it has given us some terrific reboots and revivals, the line between yearning and overexposure is very fine. Then Netflix released the trailer for Stranger Things, the show’s Drew Struzan-style poster, and its first synopsis, and suddenly, 15 July couldn’t get here soon enough. A Winona Ryder-fronted homage to the '80s that looked like Steven Spielberg’s movies and felt like Stephen King’s novels (or movies based on them). You could practically hear the gleeful collective roar of Generation Xers and millennials as they waited to see how it actually turned out. On Friday the 15th, we knew: the '80s were here, on our TV screens and in our lives. And we were loving every minute of it!
Created by twins Matt and Ross Duffer (of Wayward Pines), the first few minutes of Stranger Things set the tone for the series’ eight-episode arc flawlessly. We know we’re in the '80s as we’re introduced to a rag-tag group of pre-teen boys high on their geek factor (they’re at the end of a 10-hour-long Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) game) and that quintessentially '80s sense of adventure. We also meet the other protagonists: the mother and brother of one of the boys, the family (including a side-plot worthy teenage sister) of another, the borderline alcoholic sheriff (David Harbour) with a traumatic past, and the gloomy sleepy town of Hawkins, Indiana, which is the setting for the impending horror. By the end of the episode, the mystery is set in motion: one of the boys, Will, disappears under mysteriously terrifying circumstances (there are hints of a “faceless” monster) while cycling home from his friend’s place, resulting in a town-wide search. A search that unintentionally branches off into three parties: the sheriff and the townsfolk, Will’s mother Joyce (Ryder) and older brother Jonathan, and his three D&D playing buddies, Mike (the hesitant leader), Dustin (the hilariously talkative brainiac) and Lucas (the hothead). We’re also given a hint of the dark goings-on of a sinister government facility (disguised as an innocuous Department of Energy building near the wooded outskirts of town) that’s run by an equally sinister-looking white-haired man (Matthew Modine).
Wielding their trusty walkie talkies (how very '80s!), the boys set out to find their missing friend when they encounter an enigmatic buzz-haired girl roughly their own age (played by a wonderfully emotive Millie Bobby Brown); we later learn she’s named “Eleven” as per the tattoo on her wrist, and has recently escaped the “facility”. The sinister white-haired man, along with his suit-wearing minions, is searching for Eleven; in the process, they reveal their cold-blooded nature when they remorselessly take down a man whose diner Eleven had taken brief refuge in! Part sci-fi, part horror, part comedy, and all-round wonderful, Stranger Things manages to suck you into its world rather unapologetically.
Through the course of the series, this love letter to the '80s unfolds in spectacular fashion. Eleven has “powers”, ranging from keeping a toy-brick Millennium Falcon floating in mid-space to killing an army of gun-wielding grownups by making them bleed through their eyes! Through her flashbacks, we learn that she was heavily experimented on by the white-haired Dr. Brenner (whom she calls “papa”), for decidedly dark motives (Russian spies are involved). During one of these experiments, something goes horribly wrong, creating a tear in our world which leads to an alternate dimension. The boys, board-game playing nerds that they are, latch onto this idea pretty early on (with a little help from Eleven); they refer to this dimension first as “the Vale of Shadows” from D&D, and later as the “Upside Down” (after Eleven turns their game board upside down in order to show them that Will is right where they are, except he exists in a different dimension).
The adults, of course, take some time to come to terms with this concept. Except Joyce, who strongly believes her missing son is communicating with her through Christmas lights and other assorted lamps. A lesser actor could have taken this role into cuckoo territory, but Ryder brings such heartfelt distress to her role that you can’t help feeling sympathetic. At one point, when blinking lights don’t seem sufficient enough to have a non “yes-no” conversation with her son, she sciences the shit out of it by scrawling the alphabet on her living room wall. It worked for Mark Watney on Mars, and it works for Joyce Byers in Hawkins, Indiana!
This is the beauty of Stranger Things: it’s simple. It’s set in an age where parents didn’t constantly worry about their children, when kids could disappear into their little worlds until dinner-time. In a pre-internet age, the children (and adults) have to resort to their wits and handy objects to fight the monster and the government. The throwbacks to the '80s don’t stop at the simplicity; the town of Hawkins, the boys riding their bicycles, hiding Eleven in Mike’s house unbeknownst to his parents, and the content yet gloomy air of small-town suburbia is classic ET: The Extra Terrestrial. The otherworldly existence of the monster invokes both Poltergeist and It; the Upside Down resembles the planetoid from Alien, the boys and their search for their missing friend is inspired by Stand By Me which in turn was based on Stephen King’s novella The Body (an episode of Stranger Things is even titled The Body, in a not-so-subtle nod to King). And it’s not just the adventure/horror genre that’s paid homage to; there’s even a small makeover scene involving Eleven which screams Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club.
Stranger Things manages to make its homage to the '80s seem less trite because it has an endearingly earnest quality to it. The kids are funny, brave and sincere; without cellphones and social media, they go about their roles with purposeful abandon, their camaraderie translating to the screen in one of the series’ loveliest scenes with Mike, Eleven and Dustin hugging each other at the quarry after bringing down the school bullies. With their high nerd quotient, these kids would be cool today, but you have to remember this is the '80s, when being a geek was considered “lame”.
The performances, the amazing '80s soundtrack (like Guardians of the Galaxy, we need a Stranger Things soundtrack!), the incredible title sequence that could be straight out of a John Carpenter movie, all of these help elevate the series beyond its miniscule flaws (the teenage love triangle or leaving certain questions unanswered). But then again, that only sets the stage for a potential season 2 (which seems inevitable since Netflix renews everything at least once and Stranger Things is running on a 90 percent Rotten Tomatoes score).
Will is back, but in a terrifying moment towards the very end, he coughs up a slug from the Upside Down (yikes!). Eleven has apparently sacrificed herself to save her friends, but as we see Sheriff Hopper leaving food (including Eggos, Eleven’s favourite junk food) in the woods, we can’t help but think: does he know something we don’t? Could she be alive and hiding? We’ll know the details soon, but until then, let’s savour this little gem for what it is: in times filled with gun violence, terrorism, and political chaos, Stranger Things is a bingeworthy ode to a simpler time and the perfect way to return to the comforts of childhood.