The original Netflix series Stranger Things, which released its entire first season on Friday, is a welcome summer diversion that combines sci-fi, mystery/thriller and horror with a totally ‘80s vibe. The series was reated by The Duffer Brothers (Matt and Ross), who had a hand in writing all eight episodes and directing six of them, previously served as writers/executive producers on several installments of Wayward Pines’ first season. While there are similar elements between the two (quasi-governmental nefariousness, shadowy monsters), Stranger Things wins the head-to-head competition—because as the show pays homage to the best of the ‘80s genre films, The Duffner Brothers don’t forget humor and heart.
The series’ action hinges on the disappearance of Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), a young boy in a small Indiana town. His vanishing occurs concurrently with the emergence of a strange little girl and a possible demonic creature. The show’s mysteries, combined with its flawed, yet engaging characters and a fright or two lead to Netflix’s latest bingeworthy show.
Here are five more reasons to start watching.
After years of supporting film roles (Black Swan, The Iceman, etc.), Ryder finally plays a series’ lead that lets her explore the depths of motherhood, grief and terror. As single mother Joyce Byers, she does everything she can to find her son, Will. We’re guessing that the role struck a personal chord with the actress who worked in the search for Polly Klaas, a little girl who was abducted and later killed in Ryder’s hometown in 1993. Equally as compelling is veteran supporting actor David Harbour (Quantum of Solace, The Equalizer) who plays the town’s self-destructive police chief, Jim Hopper. When the audience first meets Hopper, he’s on his porch with unbuttoned jeans revealing a distended belly and tighty-whities. He’s mindlessly chain smoking and drinking Schlitz—before work on a Monday morning. As we slowly learn, Hopper is fighting with his own personal demons and Harbour plays him perfectly.
While child actors generally have a disadvantage due age and inexperience, the younger cast members of Stranger Things are entertaining. The Dungeons & Dragons-playing, junior high nerd kings Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin) and Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo) do everything they can to find their friend Will, even when it means risking being grounded for life by their parents. The rapport between the young dudes is reminiscent of the cast in now-classic films The Goonies (for which Steven Spielberg wrote the story) and Stand by Me (based on a short story by Stephen King). The verbal sparring scene among the boys on The Hobbit vs. The Lord of the Rings characters during a police interview with no-nonsense Hopper was geek-tastically cute. Not to be left out of this little boys club is Millie Bobby Brown, who plays the mysterious “Eleven.” Whereas the boys offer most of the show’s comic relief (particularly the front-toothless Dustin), Eleven is serious, mysterious and powerful. With her shorn locks and piercing eyes, Brown gives off a heavy “Don’t mess with me vibe,” and may have a secret power or two to back it up. (The John Hughesian characters—particularly the teens in love/lust and the clueless dad—don’t fare as well.)
We heard that Steven Spielberg’s films influenced Stranger Things, but we didn’t know how much until we saw rampant references in the first few episodes. There are BMX bike-riding scenes reminiscent of Elliott’s night rides in E.T., and we couldn’t help but think of our favorite extra-terrestrial in the scene where Mike hides Eleven in his closet so his mom won’t discover her. Stranger Things is also set in Hawkins, Indiana, a small town beset by electrical surges and power outages. Spielberg’s 1977 sci-fi classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind featured an Indiana electrical lineman Roy Neary (played by Richard Dreyfuss) checking out powerlines that led to his own supernatural encounter. Coincidence? We think not.
We’re not just talking about the songs that appear on the soundtrack, which includes hits and lesser-known songs by The Clash, Joy Division, New Order, Toto, Jefferson Airplane, The Bangles and others. Just listen and appreciate the John Carpenter-esque opening theme music to see how The Duffer Brothers have steeped every aspect of Stranger Things in ‘80s nostalgia. A synth theme plays over awesome, throwback opening title credits, with a perfectly chosen font and scratchy vintage film effects.
While on one level, it’s great to spot all The Duffer Brothers’ ‘80s pop culture cues and Easter eggs, the audience is never far from something that surprises, scares or goes bump in the night. The horror is subtle, so don’t expect wall-to-wall bloodbaths. Themes of adventure, science, the otherworldly and government coverups are borrowed from the old-school masters’ playbooks, and watching it all unfold proves to be addicting.
The new season of Stranger Things is available now on Netflix.
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.