The First Half of Stranger Things Is Fun and Familiar

Hello, everyone! After watching the first four episodes of Netflix’s new series Stranger Things, I’m going to split my review into two parts, one for each half of the season. That way I can tell you what I think about the season without having to write 8 reviews. The first half of the season has left me intrigued and excited to watch more. Most importantly, it reminded me that old-school horror synth tracks are the best. The opening theme is my jam.

Super Quick Synopsis: When sweet tween nerd Will Byers goes missing one night in the sleepy town of Hawkins, the police aren’t worried. Kids go missing all the time. His mother Joyce, brother Jonathan, and three friends are the only ones who think something truly awful might have happened to Will. As the town searches for the missing boy, strange things begin happening in Hawkins. A mysterious girl named Eleven turns up in the woods where Will was last seen and is taken in by Will’s circle of friends.  Horrifying monsters appear to taunt Joyce, only to disappear when the police arrive. Worst of all is the government’s secretive experiments that have something to do with the monsters and Will’s disappearance. It is while looking for the truth behind Will’s vanishing that these characters stumble onto something bigger: the true evil that is overwhelming Hawkins.

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An artist’s rendering of Will’s friends Dustin, Lucas, Eleven, and Mike

My take: Stranger Things is mired in nostalgia. It screams 80’s movie at every turn, from the opening credits font (with the admittedly cool zoom), to the soundtrack, to the John Hughes stereotype characters. This can be a good and a bad thing. For me, all the homages and references are a little too much. The nerdy boys obsessed with Dungeons and Dragons might work on their own, but once you add the “goody two-shoes” teenage girl, the popular, sensitive boy with mean friends, and the loner boy who does photography, it starts looking less like an homage and more like a direct copy.  I like these tropes, but I also want a show that is using them to inject them with a little originality. Stranger Things doesn’t really do that with its main cast. The boys are funny, but I’ve seen all of them before. They remind me so much of the geeks from Freaks and Geeks, except those geeks were actually fleshed out.

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All nerds are the same. They all like ham radios!

There are a few characters who go beyond their stereotype. Winona Ryder’s character Joyce is a frazzled single mother, but she’s also incredibly strong and faithful. She’s at first the only person to believe that Will is alive after going missing and is willing to try to communicate with him in unorthodox ways, such as through Christmas lights (more on that later). Eleven, the mysterious girl in the woods, also transcends the stereotype. She’s fairly androgynous, for one, which is not a female character one usually sees on television, and she’s got some kick-ass telekinetic super powers. Plus, that girl knows how to emote.

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Winona Ryder as Joyce Byers

My only issue with her character is that she has to rely on her facial expressions to convey the weight of her character since she has barely any dialogue. She understands English but can only give one or two word answers to questions. This annoys me because it seems purely for plot. For instance, when the boys are searching for Will in Episode 3, Eleven leads them to Will’s house and says “Will hiding.” Later, when the police uncover “Will’s” body, the boys are angry at Eleven for misleading them and she can’t defend herself because the writers won’t give her any words! It’s mystery for the sake of mystery, which is lazy writing.

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Despite that silliness, the meat of Stranger Things is very compelling. The “Where is Will?” plot isn’t cliché or dull and even though its beats are familiar, I’m still entertained, which is the most important thing. In the grand scheme of things, Stranger Things isn’t doing anything we haven’t seen before, but it’s the way that the show does it that makes it interesting to watch. For one, it has some remarkable scenes. The Christmas lights scene, where Joyce communicates with Will by using the lights as a ouija board was beautiful and original. The way the show uses light is fantastic. The scenes are always glowing, whether it’s from the buzzing Christmas lights, from the end of a dark hallway in the government facility,  or from the plastic  face shield of a man in a quarantine suit.

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The monster, who as of Episode four hasn’t been fully revealed, is the same. It’s not a “new monster,” since from the brief glimpses shown before it looks like a composite of the cave dwellers in The Descent and the Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth, but growls menacingly like a something from Godzilla. The writers bring originality to this monster by having it exist between dimensions. And what a strange dimension it is. As cold and dark as if it were underwater, but filled with floating, glowing dust. It fades in and out of our world and is only accessible through a membrane that looks oddly like human muscle. This dimension is weird and scary and great to look at. It’s the part of the mystery that really makes me want to keep watching.

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The first half of the season starts slowly, but grows stronger with each episode. As of Chapter 4: The Body, the pieces of the puzzle are finally falling into place. With only an eight episode arc, I’m confident they can work out the mystery without devolving into crazy. Stranger Things is an enjoyable show, but to really hook me, they’ll have to stop relying so heavily on 80’s movies tropes and forge their own path.

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We get it! They’re nerds!
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