TV REVIEW: Stranger Things

TV REVIEW:

Stranger Things (Netflix)

SPOILER FREE

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In recent years, the sprawling success of Netflix has forced them to change their company strategy. Where once they were just another upstart distribution service for older movies, they soon came to be viewed as a competitor by their suppliers (Hollywood). As movie studios gradually pulled their content out of the streaming catalog, Netflix pivoted to focusing on TV series (becoming the new syndication standard) and on original content. Like a new network, the early days were about first making a name for themselves with interesting and provocative series, but also about just getting enough programming to fill time. Netflix went to creative minds and basically gave them carte blanche to create their show how they wanted. With this model, Netflix has had some big hits (Orange is the New Black) and a few whiffs (Hemlock Grove). Still, they’ve had an impressive track record to this point with prestige-style dramas (House of Cards), pulpy comic book adaptations (Daredevil), quirky sitcoms (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), compelling docu-series (Making  a Murderer), kids shows (Voltron) and adult cartoons (Bojack Horseman). They’ve even started financing the releases of actual films too (Beasts of No Nation). In 2013, Netflix’s chief content officer famously said, “The goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us.” That quote became prophetic as HBO launched a cable-free streaming option for all their content last year.

Last year, I caught wind of a new Netflix project with the working title “Montauk”. Winona Ryder had just been cast, giving the series a headliner with a good resume and name recognition. The project was billed as a supernatural mystery series set in Montauk, NY, and was described as “a love letter to the ’80s classics that captivated a generation.” It was being helmed by The Duffer Brothers, who I’d never heard of. From there, not much was said about the project for a good long time. Only in the last couple of months were trailers released for “Stranger Things” and I realized that this was “Montauk”.

The series was released on Friday and I burned through the 8 episodes in 3 days, probably the fastest I’ve binge-watched a Netflix series. I was completely taken in by this amazing show.

Instead of taking place in Montauk, NY, the Duffer brothers reset the show in a sleepy small town in Indiana in 1983. The story revolves around the disappearance of a 12-year-old boy and the mysterious events that begin to happen after that.

What really sets this show apart is the clear influence of the films of the 80’s, specifically Spielberg and his peers. Familiar tropes from those films are joyously adapted into this fresh story. This is homage at its finest, but the Duffers don’t just copy and paste, they update the ideas of those films and view them through a 21st-century lens. Take Ryder’s character as an example. A frantic and grieving mother character may be familiar, but she dials her performance to 11 and doesn’t pull any punches. The same goes for David Harbour’s depiction of the small town sheriff. He’s a complicated and wounded man, struggling through depression with sex, drugs, and alcohol. Probably a little too real for the Amblin pillars of the 80’s.

And then there’s the central group of kids. They’re perfectly cast. Just perfect. Their chemistry is undeniable and it’s just a joy to be part of their world when it gets spun around by the scary events of the story.

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All the familiarity of this genre plays so well in this series. As someone who grew up watching those movies all the time, it feels so warm and nostalgic to see those beats hit again with such precision and skill. I had a similar feeling about JJ Abrams’ film “Super 8” a couple years back. But the series format of “Stranger Things” allows the story to breathe more and for the characters to travel further on their journeys.

And the music. Oh my goodness, the music. The Duffers were apparently granted enough cash to buy the rights to some great music from the early 80’s, which lends a lot of authenticity to the show. However, it’s the John Carpenter-evoking score that really stands out to me. As soon as the iconic title sequence begins, I get goosebumps. The dark synths are incredible (courtesy of Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein of the Austin band SURVIVE). Couple that with the iconic fonts and the subtle film scratch effects, this is a gorgeous sequence that perfectly sets up the vibe of the show.

I’m not going to post any spoilers regarding the storyline of the series because I highly recommend you watch it for yourself. I’ve watched lots of Netflix’s series and this one is my favorite with a bullet. It’s thrilling, funny, scary and emotional. It’s 8 episodes long and has a beginning, a middle and an end. With that said, I’d love to hear Netflix announce a renewal of this series. Watching it is like watching an up and coming band at a small club and realizing that the next time they’re in town they’ll probably be playing an arena. Watch the Duffer brothers now before they’re making awesome summer blockbusters or Marvel movies.

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BONUS

A short list of awesome films that influence “Stranger Things”:

  • Explorers
  • The Goonies
  • E.T. – The Extraterrestrial
  • Flight of the Navigator
  • D.A.R.Y.L
  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind
  • The Last Starfighter
  • Stand By Me
  • Invaders from Mars
  • Jurassic Park

 

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