I don't know about you guys, but every time Netflix announces a new show, I automatically assume it's going to be great. Sure, that optimism has burned me a time or two in the past, but for the most part, the service has some of the best small screen programming imaginable. As a horror fanatic, the upcoming genre thriller Stranger Things - the second high-profile TV project for Winona Ryder - was one of my most anticipated new shows of the year, and I'm extremely pleased to say that my expectations were matched and exceeded.
Here are 5 reasons why Stranger Things is a must-watch for just about all audiences, except perhaps those with a weird aggression toward flickering lights. Put on your favorite mixtape from the 1980s and dive in.
It's Netflix's First Great Horror Show
Because horror is more suited to limited narratives, there are far more movies in the genre than TV shows. At this point, Netflix has only offered horror fans the monster-filled Hemlock Grove, and the less said about that, the better. Thankfully, Stranger Things doesn't take long at all to prove itself a far more captivating concept, and it's got some monsters of its own.
The 1980s-set show introduces us to a boy, Will (Noah Schnapp), who goes missing under crazy circumstances that may or may not be tied to bizarre science experiments being conducted nearby, and the story is largely about people searching for him, whether it's his mother (Ryder), the town's police chief (David Harbour) or the boy's pack of friends (Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin). It doesn't sound too scary laid out like that, but Stranger Things is chock full of well-earned jump scares, unnerving editing, mysterious characters and unexplainable circumstances. It's far closer to slow-burn horrors of the 1970s than the gore-heavy slasher flicks from the decade in which it takes place.
It's Like Early Spielberg, Only Weirder
Yes, I agree that almost every time a movie or show is set in the 1980s and has a kid and a bit of whimsy to it, comparisons to Spielberg are immediate, though many of those projects lose sight of their inspirations halfway through as special effects start overriding storytelling. I'm not going to say that Stranger Things is a flawless amalgamation of everything we love about E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind and others, but it's definitely one of the more commendable homage-heavy tales.
Kids on bikes? Check. Dangerous threat hidden from sight for as long as possible? Check. Interesting use of lights, both white and otherwise? Check. A feeling of genuine adventure even when things are dark and dreary? Check. Add to that the arrival of a strange girl named Eleven (Millie Brown), whose questionable past supplied her with her own interesting way of helping the boys track their friend down. Though it may have a full-on 1980s vibe, Stranger Things is quite modern in the weirdness it emanates, which isn't so surprising, given it was created by Matt and Ross Duffer, best known for writing episodes of Fox's mindfuck thriller Wayward Pines.
The Mysteries Will Keep You Guessing
The central story is indeed initially about the search for Will, but it isn't just a matter of finding which locked door he's behind. We actually get to watch his baffling disappearance in the show's opening sequence, so this also isn't about figuring out the identity of some random kidnapper. It's much more enigmatic than that and opens up a larger story, which is where the science fiction and conspiratorial elements come into play. Because Will isn't/wasn't the only one in danger from...whatever is out there.
An almost unrecognizable Matthew Modine stars as Dr. Martin Brenner, the ivory-haired scientist who is short on words but long on stares, and figuring out his role in the oddities does not come easy. And while Chief Hopper and other officials are trying to figure out what the hell is happening, their efforts (and everyone else's) often lead to more questions than answers. Thankfully, no polar bears, island hatches or lighthouse mirrors come into play. Maybe.
The Performances Are Great
For her first true leading role on the small screen, Winona Ryder plays Joyce as a mother unhinged, a woman who subsists solely on stress and nicotine. And she's like this almost every time we see her, even when it seems like the rest of the cast was given a completely different set of tonal directions. (It works, too.) David Harbour is also impressive as a small town cop clearly not cut out for handling situations so far over his head, even after he gets past his initial disbelief.
But no matter how good the adults in this show are, Stranger Things would probably be a mess if the child actors were as terrible as child actors can often be. But they aren't. Wolfhard takes point as the emotionally distraught "leader" Mike, Matarazzo serves as the wide-eyed and awestruck comic relief as Dustin, while McLaughlin plays the part of the constantly skeptical cynic Lucas. And though Brown's performance is light on dialogue, especially early on, she is able to successfully lay out all of her emotional beats largely through her eyes. Also solid are Charlie Heaton as Will's distressed brother Jonathan and Natalia Dyer as Mike's sister Nancy, both of whom have their own subplots. (As impressed as I was with all of them, I admittedly am not fond of most of the other high school characters, particularly Nancy's douchebag boyfriend Steve and the other bullies.)
It's Also Quite Funny In A Dark Way
For my money, the best horrors are the ones that deliver not only the spooky scares, but also an offbeat sense of humor. You're not going to find endless stretches of wit in Stranger Things, to be sure, but there are still plenty of laugh-out-loud moments that come in unexpected ways. (And yes, one of those ways is watching Ryder's over-the-top anxiety juxtaposed with everyone else.) It is often during the most serious situations that people react in the strangest ways and make the most off-base comments, and that's often the case here. Harbour in particular is good for a world-weary attitude about most things that cross his path.
Of course, even if you aren't into jokes about darker subjects, Stranger Things doesn't shy away from G-rated moments as well, particularly where Will's friends are concerned. Matarazzo and McLaughlin rarely go a single scene without offering up some amusement, and they'd be perfect for a Goosebumps-type series in the future.
Stranger Things will debut its eight-episode first season on Netflix on Friday, July 15, and you should make plans to watch it as soon as possible. We will hopefully hear soon after whether or not the streaming service will order up a second season. You can check out the full trailer on the next page.