Three reasons you should be watching 'Stranger Things' - the sleeper hit of the summer
It was supposed to be a weird little cult series, but Netflix's sci-fi mash-up has turned out to be the show everyone's talking about. Our reporter explains why you can't miss it
'Stranger Things' is the phenomenon nobody saw coming. Starring a disconcertingly careworn Winona Ryder and a monster in a rubber suit, the Netflix nostalgia mash-up has captivated audiences, entranced critics and proved that, even in this era of shortened attention spans and a splintered mass culture, there is still such a thing as an old-fashioned, word-of-mouth smash. The water cooler hit rides again.
This Eighties-set science fiction-horror romp, written and directed by 32-year-old twins Ross and Matt Duffer, debuted on Netflix 10 days ago to medium-scale fanfare. On the heels of 'House of Cards' and 'Orange is the New Black', it had the feel of an afterthought - something to tide Netflix subscribers over until the next season of 'Jessica Jones'.
True, flickers of excitement had surrounded the return of Gen X screen icon Ryder (still kookily luminescent at age 44). Yet it is fair to state that not even Netflix had an inkling that it had unleashed one of 2016's big pop culture moments. The Duffers' previous accomplishments, after all, boiled down to scripting several episodes of the M Night Shyamalan supernatural thriller 'Wayward Pines'. 'Stranger Things' was supposed to be their weird little cult series: not the big TV moment of the summer.
Within a few hours of the show appearing on the Netflix homepage, however, it was clear something was afoot. Audiences flocked to this story of a small American town rocked by apparently supernatural events in 1983 (a boy goes missing cycling home from his friend's house, a little girl with telekinetic powers escapes a government facility; something horrible stalks the woods.)
By Saturday morning, just 24 hours after all eight episodes were made available, 'Stranger Things' was trending on Twitter. Stephen King tweeted, approvingly, that 'Stranger Things' felt like a mash-up of his best novels.
The retro theme tune - a chilly synth odyssey inspired by the movies and soundtrack work of John Carpenter - was released as a single. Soon influential website such as Vulture were running features with titles such as "every major film reference in 'Stranger Things', from A-Z", and geeky fantasy game Dungeons and Dragons was enjoying a resurgence simply by dint of featuring heavily in an early scene.
The feel-good factor
What is it about this slick amalgam of 'The Goonies', 'Salem's Lot' and 'E.T.' that has captured imaginations? The answer is both straightforward and complex. To begin with, the series is the perfect nostalgia delivery device. In tone and theme, it evokes the great blockbusters of the early Eighties without feeling like a lame "spot the references" exercise. It understands perfectly that a homage is not the same as a rip-off.
Moreover, 'Stranger Things' differs radically from anything else on television at the moment. Though in no way sentimental or simplistic, the undercurrents of optimism are unmistakeable. Dreadful events befall the town of Hawkins, Indiana - but the characters we are introduced to are an essentially decent bunch. Friends stick together, neighbours look out for one another, even the unpleasant boyfriend character is revealed to have a moral code.
Nowhere in evidence is the nihilism that has sustained hits as diverse as 'Game of Thrones', 'Mad Men' or Netflix's own 'House of Cards' - shows that sometimes feel they ought to be applauded simply for pointing out that people have a nasty, self-serving side.
The Winona Factor
Ryder's off-beat allure is undoubtedly a huge factor in the success of 'Stranger Things'. Ryder has always been different kind of star, with the big eyes and pallid complexion of an Ed Gorey caricature and a taste for unconventional roles.
Moreover, because she essentially has been absent from cinema for over a decade, she has not committed the sort of middle-aged embarrassments which have taken the lustre off contemporaries such as Johnny Depp (once the ultimate enigma - now that dishevelled bloke who earns millions dressing up as a pirate Keith Richards).
Ryder is unquestionably fantastic in 'Stranger Things' - or at least she is as the show finds its groove from episode three on. Initially her somewhat overwrought performance is at odds with the Duffers' cautious pacing. Yet once things get properly crazy - and the storyline escalates quickly - she is in her element. Ryder, it turns out, is the perfect panic stricken suburban mom - a part she breaks down and builds up from scratch.
"Winona is getting completely deserved attention and praise for that performance," said 'Stranger Things' producer Shawn Levy in an interview with 'Variety'. "She is a deep well of emotion and the professional in her knows how to access that."
She also appears to understand the appeal of the series is rooted in the healthiest kind of nostalgia - less a hankering after a golden age that never was than a sense that, in our rush to embrace smartphones, Instagram and caring about Taylor Swift's personal life, we may have lost sight of a bigger picture.
"Yes, nostalgia is a thing now," she told 'Time' magazine last week. "And it's interesting because it being set in 1983, and I remember that year. It was a more innocent time. Well, yes and no. It was the Reagan administration… and there was obviously corruption and government conspiracies going on, which I'm a believer in, I guess you could say."
The actress furthermore embraced the opportunity to play a character who, at a basic level, resembles the person she is today - not who she was circa grunge and 'Beavis and Butthead'. She faces up to middle age rather than trying to slip its grasp.
"There's a lot of conversations right now about ageism, and I know a lot of actresses who have a tough time, and I've gotten offered those mom parts," she said in the same interview.
"But you can make something of it. For me, I'm finally getting to play my own age, and it's liberating. I would not want to go back to playing the ingénue."
Yet 'Stranger Things' isn't the Winona Ryder show, and its appeal transcends hers (many younger viewers may be only dimly aware of her stardom). The smartest decision the Duffer brothers made was in choosing to pay homage to the popular culture of the early Eighties - a period curiously unloved by critics and cultural tastemakers.
The Eighties, received wisdom tells us, was the decade good cinema died. Having given us 'The Godfather', 'The Exorcist' and 'Taxi Driver', Hollywood, goes the argument, reverted to churning out lowest denominator dross such as 'Top Gun'. The lunatics were back in charge of the asylum.
As it happens, audience recollections are rather different. They remember 'Raiders of the Lost Ark', 'E.T.', 'Krull', 'Ghostbusters' and endless reruns on television of 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind' and 'Jaws'. Cinema truly did feel magical - the genius of 'Stranger Things' is in how it channels that effervescence into an original and engaging story.
Which brings us to the final irony. The series is a valentine to Eighties cinema that would not have reached the big screen today. Only on TV can the spirit of that time live on. Hollywood is too busy pummelling us with endless sequels and superhero adaptations. 'Stranger Things' reminds us that it doesn't have to be this way - that summer blockbusters can be spell-binding rather than merely deafening and overbearing.
The point was summed up perfectly by producer Levy: "In the movie business unless you are a superhero, a franchise, or a fairytale, it is almost possible to get made at a studio."