As someone who struggles with hypercritical behavior, my first reaction to any well-reviewed show is to find a way to hate it. So I was legitimately surprised by how much I loved almost everything about the new Netflix show “Stranger Things.”
I guess a more precise thing to say would be that I admire almost everything about “Stranger Things.” Mostly, I admire it because it gets the 1980s right in a way that the majority of retro TV gets the decade tiresomely wrong. It’s always distracting to watch a movie that botches the small things about a place or a time. But for a show that hits you over the head (in a good way) with an array of ’80s cinematic touchstones, “Stranger Things” does an admirably subtle job of letting you know you’re in the ’80s.
From the aesthetic quality of the opening title to the kids’ inconspicuous fashion sense (yes, we wore dumb things, but we didn’t all have theatrically asymmetrical haircuts and glow-in-the-dark Benetton sweaters), to the cars, the supermarket, the appliances, the glasses dads wear, and the blouses on the moms. The soundtrack helps — yes, The Clash and Joy Division will do that — but it’s the synthy Vangelis-like music (I loathed it as a kid) that hovers over the action and makes it feel right. You get the sense that the Duffer Brothers made a show in 1983 rather than about 1983.
So maybe it’s because I grew up in 1980s that the attention to detail makes it work for me. And maybe it’s because I was then around the age of Lucas and his friends — kids who have no compunction playing and enjoying Dungeons & Dragons in their basement — that I admire its dedication. “Stranger Things” is brimming with absurdist ’80s sci-fi components: the monsters, the alternate dimensions, and mostly the conspiracy theories featuring vast government agencies that pursue some shady non-science to fight the Russians (not a spoiler, I just assume that last part). “Stranger Things” is scary in that sort of not-really-too-scary Gremlins way. And it is sentimental about friendship and family in a way that ’90s movie realism sort of washed away. It even offers a little John Hughes’ class consciousness for good measure.
In the end, though, “Stranger Things” is a study in Spielbergism. Not only because of its dynamic production value (think a less glimmering and more visually coherent “Super 8”) but mostly it doesn’t concern itself with plausibility, only the action. I’m sure those nerdier than I could come up with a more exhaustive list, but I think I saw tributes to “Poltergeist,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “E.T.,” “Close Encounters” (’77, I know), and “The Goonies.” Also, “Aliens,” “Predator,” and Steven King. There were a slew of movies in the 80s — “War Games” and “Manhattan Project” come to mind, but there were probably many more — that revolved around a gang of kids jumping on their bikes and using their walkie-talkies and other homemade electronic devices (a big deal in those years) to deal with some massive and obvious Area-51 type conspiracy their idiot parents couldn’t see. “Stranger Things” is that movie, but legitimately fun and mysterious and a lot more.
It would not have worked without strong performances, and the kids are all funny, likable, and multidimensional. Well, other than Millie Bobby Brown, who plays the girl with psychokinetic powers, who oscillates between angry and sad stares when she’s not screaming. She does it well. The big-city cop turned local lawman, David Harbour, is the standout. The guy was in both “Suicide Squad” (assuming the critics have it right) and “The Green Hornet,” so he deserves this. I was less taken by Winona Ryder. Although she offers a perfectly competent performance as the grieving and searching mother, the character deserved a better fleshing out. Also, “Vision Quest’s” Matthew Modine plays a mysterious government and whispers like 10 words. He’s fantastic at that.
No, I didn’t like everything. Some of storyline has a we’re-making-this-up-as-we-go-along quality — much like “Lost” or “The X-files.” It’s one of those shows that might produce a bunch of giant plot holes on a second viewing. Then again, I get the feeling I might not care.