Review – Stranger Things

What is the best show on Netflix? Even without the recent sacking of Kevin Spacey it’s not the formerly excellent House of Cards. That lost all momentum at the end of season three. Is it the ensemble of tortured souls in Orange Is the New Black? No again, as its experiment into a shorter time frame yielded a torturous fifth season. The Crown? Narcos? Marvel’s Jessica Jones or Luke Cage? Quality surely, but not #1.

Stranger Things has emerged the premiere piece of entertainment on the biggest streaming service in the world. It’s large cast sprawled over generations deals with the drama of the Upside-Down and the aliens that emerge from it with a deft hand, high production quality and a large dollop of eighties nostalgia.

The first season was a beautiful singular story strung together by the absence of Will. From there all the characters – his mother Joy, Sheriff Hopper, his friends, his brother, his friend’s sister and her boyfriend – all react from the inciting event. This is all compounded by the arrival of Eleven, but at the first season’s close Will is back and Eleven is gone. Things have reset as much as they ever could.

It’s also a perfect trap for sophomore slump, but creators The Duffer Bros sidestep this cleverly. Will’s return was this big blob over the second season – after the initial curiosity of how people treated him it was like discovering a whole different character. In a lot of places he was Mike-lite, while Mike was off being Emo-Mike* missing Eleven.

*Actor Finn Wolfhard’s words, not mine.

Eleven actress Millie Bobby Brown will have a long and storied career filled with Emmys and Oscars and so much more. Less than three years into this ultra-successful chapter of her career and it is obvious she will be a lasting figure in Hollywood. Her acting skills, her grace, her candour during press and her warmth cannot be underappreciated.

It then makes sense to isolate this bolt of lightning in an entirely separate sidestory, as she is the outcast with as little to do with the rest of the cast as anybody else. The Duffer Brothers should be applauded for experimenting and worldbuilding with a town other than Hawkins and supernatural beings other than Eleven.

Elsewhere the trio of Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo and Caleb McLaughlin continue to soar above the rest of the cast. Stranger Things gains its unique lens and heart from these indispensible actors. If Winona Ryder decided not to return or in the unlikely event Charlie Heaton is punished by Netflix for cocaine possession it could continue, but without Brown, Wolfhard, Matarazzo or McLaughlin it would be damaged beyond repair.

As such each is given great plots that contrast one another more and grant them independence outside from their group. The love triangle between new addition Sadie Sink, Matarazzo and McLaughlin lands well and keeps their youthful innocence intact while inevitably having to have these child actors grow up. Wolfhard’s Mike is becoming a fine leader and it’s good storytelling to show his friendship with Will on screen to avoid retroactively damaging season one while Matarazzo’s Dustin unassumingly nurturing of a monster played to his strengths as an actor.

There’s a lot going on, and despite the longer runtimes it’s still all within eight episodes. Stranger Things, Game of Thrones, maybe Breaking Bad – this is what people initially meant when they spoke about event television. A spectacle so grand and of such high quality it should be viewed on a cinema screen, and so sparse the audience will also be clamouring for more. Now it’s just an industry buzzword, but Stranger Things is the true soul of event television.

The cluster of older teenage characters has always been a little bit parallel to the overarching plot, only intersecting at the biggest moments of the series. The love triangle there of Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton and Joe Kerry began as a stereotypical girl dating the wrong guy cliche and got about three quarters of the way to Kerry being dumped in favour of Heaton’s ‘good guy’. This season completes the arc but goes so out of its way to make Kerry’s character sweet, cool and relatable that it’s a shame Dyer’s character ends up with Heaton.

And in the end, he doesn’t, which elevates Dyer as more than a girlfriend/sister auxiliary character. She’s often seen leading the investigation or racing towards danger while Heaton limps behind. Kerry also takes on a mentoring role to Dustin and to a lesser degree all the kids and it saves his character from an easy cute. Aside from the kids, it will be most interesting to see where Kerry and Dyer land in the next season.

Finally a quick shoutout to Sean Astin, aka Samwise Gamgee of Lord of the Rings, for swinging by for a couple of episodes to add a brevity and joy to the Winona Ryder arc. While his death was awful but necessary, and his character was too kind for this fictional world, it was a character like Bob that makes Stranger Things work.

The folks behind this have their head on right. Shawn Levy continues to excel as the go-to director from character-orientated creators and head writers The Duffer Bros. As they continue to deepen the lore by travelling to a Back to the Future II-esque cityscape and introduce more supernatural kids there’s still a guiding light to keep the audience seeing straight.

The villainous organisation’s headquarters has been exorcised from their town and everything points to the next season being the end of a trilogy, wherein perhaps Dyer, Kerry and Heaton graduate and a couple of kids – most likely Eleven and Mike – skip town to really kick down the door to this new universe. That’s the greatest challenge moving forward: to loose the sleepy town setting and still hold on to what makes Stranger Things this special show so many people have grown attached to.

If they accomplish this the show could go on forever. Let’s hope the budget can rise comparably to keep the cavalcade of megastars on their call sheets.

Review by Mark Halyday


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