I don’t watch as much television as I used to. In my teens and early twenties, I spent hours zoning out in front of the screen watching anything that came on. Not anymore. Now, I limit myself to one or two hours. Longer than that and I start to feel guilty. I have books to write.
Which is to say I only watch tv shows that are essential. Shows that are merely good don’t make the cut. I might watch the first episode of Marvel’s Daredevil but I won’t watch the second. There’s too much fantastic television available. Brilliant long-form storytelling exercises like Game of Thrones, Mr Robot, Silicon Valley, Penny Dreadful, Girls, Master of None, Last Man on Earth. Older shows that I have to catch up on, like The Wire, Deadwood, The Sopranos, The Americans, Twin Peaks. Essential television.
Netflix’s Stranger Things is essential television.
It was the below poster that caught my eye, debuting on one of the many pop culture websites I procrastinate on.
The specific painterly style evokes the great Drew Struzan movie posters created for Steven Spielberg’s 80s output. This is no accident. The filmmakers behind Stranger Things, the Duffer Brothers, have strived to recreate the aesthetic Spielberg popularised with E.T., The Goonies, Poltergeist, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Amazing Stories. That autumnal-hued suburban landscape where the days are grey and the night’s awash in star-glow and mystery. It’s only natural that the marketing materials would follow suit.
This aesthetic preoccupation extends beyond the art direction to the gliding low angle camera movements, the costumes, the sound design with its use of overlapping dialogue and casting. Save for Winona Ryder, the faces that populate Stranger Things are refreshingly real with nary a trace of Hollywood glamour. They have been cast for their acting talent not because they are pretty. The script asks a lot of them and they deliver. Not one character is a cypher or a stereotype. All have hidden depths. All have arcs.
If the aesthetic is early Spielberg, the plot owes a huge debt to Stephen King – specifically King’s books It and Firestarter. It’s about a boy that goes missing in a small rural town. The police suspect the worst, but his family and his friends hold onto the hope that the boy is still alive. There is something in the woods around the town. Something dangerous that moves through the shadows. A conspiracy is hinted at involving the government, telepathic children, and experiments in inter-dimensional travel. To reveal anything more would be to spoil the subtle pleasures of watching the mysteries unfold. Suffice to say the season ends in a completely satisfactory manner. The journey getting there is expertly designed, the frequent tonal shifts from comedy to horror handled deftly with style and wit.
Spielberg and King are the two main touchstones, but there are other influences on display here – Cronenberg, Clive Barker, John Carpenter, Ridley Scott, James Cameron, Guillermo del Toro. Despite these obvious influences, Stranger Things is no mere pastiche. It’s not J.J. Abrahams Super 8 – a hollow stylistic exercise full of baffling contradictory thematic elements and nothing new to say. The Duffer Brothers have taken what they loved, internalised it, and come up with something personal. They are storytellers, not mimics.
Specifically, they have married a sense of loss to their story of monsters and psychic children that feels honest. A raw grief that enriches the thematic elements and grounds the fantasy rather than undermining it. As a parent watching this story of missing children, I was often moved to the point of tears. My wife was pushed over the edge. There is a lightness too, and humour, and delight. The darkness is balanced but never overcome. This is a story with teeth.
The Duffer Brothers have succeeded so well in paying homage to their influences that at times the show feels like some lost artefact from 1983. An Amblin miniseries that has been languishing in a vault for the past thirty years waiting to be discovered. Stranger Things is like something remembered, a dream of a show you never saw when you were a child but wished you had.