Synopsis: A boy goes missing in a small town, leaving behind few clues as to what happened to him. As his family shoulders the weight his inexplicable disappearance, strange things start happening. His mother come across hints of something unbelievable. A runaway girl with a hidden power appears in town. Slowly, things come together, answering the show’s most pressing questions: Is the boy still alive? Can he be brought home? And what happened to him in the first place?
Series: The first season is over. It will get a second season, which should be interesting given that the first one works well self-contained.
I’ve Watched: All 8 eps of the first season.
Verdict: Fantastic. Has some flaws, but the overall experience is great.
Stranger Things is primarily a mystery, with a deep focus on character work and how the events of the story impact the people in it. The atmosphere of the show is powerful, with this eerie uncertainty as to what’s happening. The show paces itself slowly, but not in a bad way-it manages that pace with real skill.
Right away, we meet Will and his friends, a group of boys playing out a D&D campaign (so clearly these kids are awesome). There isn’t time to get to know Will too well before his disappearance, but he does get one character-establishing moment–he rolls badly when his Dungeon Master doesn’t see it. Rather than cheat like his friends wanted him to, he chooses to be honest. These were nice, to-the-point scenes that not only established the dynamic of the friendship, but also contrasted the four boys with each other.
And then things go wrong.
Something happens to Will, and no one–not the characters and not the audience–know what. The protagonists slowly get hints of what’s going on, but they don’t all receive the same hints and they don’t start realizing how unusual the situation is at the same time. The show dwells on that desperate feeling of not knowing, of having to wait without any idea of where Will is or what he’s going through. It leans heavily on the experiences of the family, the loss and confusion. In a way, the show is part character drama with how strongly it relies on the characters’ psychology.
And it’s good at character work. Everyone reacts to Will’s disappearance and the subsequent events in ways that are deep, concise, and completely different from how the other characters react. This is one of the things that keeps the slow pace engaging without making it feel like a slog, providing time for that sense of mystery to build.
The other thing keeping the pace engaging is the plot line concurrent to Will’s disappearance–the girl with strange powers who runs away from the facility where she was experimented on. This plot point provides us with more mystery and action, giving us something else to focus on while the main plot line grows without being rushed.
This girl,El, is interesting in her own right, but she’s also tangled up in the mystery of what happened to Will. She obviously knows something that neither the other characters or the audience do. But she’s lacking the same shared context required to explain it to us. Growing up in an experimental facility where she was more of a project than a person means she doesn’t know what people on the outside do or don’t know. What they do or don’t believe. Nor does she have any idea what’s acceptable. Added to the fact that she’s terrified and on the run, there’s never any telling where her story is going. Every scene with her is so tense, because we never quite know what she’s going to do. El adds not only to the mystery of the show, but to its sense of tension.
And it’s great to see a show build up that mystery and tension by not rushing to the action. Stranger Things knows what to put into those moments to keep things interesting. That isn’t to say that the pacing was perfect–some moments towards the middle did become a little too slow, a little too focused on character work without enough happening in the plot. (Marking probably the first time on this blog that I’ve complained about too much focus on characterization.) But considering how hard it is to pull off a slow pace that’s still deeply engaging most of the time, that’s a quibble.
There were a couple of other things I didn’t like, like the voyeuristic photo shoot scene. If they had to have that plot point, it wasn’t badly handled and it did lead to one hilarious scene further down the line, but I didn’t enjoy watching it. Nor did I enjoy most of the teen drama–I’m ultimately fine with how things turned out, but the experience of getting there wasn’t the best for me. Thankfully, it was only a few scenes.
Overall, the show was incredibly engaging. Great at tugging on emotions. Had a powerful focus on character work and psychology. And surprisingly enough, a fun-to-watch group of children who were a charismatic force in the story in their own right. It’s not often that kids get to be this complex. I’m definitely excited for the next season, and interested in knowing how they’re going to pick up the plot line–because this season functioned almost perfectly as a standalone, from start to finish.
“He’s trying to force you to like normal things, and you shouldn’t like things because people tell you you’re supposed to.”
“Why are you keeping this curiosity door locked?”