Passing strange?: A critical review of “Stranger Things” season one

I don’t understand this recent run on the 80s in all things thriller. There was “It Follows,” with its fresh teens funking it up to a Casio-centric soundtrack, ghosts of neon and capitalistic tech in “Only God Forgives” and “Mr. Robot” respectively–and both in “Blade Runner 2049”–and the Netflix original “Stranger Things,” the latest investigation into the horror genre by the auteur-ish twins the Duffer brothers (brothers Duffer previously wrote for the TV series “Wayward Pines,” which featured an oddly similar theme song to “Stranger”).

I have no particular problem with the 80s–it was the decade of my birth–but I can’t help but wonder why. Is it because of the curious balance of traditionalism and materialism that emerged in the 80s, which is a perfect percolator for horror? Is it that, as the world grows increasingly nationalistic, we want to examine our own most recently nationalistic period with a monstrous eye? Or is it simply because the horror junkie gen-Xers who came of age in the 80s are finally producing films and television, and they’re feeling nostalgic? Probably the last one. Regardless, I can only caution that, while 80s horror gave us John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” Iron Maiden album covers and the continuing literary career of Stephen King, it also gave us “Mac and Me,” Boy George’s haircuts and…uh, the continuing literary career of Stephen King. Well, now that the new season of “Stranger Things” has dropped, let’s remind ourselves of the first season., cos I haven’t watched the second one yet.

An enigmatic girl with no hair, known only as Eleven, emerges from a spooky forest just outside of Hawkins, Ind., which is positioned uncomfortably, and rather pointlessly, close to a not very secret military research lab. Who is she? Does she have anything to do with the disappearance of local middle schooler Will? Will’s mother, Joyce (Winona Ryder), wants to know, as do the boy’s D&D friends. Will their investigation run afoul of the sinister Dr. Brenner (a stoic and somewhat underused Matthew Modine, seemingly channeling Jim Jarmusch in appearance)? Can they enlist the aid of the local police chief (David Harbour), a seriously flawed man who starts each morning with the help of a cigarette, a beer and a some unmarked pills? And what’s up with those portals to a nightmarish mirror dimension that everyone keeps stumbling across and occasionally into?

If it seems like there are lot of questions here, it’s because there are. Some of the issues throughout the first season of “Stranger Things” are never quite explained. I get that this adds to the mystery, but it also leads to confusion when characters exhibit abilities they never exhibited before (I’m thinking in particular of the final episode here, which has some come-out-of-nowhere moments). The series also has a difficult time defending some of its themes. For example, it’s bad that Eleven is a weapon, until the kids point out that she’s a weapon, then it’s OK to use her as a weapon. Perhaps the second season will tidy things up.

But big themes are not this show’s game. It has one goal: evoke an era. “Stranger” is a paradox because it acts like it’s original while acknowledging that it’s not. At least, it behaves like it’s original, with its occasionally stylish production design and clever affectations (its now iconic font, for example, and calling episodes “chapters”). But, on the other hand, it doesn’t just wear its influences on its sleeves; it wears them like medals of honor. The plot is Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.” by way of Stephen King’s “It,” with a heaping helping of the latter’s “The Mist” thrown in. And that’s not counting the horror posters scattered around the sets, the fantasy games the kids play and their sci-fi-flick-laced dialogue. Are these things strange? Yes. But stranger than what?

The cast is certainly solid. Winona Ryder is typically entertaining as Joyce, but she isn’t given a lot to do here other than pace nervously, her eyes eternally bugged out and her indoor voice constantly stuck in outdoor mode. But, hey, if you want nervous-out-of-her-skull single mom, Ryder has you covered.

David Harbour’s Chief Hopper is the most relatable character (which probably says more about me than it does about anything else), with a past that’s gradually unveiled, perfectly explaining his tightrope walk between being terrified in the face of the unknown and just trying to get through the day. Certainly all of the children are pretty irritating. It turns out that the squabbles that seemed so important to us at 12 are fairly petty past 21.

What the series does well, it does very well, and again, what it does well is atmosphere. The photography is clean, and more than that, it’s smart; Joyce’s increasingly bizarre house is shot like a fascinating Christmas light spider web, and a spooky forest on the bad side of reality is shot like a primeval nightmare. The monster design is good, and the horrors are a nice mixture of atmospheric and jump scares. The soundtrack is also surprisingly diverse while still sticking with an 80s theme (dig the use of Peter Gabriel’s cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes” in episode three; neither the original nor the cover is from the 80s, but it works).

“Stranger Things” is a clever series that is perhaps more shallow than it thinks it is. Still, it’s not called “Deeper Things,” and I will be happily watching the second season until something deeper, and stranger, comes along.

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