Stranger Things’ first season is a visceral and nostalgic mishmash of half a dozen science fiction tropes.
Small-town America in the 1980s was a perfect time for science fiction of the Close Encounters kind – the juxtaposition of neighborly familiarity not yet disintermediated by the disembodying effects of the Internet, with the vast screaming unknown of space and its lurking horrors. Stranger Things is all about taking this milieu and making a show out of it with today’s production values, throwing in a kitchen sink’s worth of classic elements from that tradition – secret government programs, other dimensions, aloof children with vast mental powers, nerdy kids saving the day – the works.
The effect is a show that feels both fresh and derivative – fresh because of its modern sensibility and high production values, derivative because, ultimately, it’s taking, almost out of whole cloth, from the building blocks of the subgenre.
The story starts with a horror escaping out of a clandestine lab, the disappearance of a child, and the emergence of another, bald and bearing only the tattoo of the number eleven on her wrist, who can lift things with her mind and receive visions from far away.
In the town’s frantic search to find one missing child, the other is found by the first child’s friends, and she slowly learns how to be human after having been isolated and subjugated to emotional manipulation by her handlers her entire life. In her slowly emerging newfound empathy, she learns the power of friendship.
If this all sounds vaguely like everything we’ve seen before in science fiction television and film, that’s because it probably is. It’s hard to place but the premise feels familiar, almost archetypal – and to some extent, that’s a good thing for a show that runs so much on that 80s aesthetic and feeling.
The show does try some fresh things, and it is capable of demonstrating surprisingly layered emotional complexity. The initial episodes lay out the central mysteries in a way that doesn’t quite reveal the big secrets to those familiar with the tropes. There are some brilliant moments in these early episodes, like the scenes where Joyce (Winona Ryder), the mother of the missing child, Will, is shown doing all she can to find her lost son. Ryder imbues her character with a raw maternality that, frankly, should earn her an Emmy. Her emotional performance elevates the show at its best moments to something approaching magical.
As the show proceeds on to its climax and denouement, however, the mysteries have to reveal themselves, and that’s where the tropes come in and kind of set up the stage for disappointment. After the alluring unknowns of the early show, the later show starts to just go back onto the well-worn tracks of its genre predecessors in explaining its mysteries. It’s perhaps a tall order to expect a show to come up with something completely original, but I think the slightly disappointing thing about its late-season quality is the disjunct between its set-up, which was suitably mysterious, and the payoff, which verges on trope territory.
I also have a bit of a problem with the general quality of the last few episodes. Where previous episodes were carefully plotted, the last few episodes have a bit of a rushed quality to them, and there are a lot of odd plotholes that detract from the believability of the story at the end. It also tends to be bogged down at certain points by the kind of human drama that seems wedged in there for the sake of adding pathos – and it comes in the most frustrating form – quarrels between the kid protagonists due to adolescent passions and feelings. I won’t go too much into that, but there you have it.
Fortunately for subsequent seasons, Stranger Things does wrap up its most problematic story arcs, and it also leaves a few tantalising threads of mystery at the end, and it’s enough of a hook that I will definitely check it out.
Ultimately, Stranger Things doesn’t cover that much new territory, but maybe it doesn’t have to.
I give this show: 4 out of 5 hazmat suits