Just like virtually everyone else I know, Andy and I fell into the Stranger Things hole a few weeks ago. It was sorta like visiting the Upside Down, but with much better food and not having to worry about what the hell I was breathing. So nothing like the Upside Down then, but we did live day-to-day in a creeping mist of questions and concern and admiration for Eleven and her bevy of adventurers, not to mention the hapless adults stumbling into national security black ops. And by day-to-day, I mean like the three days it took us to watch.
Ever since, I’ve been lurking for a good time to watch it again (my brother hasn’t seen it yet, LET ME CHANGE THAT), making my own Christmas lights message, and getting way too excited about Funko’s prototype rendering of an Eleven Pop!. (MAKE IT SO, FUNKO; TAKE MY MONEY.) And now I’ve decided to lob a 10 Things list at YOU, dear reader, so here we go!
(This is not a Top Ten list, and not in any particular order.)
1) 80’s Nostalgic, But Not Derivative!
It seems like Hollywood is constantly trying to package 80’s nostalgia and sell it to us these days – except they’re doing it by shitty remakes of everything from Transformers to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. (No, I will not apologize for both of those examples being Baystrosities.) Of course, they tend to get everything wrong – these franchises were products of their time (and our youth), and they’re being remade by people who arguably never cared about them – so they end up being neither genuine nor revolutionary.
Stranger Things doesn’t do that. Stranger Things is set in a very specific place – smalltown, heartland America in 1983. It is a science fiction story and a coming-of-age story and a mystery and a thriller. It loves Stephen King and Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter and so much more – but it does not want to be them. It wants to remind you of that intense wonder with an edge of fear in which you met E.T. or quailed from Carrie or cheered for the Goonies.
Stranger Things wraps you in atmosphere, and you breathe nostalgia in. And it is something special.
2) Hard Science Fiction of Unintended Consequences!
One of the best aspects of the mad science storyline in Stranger Things is that it’s so rooted in history – the USSR was actually investigating telepathy and more during the Cold War. As were we: the US did indeed have their own answering research team. So we have the set-up of a secret facility fostering ESP in an attempt to undermine the State’s enemies. But then everything goes wrong – instead of tapping only into info we wanted, we stumble sideways into an adjoining plane of existence… and the things there are hungry. It’s a simple skeleton to hang a story on, but supports oh such juicy meat being layered atop it. Er. I am not actually an untold horror from the Upside Down typing this, promise. I am human. So human. Now…come closer.
Eleven grew up in a lab as a science experiment, with a cold scientist who wore fatherhood like a labcoat – thin and easily discarded if it gets too messy. She can kill things with her brain. She still managed to retain a core of humanity and vulnerability that left her open to friendship and soft things. She knew that killing was wrong, and protection something she could offer her best and only friends. Eleven was a goddamn delight, and deserves ALL the Eggo Waffles. ALL OF THEM, BOB, YOU LEGGO ELEVEN’S EGGO RIGHT THIS INSTANT.
(See Ms Manatee’s post on Binge Whale for more boss Eleven moments.)
4) Joyce Byers.
I read Joyce has gotten some shit because she just acted crazy and screamed about her missing boy all season. That she is NOT FEMINIST. To which I ask: do you have a heart? Is it an empty hole? Is your last name Grinch?
Yeah, Joyce spends most of the season focused on her son Will Byers. He is TWELVE and GOES MISSING, so most people would understand why Joyce found herself so absorbed with her son. But far from turning into a helpless wreck of a person, she turns into a PROACTIVE wreck of a person. (There is nothing bad or weak about being a wreck of a person when a child you love and who depends on you goes missing over night. Just FYI.) She seeks allies. She follows every lead. She does it alone when required. Joyce Byers is a woman who understands the truth is out there, and she’s going to find it come hell or high water, Upside Downs or a POS shaped like an ex-husband. Joyce Byers should be celebrated, and I say that as a feminist. The end.
5) Nancy Wheeler.
Nancy is our third female protagonist in Stranger Things, if you’ve been keeping count. THIRD. And she’s a teenage girl, which is prime territory for her just being THE WORST because 80’s nostalgia and sexism. Except she’s not THE WORST. She’s a complicated, real person who gets to make her own decisions and also make mistakes. She reconnects with her little brother, sees to the heart of many things, and doesn’t shrink from fighting in the dark for her lost best friend. She’s tough, dedicated, and smart – and she has one of the best lines in the entire series.
“What you kids doin’ with all this?” asks the hardware fella.
“Monster hunting.” Nancy tells it like it is.
(Check Jen Juneau’s post over on Yahoo! on “Why Nancy Wheeler from ‘Stranger Things’ isn’t getting the credit she deserves.” I don’t agree with parts of her argument, but she makes some good points.)
6) It Eats Teenage Stereotypes for Breakfast.
So there’s Cool Guy Steve, and he’s just a Grade A Jerk with no redeeming qualities and not worth dating, right? Except he stands up to his crappy friends, apologizes and atones for his mistakes, and, yeah, runs away from the Terrifying Horror from Beyond – but then comes back to fight next to the girl he cares about.
And then there’s Tortured Soul Jonathan, who’s just misunderstood at school because he’s poor and likes to listen to The Clash or whatever, right? Well, no – he is awkward around people, but he also can be a creeper and sometimes takes pictures of topless women without their consent. That’s not okay – the show doesn’t say it is, nor does it use Nancy as a Reward for either boy in a sexist value system.
Stranger Things also doesn’t portray teenage sexuality as a bad thing in itself. Barb is taken by the Demogorgon while sadly sitting outside after Nancy decides to stay the night with her boyfriend – but sex is not the bad thing. That sex is not what threatens Nancy’s relationship with Steve, nor does it horribly impact her life afterward. She’s not pregnant, socially outcast, or spurned. Teenage sex is treated as a natural progression in a human’s life, and that’s notable in 80’s nostalgia fiction.
7) The Acting.
Okay, the acting is really top notch in this series. Wynona Ryder is amazing – at first, I kept pushing back against it, exclaiming all aghast that “Wynona is someone’s mom!” Which I know makes no sense, except she’s always first Lydia Deetz in my mind. But I soon forgot to see Wynona and just saw Joyce. The other adult actors are all really great as well, but I have to focus on the children now: I don’t even understand how Millie Bobby Brown was able to portray Eleven as she did. What dark intensity is this child mining to be so terrifying and deep? Then there’s the delightful Gaten Matarazzo (Dustin), fierce Caleb McLaughlin (Lucas), earnest Finn Wolfhard (Mike), and fragile Noah Schnapp (Will)… what talent Stranger Things‘ casting director found! This calls for a group hug.
8) Complete Story with Room to Grow!
Stranger Things had the good grace and the good sense to tell a complete story in their first season. They didn’t bank on getting more time, and end with some absurd cliffhanger. They also didn’t act without confidence and sew up every little thread. They told a well-balanced story – with a beginning, middle, and end – and told it in just enough episodes to keep it taut while still allowing it room to build. They satisfied the viewer, and did it while still scattering a few disturbing seeds that can blossom into strange and terrifying new tales in the next season.
Luckily, there’s going to be another season. And I can’t wait. No, seriously, guys, I can’t wait. START FILMING NOW, I WILL PAY YOU IN EGGOS AND ADMIRATION.
9) Dustin Henderson.
Y’all know I love Eleven. Lucas is the fierce warrior who won’t sacrifice common sense, and he’s amazing too. Mike’s the voice of the group, and Will is their Dude in Distress. But, y’all, Dustin – Dustin is the real MVP of their party. Any dude who shows up for the quest with the food – sugar AND protein – is the guy you don’t want to lose. He knows an army marches on its stomach, and he’s ready. He’s also their heart: he brokers peace, calls everyone on their shit, stands up for himself, but also knows when it’s time to cut and run.
Every party needs a Dustin Henderson. Don’t RP (or real life adventure) without one.
10) The Demogorgon.
Stranger Things dipped into their Lovecraftian Gigeresque nightmares for the Demogorgon and came up aces. Terrifying, spine-shuddering aces with slimy bits and a penchant for fresh blood. Not giving it a face was an inspired choice, and letting it be both the monster in the walls and the monster from beyond was another. The Demogorgon was so effective, in fact, that it terrified the youngest members of the cast (the two actresses who jointly played little Holly Wheeler) and the crew had to liken it to Sully from Monsters, Inc. to help calm them. (Thanks for the trivia, Movie Pilot!) A+ monster, y’all! Now I’m going back to NOT thinking about it for a while. All the shudders.
(For more GIFs of the show’s creepiest moments, check out Ms Manatee’s round-up on Binge Whale.)
And I’m gonna stop with 10, even though there is so much more to talk about.
Honorable mentions go to:
Barb, and there are plenty of great posts out there about her already.
The Christmas Lights Wall, and the great fanart it’s inspired (like Paul Tinker’s GIF).
The titles, which are so excellent they’ve inspired multiple articles (check out the A.V. Club’s breakdown).
And the perfectly atmospheric music, which I’ll be talking about on Nerdspan soon.
You also should all check out this round-up of brilliant Stranger Things fanart on Vox. Then drop into the comments and tell me what YOU love about Stranger Things!