There wasn’t much to be bowled over by in the first three episodes of Stranger Things. It felt tropey and even a bit stale, a pandering to 80s nostalgia riding on the success of box office hits like J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 and getting kicks from ‘simpler times’ at the cost of lacklustre characters and a deadbeat story. Netflix presents itself as the eager commissioner of the most topical and risk-taking shows currently streaming, the likes of tour-de-forces such as Orange is the New Black and Bojack Horseman. Stranger Things, however, felt slavishly based on old formulas and a sure-fire safe bet to rope in people who get misty at Magic 8 balls. The pilot sheepishly followed easy clichés, with scripts relying on easy ways to make the audience side with the quirky main characters and using the clear cut paradigms like bullies versus nerds to cash in on cheap sympathy. The show’s creators, the Duffer Brothers, originally bid for the upcoming remake of Stephen King’s I.T., and Stranger Things felt like a poor runner up, a half-formed littering of homages to hit cult classics with nothing real at its heart.
Suddenly it clicked. It began to seem gorgeously crafted rather than gawkily strung together, ravishingly retro and smartly simple rather than painfully bare-boned.
That is, until about four episodes in. Before, there had been glimmers of something fresh in all of the same-oldness that kept me tuning in and eventually the slow burn started to work magic. Suddenly it clicked, and there seemed to be so much more to everything. It began to seem gorgeously crafted rather than gawkily strung together, ravishingly retro and smartly simple rather than painfully bare-bone. Tim Ives’ cinematography is spectacular in every scene, bringing out shadowy tones to give the show a rich look beyond its budget. Even the thrumming 8-bit music driving every episode no longer seemed like a cheap throwback to Gameboys, but ominous and even ethereal. It began to riff on the feel of golden oldies such as The Goonies and The Twilight Zone rather than simply rip off, and adopt the conventions of these former shows to explore them instead of relying on their shortcuts.
The acting by its young cast is phenomenal. Fear is easy: any kid can kick, scream and thrash but the young cast of Stranger Things also carry the quieter, more organic moments. Millie Bobby Brown, who plays ‘Eleven’, in particular nails her character’s troubled and tortured essence. There is something so old and knowing in her eyes which shows maturity well beyond her years, which is one of the many products of excellent directing. These young actors have been guided to get at the heartfelt rather than the histrionic, and there is real truth in their performances.
The trend of TV shows to needlessly raise the stakes with each new season is tired, and I hope Stranger Things will break out by reining in, and keep at its core its trademark kooky simplicity and cryptic spookiness. A song at the heart of this show is The Clash’s ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’, and Stranger Things should definitely be set to stay. Take on those first few episodes and get grabbed by what the buzz is about: it deserves it, and it’s more than well worth watching.