From the opening gentle synth notes and a font for the titles straight from a Stephen King book, you know you're in for some '80s nostalgia. Stranger Things, like its opening score, is a little more subtle, more understated than the recent barrage of '80s nostalgia we've been receiving. Instead of hitting you over the head with it, we are just subtly reminded that this is a show set in the '80s, inspired by the films of that decade.
The allusions to ET, Stephen King's It and others are so strong to blur the line between homage and plagiarism at times, but at no point are they throwing rubik's cubes at the screen or making some reference to VHS being a technology that would be nigh irreplaceable (you know the kind of joke I mean, where they nod and wink at the audience in the present because we know what actually happened).
Instead we are treated to different groups of people acting accordingly in their own time period, with only a few real moments of nostalgia irritation. No, this is a very stylish, very absorbing show, that lacks only in the story. Spoilers will make their presence known in the rest of this review.
Hawkins Indiana is a great backdrop, typical for a horror story. Small, quiet, American town, you know the drill. All the characters are interesting and engaging. The chief of police starts off as a disinterested trope character, not believing any of this tomfoolery and fantasy shit, but he becomes hugely involved, has a great back story that is gradually revealed through flashbacks of seeing his daughter in a hospital, dying of cancer, and is kind of a badass. This is complemented by a great performance from David Harbour. Well done, sir. The last thing I had seen you in before was Black Mass, and you have made amends for that forgettable film.
Winona is good as the distraught mother of the missing chid, Will, though her vaguely crazed nature gets a little bit one note as the series progresses. A minor criticism, but that's why I'm here, trying to be a critic. Get off my back.
The kids are not annoying, repeat, the kids are not annoying. Eleven is the stand out performer of the entire show, with a lot of non-verbal acting, she radiates power, suitable for her psyker character.
They swore, they played D&D, they got pissed off, they felt fragile at times and even powerless. Of particular note is the moment when they are in the school and captured by the FBI. At this point they had led them on a merry chase across town, evading them at every step, stepping the line of incredulity, but when faced with their enemy in a corridor, they just aren't strong enough. Because they're children. It's almost like it makes sense. The powerlessness seen in them trying to pull away from their captors was heartbreaking, especially as there's a bigger danger about to appear, a big old monster.
Oh, the monster. Yeah. That was...disappointing. Given that the initial build up is very well done, the monster is just so dull, and the CGI really leaves a lot to be desired. First up, if you're doing a homage to '80s movies (and have a The Thing poster up on a wall, despite it bombing at the time) then why not stick someone in a rubber suit? That would have made more sense and upped your nostalgia values for free. Secondly, they just come out and show the monster. I know the lights are flickering all the time, obscuring the details, but this is no Alien shot, where you hide it with the camera angle. That's what I wanted to see. And thirdly, the design of the creature is OK I guess, not wildly interesting or scary, but it'll do. It's not present in the series enough to be a detraction.
Here's where it gets a little murkier. So it opens with Will, one of the four boys, being taken by the (as yet, unseen) monster. Great opening, makes you want to watch more. The characters are all revealed, we're introduced to Eleven, who we find out in flashbacks was being tested on at a facility for her psychic powers. It's not exactly original, or even a new take on it, but it's fine because of the performances and the presentation. These are not flash backs for their own sake, they help to drive the story as we find out more about the best character, Eleven.
Will's mother is obviously upset and resorts to trying to communicate with her lost son, even after a funeral was held when a fake body was found. She admits she knows she seems crazy but she won't give up on Will. All ver believable for her character, that all works well. The chief gets embroiled in her story and we start to find out his back story along the way.
Mike's sister Nancy visits her douchey boyfriend Jean Ralfio - I mean Steve, shit they look identical, as the internet has duly noted. Her friend, Barb, is dragged along to a party and is promptly stolen by the monster. AND NO ONE IN THE TOWN CARES. Jesus, Will had assemblies and a funeral and an endless barrage of attempts from her mother to find him and Barb had Nancy trying to find her for a couple of episodes and a slightly worried mother. Poor Barb. At least you won the internet.
And that's where the story kind of ends. The first half is a great build up, and it just doesn't really go anywhere in the second half. Barb is completely forgotten about. Nancy and WIll's older brother team up, Elm Street style to destroy the monster. It looks like it got destroyed but it turns up elsewhere later on. And we just don't hear back from those two. There's no clear indication that they actually affected the plot in any meaningful way. Also, their romantic tension goes nowhere, rendering it pointless. Steve saving their asses was fun though, the redemption of a douche, what a powerful story arc.
For all its slow pacing, akin to all the other shows we're accustomed to at the moment, there doesn't seem to be enough plot to go around. This could have been better served in a movie, rather than a slow building up of tension. This is compounded by the fact that it's essentially three films in one: a kids ET/It adventure; a shady noir FBI thriller film for the adults; and a slasher film for the teenagers. Ultimately, I don't think the teenagers really add that much, story-wise, to the show. They're all decent characters and well acted, but they don't serve the plot, just the setting.
It's hard to point out exactly how the plot slows down, it jsut feels a little shallow. You get the feeling of, 'Oh, that's it. OK, we're done.' Rather than, 'That's what was going on? OH EM GEE! What will happen next?' It takes too long to go into the exquisitely beautiful Upside Down world, and there was nothing else going on with the FBI people testing on Eleven beyond them being the bad men and wanting to recapture her. That was it. For a group of antagonists that are a looming presence in the entire show, I was expecting more. But then, I have impeccably high standards.
As an aside, this tailing off in the second half of the series is another piece of evidence to NEVER review the first half of a show. Bojack Horseman received mixed reviews because it hadn't got into its stride in the first half of the first series but more than fulfilled its potential. Review a whole series. Dammit, Bob!
7/10 It's definitely worth a watch, good fun, good soundtrack, plods along for too long but is redeemed by only being eight episodes long so that plodding is reduced. Also, not scary enough, but I'm numb inside.