I’m old enough to remember when not owning a TV was enough to shock my landlord. Nowadays that doesn’t raise an eyebrow—the shock comes when people find out that I don’t have the Net Flicks. I therefore have little idea what new shows have come along in the past few years—and of course it doesn’t help that I deliberately avoid the entertainment media for fear of spoilers. But even I couldn’t miss how huge a deal Stranger Things had become—I hadn’t seen this much buzz about a new show since Game of Thrones. I was curious, but I’ve also had a million things competing for my attention recently, so it wasn’t until the second season had already been released that I finally got around to giving the show a looksee.
From the aforementioned buzz I had gathered that Stranger Things was about a quartet of junior high boys in the mid‐1980s who spend most of their time playing Dungeons & Dragons and who gradually pick up on subtle hints that something supernatural is happening in the real world. Instead, it turns out that in the first scene a guy is eaten by a monster and by the end of the first episode one of the main kids gets got. Where we end up is not too far from Buffy the Vampire Slayer territory. I don’t want to oversell this comparison; Buffy established a high‐water mark for comedic dialogue, and while Stranger Things has some funny moments, it’s much more horror than comedy. But, c’mon: we’re in a small town with a Hellmouth, and with the assistance of her devoted friends, One Special Girl fights off a legion of monsters whose existence is unknown to the general public but is quickly accepted by virtually our entire cast of tweens, older teenagers, and adults both good and evil. I’d been under the mistaken impression that the show would revolve around the boys playing D&D; it doesn’t, but whereas Buffy drew upon the classic pop culture monsters— vampires, witches, werewolves, Frankenstein monsters, mummies— Stranger Things draws from the D&D mythos. Demogorgons. Mind flayers. Gelatinous cubes. (Okay, no gelatinous cubes yet.) I was never a D&D player myself, but the show doesn’t expect viewers to be, and the central premise it borrows—the Shadowfell, renamed “the Upside Down”, a dark dimension that echoes our own, taking up the same space but out of phase—is plenty compelling even to a D&D non‐initiate.
It’s not a perfect show. I wasn’t a huge fan of the way that in the early episodes every other scene triggers a flashback for someone. The second season is in many respects less a sequel to than a rehash of the first. There’s too much of the setup-callback gimmick I dislike: once can be effective, twenty times in the same episode not so much. And the history isn’t perfect. We hear songs from 1984 and 1987 in 1983. We see six‐letter names on arcade game high score screens that only supported three letters. The periodic table in the science classroom is full of elements that weren’t discovered until the 1990s or named until the 2010s. When you attended junior high at the same time that these characters are attending junior high, and you have OCD, even little errors can throw you out of the story for a moment. But these are quibbles. Stranger Things isn’t particularly deep, but purely as entertainment, it’s top‐notch. The premise, as noted, is awesome. The cast is big enough to make for any number of interesting combinations, and likeable enough that the denouement of season two, at the school dance, is one of the sweetest, most heartwarming sequences I’ve ever seen on screen. And one of the things that makes the cast so likeable is that at one point or another every member of it gets a chance to be clever. (Well, not Ted.) The central mystery of the first season is “Where’s Will?”, and it takes a very delicate touch to reveal the answer at the right pace. Most of us out here in viewerland will be trying to solve the mystery along with the characters, and the creators have to make sure that the characters neither fall so far behind us that we’re bored nor get so far ahead of us that we’re lost. For me, at least, that balance was just about perfect. I got to feel smart for picking up on a lot of the hints, but the characters also took turns moving ahead of the audience by uncovering and piecing together clues in sequences that just crackle. (To take one example more or less at random, when Will’s mom paused the videotape and traced it, I was like, gadzooks, Will’s mom! That’s brilliant!)
More broadly, Stranger Things excels when it comes to the velocity at which information travels within it. There is very little that I find more frustrating than when a character learns something but keeps it a secret for episode after episode. Or who reveals the information but is disbelieved. On Stranger Things, word gets around fast. When the audience learns something, very seldom do more than a couple of episodes pass before all the important characters know it too. When someone refuses to accept something we know to be true, it tends to be a matter of moments before that character is confronted with indisputable proof. The information in this series doesn’t travel too fast, but in most series I’ve seen information travels way too slow in a mistaken attempt to build suspense and dramatic irony. Stranger Things won big points from me for avoiding that trap.
Anyway, I see on IMDb that apparently there are already a couple more seasons on the way. It’ll be interesting to see how long the show sticks around, especially given that a year of story time elapses between seasons (and has to, as the younger members of the cast will be visibly aging as the years pass in real time). I guess that if Stranger Things lasts as long as Buffy the Vampire Slayer did, we’ll make it to ’89 before the show is over. I wonder whether any of the characters will notice that Will’s mom looks an awful lot like the girl from Heathers.