Stranger Things starts with a top-secret government lab at which an experiment goes awry. A human test subject escapes—along with something else from an alternate dimension to which a portal has accidentally been opened.
Meanwhile, in a basement on the other side of the fictitious town of Hawkins, Indiana, four middle school-aged boys are wrapping up a day-long game of Dungeons & Dragons. Three of them get on their bikes to ride home. They split up and one of them, Will Byers, disappears.
Thus begins what for me is one of the finest of the crop of TV series that currently dominate the various streaming services.
Passing the time
I’ve been working remotely from home since mid-March. Only two things broke the monotony. One was getting hospitalized for, yes, COVID-19. I hesitate to say I had COVID, since I tested negative (twice). But I had what the ER nurse called “classic COVID symptoms” and if I had not gone to get checked out, I would not be sitting here now writing this. I was very lucky, spending only four nights in the hospital—the first night in a COVID ICU.
The other thing I did to pass the time was, of course, what all of America was doing—watch TV.
I started Game of Thrones again. I have two episodes still to go in the wonderful The Haunting of Hill House. I am nearly done with season 5 of LOST. On nights when my wife picks, it’s often The West Wing. If everything gets shut down again in the fall, as I think it may, I will have to re-watch Breaking Bad.
And of course, I re-watched—and may re-watch again—Stranger Things.
Created by Matt and Ross Duffer, Stranger Things is a love letter to the 1980s, when popular culture was dominated by Star Wars and its many copies, the films of Steven Spielberg, and the books of Stephen King. Punk Rock came into full flower as disco died a fiery death at Chicago’s old Comiskey Park. Video games came into their own. The series is packed with audio and visual references to all things 1980s. Even the score is a nod to synthesizer film scores, which were popular then. But Stranger Things also is about courage and loyalty, and especially the powerful bonds of friendship.
In Season 1, Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) and Will’s three friends Mike, Dustin, and Lucas embark on the search for him. While searching the woods near Will’s home, the boys find the escaped human test subject, a girl whose only name is the number “11” tattooed on her left arm. Will immediately falls for her—to the shock of Dustin and Lucas—and decides to call her El. With all the devil-may-care bravado of a seventh grader, he hides her in his parents’ basement.
Meanwhile, Joyce goes to see Hawkins Police Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour). Hopper initially shrugs off her story. But then he begins to get reports of sightings of a strange girl wandering in and out of the woods. Someone murders the owner of a local diner. And Hopper begins to wonder if there is a connection between his search for the girl and his search for the missing Byers boy.
Season 2 picks up about a year after the events of Season 1. The evil scientists at Hawkins National Laboratory have been replaced with scientists who are less evil and less incompetent. But the portal to the alternate dimension—the Upside Down—has not been closed, and the Upside Down seeks greater inroads into our world.
Season 3 starts about six months after Season 2 concludes. Hawkins Lab is abandoned, but the Soviets have gotten wind of what was going on there and they’re trying to open their own portal to the Upside Down.
Darkness and complexity
Seasons 1 and 2 both take place in late fall, in 1983 and 1984, respectively. The atmosphere is dark, moody, rainy, with a color palate to match. Even the daylight is muted. Season 3 takes place in high summer. It’s 1985. The 1980s are in full swing. Madonna, Prince, and Duran Duran dominate radio. Season 3’s color palate is bright, garish even, with garish ’80s fashion: clothes with yellows, blues, and pinks, often all on the same garment.
And yet Season 3 is the darkest of all three seasons. Hawkins’ once vibrant downtown is mostly boarded up thanks to Starcourt Mall opening on the outskirts of town. The child characters, no longer young, face the challenges and anguish of adolescence. In one poignant scene, Will breaks down crying because Mike and Lucas now obsess over girls instead of Dungeons & Dragons.
And then there’s Chief Hopper. There’s always been some tension between him and Joyce. They were high school classmates. Maybe sweethearts. In Season 3 the tension boils over. Very little of their dialogue does not include shouting, with Hopper doing most of the shouting.
In truth, Jim Hopper is the most richly complex character in the series. When we first meet him, he is a pill-popping alcoholic, sleeping with the local librarian. After his daughter died of cancer, his marriage disintigrated. There are hints he has PTSD from Vietnam. He nonetheless tries his best as he works out his issues. He takes in El, at great personal risk, to protect her from the government agents still seeking her. Though he loses his temper with El and Joyce, he loves them both. We know he’d never hurt them. Indeed, it is Hopper’s capacity for love that draws him out of his self-pity. What Stranger Things understands is, those who love the most, suffer the most.
‘Stranger Things’ and pop culture
Stranger Things’ other genius is how it seamlessly blends a mind-boggling array of pop culture Easter eggs into the story. It would be easy to get heavy handed with this, but Stranger Things manages it effortlessly. Take, for instance, this exchange, when Hopper is trying to take a missing persons report from Mike, Dustin, and Lucas. What route did Will take riding his bike home?
Jim Hopper: You. You said he takes what?
Mike Wheeler: Mirkwood.
Jim Hopper: Mirkwood?
Mike Wheeler: Yeah.
Jim Hopper: Have you ever heard of Mirkwood?
Officer Callahan: I have not. It sounds made up to me.
Lucas Sinclair: It’s from Lord of the Rings.
Dustin Henderson: Actually, The Hobbit.
Lucas Sinclair: Who cares?
Dustin Henderson: He asked.
Lucas Sinclair (mocking): He asked!
Mike Wheeler: Shut up, guys!
Jim Hopper: Hey, hey! What did I just say? Shut up! One at a damn time!
Some of the references are subtle. Fans of Jaws will recognize the uniforms Chief Hopper and his police officers wear, as well as the Chevy Blazers they drive. Other references are more obvious, such as kids on bicycles fleeing from federal agents, or walking down a railroad track through the woods. Or a Soviet agent who looks and sounds…familiar.
I cannot say enough good things about the actors who play the young teens: Finn Wolfhard as Mike; Gaten Matarazzo as Dustin; Caleb McLaughlin as Lucas; Noah Schnapp as Will; and Millie Bobby Brown as El. Sadie Sink as Max joins them in Season 2. These actors do excellent work. They make the story. And they hold their own against seasoned veterans such as Ms. Ryder and Mr. Harbour, as well as Matthew Modine, Sean Astin, Paul Reiser, and Cary Elwes.
Stranger Things is made with a lot of joy and a lot of care. It is by turns terrifying, funny, suspenseful, and heartbreaking. What it is mostly is, is a lot of fun. If you haven’t yet seen it, give it a try.