Stranger Things: Season 1, Episode 1 – “The Vanishing of Will Byers”

Stranger Things captures fear and the '80s so brilliantly, you'd think Netflix injected it with some mad scientist-created serum to ensure maximum binge-worthiness.

This review contains mild spoilers.

In the best of coincidences, Stranger Things may be an ideal candidate for experimental review writing. Developed by twin brothers Matt and Ross Duffer, Stranger Things is an amalgamation of ’80s pop cinema experiences, which has been taken down into the bowels of the Netflix laboratory and injected with the super secret formula for binge-worthiness. Now, there’s no such all-encompassing formula per se (or at least, not one formula), but if there was such an imaginary and fantastical potion serum, the Duffer Brothers have sampled this sacred elixer and made a pact with the dark spirit of the ’80s (would that be Stephen King? Spielberg? Beetlejuice? Nevermind.).

Like any series opener, there’s a lot of expository setup and character introductions necessary for viewers. The Duffer Brothers do an admirable job keeping such prerequisites painless. Each new scene provides information about characters through their actions in the moment. This is a fluid approach to storytelling more akin to the shorthand of film, as opposed to the industrious mechanism of TV production. While the pace zips along, attentiveness to character development remains intact. But this isn’t TV, of course, it’s Netflix. The benefits of creative freedom and shortened seasons allow a colorful synthesis between cinematic influence and serialized narrative.

Chapter One opens to a quiet night’s sky. The first shot rests still on the night sky, where perfect contrast is visible between the pitch-black sky and the luminous stars that dot the heavens. Already, there’s a nostalgic effect at work, since the city lights of so many urban and suburban spaces no longer allow for the kind of articulate detail of space at night. Info credits provide enough information for context: the date is “November 6th, 1983” and the location “Hawkins, Indiana”. The celestial shot pans down to an ominous facility, with large, protruding satellites protruding and a sign reading “Hawkins National Laboratory, US Department of Energy”. This is all we need to proceed: date and location.

Inside, things are too quiet for comfort. An underground compound is sent into chaos when an alarm goes off and a scientist rushes down the hall in a panicked sweat. The loud alarm and physical slams into walls and doors are juxtaposed with the sleepy crickets and ambient noise of night outside, indicating things are getting eerie in Indiana.

Like the ambient [digital] sound mixers that synthesize most of the Stranger Things score, the Duffer Brothers have elevated the two-tier combination of reverse-engineering nostalgia and genre-mixing for a Netflix series of summer blockbuster proportions, in this or any era.

Following the scientist’s likely demise, the camera cuts to a basement game of Dungeons & Dragons. Four supposed best friends sit around a makeshift table as one boy, Michael (Finn Wolfhard), plays Dungeon Master. His narration builds around a fixation on the “Demogorgon”, which comes and goes (and comes again) like many items of pop nostalgia used to heighten character introductions and relate their personalities to audiences.

At first, this could be read simply as an Easter egg planted for D&D aficionados; however, subsequent episodes reveal quite the level of depth that pop culture artifacts play in this mystery’s unraveling. It’s an interesting storytelling mechanism for sure; the Duffer Brothers don’t merely saturate their series in pop nostalgia. Rather, the relics of ’80s remembrance literally become the sounding board for the series. Every item a possible harbinger (or red herring) for audiences and critics to chew on.

In any event, the four young friends are Michael or Mike (I can’t stop calling him Mikey in my notes, because well, The Goonies), Will (Noah Schnapp), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo). This motley crew is too young to drive, but old enough to travel unaccompanied all over town on their bicycles. Herein lies the beginning of innumerable era-appropriate comparisons to Spielberg’s E.T., Stephen King/Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me, and Chris Columbus/Richard Donner’s The Goonies, to name just a few. Thankfully, while child actors are often hit and miss, the Duffer Brothers have managed to assemble an impeccable troupe of performers capable of tapping into the pathos of an era they’re too young to know. Spunky comedic timing and crackling dialogue between the boys authenticates their performances. That the kids are allowed to and often curse is perhaps among the chief transportational devices to the politically incorrect “family films” and “teen movies” of the ’80s. At this point, a graduate student in television studies or material culture could already write a master’s thesis on this series, as nearly every aspect of this series could be expounded into microanalysis in conversation with film and television history. (Just be sure to cite my reviews.)

Like the digressions that plague my hybridized Gen X/Millennial tendencies, Stranger Things keeps the action and character beats moving at ferocious pace. Once those pesky parents upstairs break up a perfectly good ten-hour game of D&D, the boys head home on their bikes. Separately. At night. (I mentioned this is period ’80s, right? Okay.) The episode, or chapter title, gives away what happens next: “The Vanishing of Will Byers”. Will’s sudden and tragic disappearance both shocks and unnerves in a way that doesn’t hold back from exploring one of the sacred taboos in TV entertainment: child endangerment. Will runs across a creature in the forest that utters grotesque sounds akin to those from the previous underground laboratory. In classic horror fashion, Stranger Things doesn’t give audiences the full reveal. Instead we’re startled by what’s unseen, the less-is-more formula that works more often than not. The setup for Will’s disappearance also works as an inversion of E.T. — where the backyard mise-en-scene is a virtual dead ringer for Spielberg’s film — only what lurks in the shed isn’t sheepishly shy or fond of Reese’s Pieces. All this before the opening credits roll.

For the sake of pacing, and as a disservice to all of the setup that’s part of Chapter One, I must assume readers, like audiences, have attention spans that demand closure sooner than later. In the scenes that follow, the Duffer Brothers further expand this little pocket universe of Hawkins, Indiana (yes, we get it) to include the lackadaisical and disheveled (or is he?) Sheriff Hopper (David Harbour), a not-quite-mute runaway girl with a hunger for fast food, an ominous governmental official on the prowl (played by silver-headed ‘80s actor Matthew Modine), Michael’s older sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and her pitch-perfect high school cohort of cool kids and outsiders. The old kids come with impossibly on point vintage names, from yuppie hunk Steve (Joe Keery) to shy nerdy Barbara (Shannon Purser) and unbearable sidekick Tommy (Chester Rushing). Rounding out the main cast is Will’s socially awkward, moody older brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), and their concerned mother and emotional core of the series, Joyce. Joyce is played by Winona Ryder, a visual icon so distinctly ‘80s-centric in her peak Hollywood stardom and film canon that Ryder’s meta-casting haunts each episode as living ’80s iconography.

As Will’s disappearance becomes public, his absence haunts each friend and family in distinct ways (figuratively, and maybe even literally). As the title suggests, Chapter One carries somber overtones that conjoin with resonant ’80s themes of broken homes, absentee parents, and how childhood imagination functions to fill this void. I could go on and on (and likely will in the future) about the retro synthesizer score, the Stephen King-style opening credits, the period wardrobes and soundtrack, and arguably that’s the whole point. This is an immersive text that works as hard as AMC’s Mad Men did to recreate something so specific that it captures or creates what poststructuralist scholars (oh, here we go again) call “jouissance”, or rather, a special French term for “enjoyment” that the English language cannot quite articulate with words. You have to experience it to understand.

Nostalgia Theory, Chapter One

Knowing in advance that I planned to cover this series as a TV reviewer, it has been work hard to stay away from early reviews and reactions from other critics. As a TV scholar, I have a tendency to archive a great number of recaps and reaction pieces for future uses; in this instance, it’s a singular term found continual among the many voices: “nostalgia”. Without reading any other reviews before writing about the series, I was well aware of how deeply this term is imbedded in the communication and understanding of this text. Indeed, all a person needs to do is glance at the advert poster for the series to appreciate and understand the deliberate influences directing Stranger Things‘ milieu. Without drawing influence from the ways others were tackling the word, I reflected over several days on the potency of nostalgia beyond its encompassing descriptiveness. Sampling episodes from the first half of the season, I’ve nurtured episodic think pieces on nostalgia that grow along with the text. For this reason, I will devote a subsection to pop theory in each review. With Stranger Things, I want to examine the mechanisms of nostalgia at play, how it works and what it means, as opposed to assigning it as a label. Each week, I plan to add to this theorization of nostalgia’s role for the Duffer Brothers’ drama as well as televisual storytelling in the digital age.

Screening Recommendations

Night viewing (if possible alone) may generate the strongest audience affect (I know it did for me), but day watching is completely plausible as well (speaking from experience). To be clear, I get that this makes me sound old fashioned or near-sighted, but the cinematic feel of this series (and feelings are a BIG part of what makes it tick) warrants larger screen viewings if possible. I understand this is sacrilege to suggest screen size in a mobile multi-platform age, but I’m just sayin’. There’s a lot to take in. Maybe I’m way off, and there should be an online petition for a VHS release? This could be a thing, Netflix, think about it. Plus, given the abysmally weak slate of 2016 summer movies, Stranger Things fills a void in the most ironic way possible, by playing off of “better” popcorn flicks that for the core demographic have been encoded into public memory.

Armchair Overreaction

I’m nowhere near declaring this series the second coming of a Breaking Bad (or even Better Call Saul), but the Duffer Brothers are doing some next-level work with Stranger Things, particularly with how they not only incorporate the many signs and symbols of the past, but also playfully attribute new meanings and use values for these materials artifacts, and the ephemeral experiences they produce in people. What remains to be seen is if the back half of the season retains the uniqueness and wow factor that the early episodes promise.

RATING 8 / 10