I just want to say that keeping up with Orange Is the New Black is a chore. The pace is glacial at times, characters that are interesting and plot threads that seem to be moving in interesting directions are often pushed aside in favor of boring or far less interesting ones (I’m looking at you, Piper). Season 4 was definitely an improvement over last (that cliffhanger scene is pretty damn good) but for me personally I feel like I really have to push myself to see what happens next as opposed to excitedly moving on to the next episode.
I had a completely different experience with Stranger Things, the newest addiction for Netflix’s strong contingent of binge watchers (myself included).
Created by the Duffer Brothers – who are, in fact, not a failed tag team from WWE – the story concerns a boy who vanishes on his way home in 1980s Indiana, and his family and friends who frantically try to find the boy. As they get closer to what happens, they unravel a conspiracy involving another young girl with psychic powers, a secret government research facility, and something even deeper and more dangerous.
Stranger Things is bolstered by a particularly talented cast. Winona Ryder plays Joyce Byers, mother of Will Byers who disappears at the start of the show, and she does a fantastic job portraying a single mother in a race against time (and against the doubts of others) to find her son. David Harbour is spectacularly understated as police chief Jim Hopper, a man with a tragic background who is investigating Will’s disappearance and becomes more and more involved in the conspiracy as the show progresses.
Perhaps the most impressive members of the cast are its youngest, something exceedingly rare in a world where a child actor can sometimes make or break a scene. Millie Bobby Brown, the bald-headed, super powered Eleven (nicknamed El by the others) shows off an enormous range through a limited vocabulary – something done intentionally by the show’s writers in an effective way of showing El’s level of isolation and how much she has to learn from her cohorts.
Speaking of which, Will’s three friends who are heavily invested in tracking down their missing friend, are superb. Finn Wolfhard plays Mike Wheeler, perhaps seen as the ringleader of the four friends, with Caleb McLaughlin as Lucas Sinclair, and Gaten Matarazzo as Dustin Henderson in two. All three have fantastic chemistry throughout the series, and even from the opening D&D campaign there’s a real sense of friendship that bleeds through each scene. Matarazzo in particular steals every scene as Dustin, who serves as the intelligent (if very laid back) voice of reason at times and willing to embrace El’s differences, if only with a child’s naiveté at first.
The rest of the cast is great, with Natalie Dyer playing Mike’s sister, Nancy Wheeler, and Charlie Heaton as Jonathan Byers, Will’s older brother. While I did admittedly find myself waiting for Nancy’s scenes to end in the first few episodes – I remember thinking to myself “Alright, this part of the plot needs to go somewhere” early on – both she and Jonathan become more and more intertwined as the season rolls on.
Matthew Modine is also particularly creepy as hell as Dr. Martin Brenner, the antagonist for much of the show.
Aside from a slower start with Nancy’s plot and how it ties into everything, Stranger Things gets high marks from me for its pace. Every single scene moves the plot along at a rapid, but not overwhelming pace. Flashbacks from El’s time spent under Dr. Brenner are peppered through each episode. The audience experiences these as emotional reactions to triggers in certain scenes, explaining certain fears and providing context often with minimal or no dialogue at all.
The Duffer Brothers channel the best of Stephen King in his prime with a sharp script with smart characters who avoid falling into some of the more annoying tropes of stories dealing with government conspiracies or those with horror elements. Motivations and actions are clear for every character, and unlike shows where characters will do the exact thing no normal person would do simply because it’s the only way to move the story along, the characters in Stranger Things are nuanced and smart without being crafty to a point where you wonder if they’re carrying around a script in their pocket.
Chief Hopper in particular comes across as a believable character. He’s certainly no genius and the show avoids any sort of convenient ability or knowledge to brute-force the plot along. (No “Boy, sure am glad I used to be a scientist form the government!” or “My training in the military sure comes in handy!” moments). Hopper makes mistakes from time to time, but is clearly motivated and reasonably intelligent when it comes to finding Will and digging deeper in a broader conspiracy.
Also, did I mention the soundtrack? The score by Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein is great, too, and sounds like a solid and authentic 80s soundtrack while keeping away from being a distracting imitation of the era’s music.
I know I’m in the minority on this, but I would be completely fine with the show ending here. The show’s ending leaves plenty of questions unanswered, though not in a way that detracts from the experience (Lost, anyone?), but I’m not particularly sure if a second season is entirely necessary if only to have another go with some truly entertaining characters. The show has just enough to mystery to keep you guessing, but doesn’t overstay its welcome, resulting in a show that’s probably Netflix’s best original series to date.