Stranger Things - Series Mini-Review (Season 1 & 2)

I recently finished binge-watching  the vastly popular and extremely thrilling Stranger Things on Netflix - Set in the cozy nostalgic 80's, in a small town in Pennsylvania, US in late Nov'83, the series explores the themes of supernatural horror and the amazing endurance power of the human spirit. Paying homage to the nerdy pop-culture of the 80's ( Hell, the series-premiere starts off with the eleven-year old boys playing Dungeons and Dragons in full earnest!) Stranger Things is one of the most original series, from the Netflix stables ever, I think. A gripping mystery that blows up into creepy horror that really fucks with your mind with a propulsive story-telling that is almost pitch-perfect.



Notice, I said almost? So I went absolutely  nuts over the first season. Blowing through the eight episodes in less than a week, I felt like Netflix finally got over this habit of hooking us in, with an irresistible opening bait and premise, that ultimately leads to disappointing fillers and a tepid or over-the-top climax. But Stranger Things kept things taut and running pretty well. The nostalgia is a tour-de-force here - Taking us back to the simple, uncluttered ways of living in the 80's in a small town - where nerdy boys cycled all around and talked using walkie-talkies, people rang each other up on those telephones with the rotatory dials, references and homage galore to the 80's movies like E.T, Ghostbusters and series like X-Files among others.

So the first season story kicks off with the disappearance of this boy, Will Byres that sends the whole town into a frenzied search mission. Hawkins is a small town where everybody is friends with everyone else and no one really remembers the last time an actual crime was committed. Chief among the folks who want to get Will back - are of course his best friends and his family. As a strange coincidence, the day Will disappeared, a strange girl with shaved head and limited speech appears in town. And she's got powers that don't make sense. Like telekinesis, of a massive massive type. Leading the investigations is the town's sheriff, Chief Hopper. Helped by the gang of boys - Mike, Dustin and Lucas. Will's mother Joyce as well as his brother Jonathan with his confused love-interest at school, Nancy who also happens to be Mike's sister. A whole parallel track that is running is the mysterious research that happens within the Hawkins Laboratory on the periphery of the small town - where terrifying things manifest themselves in a shadowy world within a portal opening inside the lab. How these events snowball into something sinister and horrific that threatens the whole town is what the first season is about.



Season Two was going to be hard, to follow up on the heels of this incredibly successful first outing. The makers had to do something really special to make it stand up to the stratospheric expectations of the ever-growing fan-base - and yes while it takes time to get off the ground, falling and stumbling in its wake of pleasing fan sensibilities, the Season 2 finally get's it mojo back mid-way. It does become a horror-fest in some fashion, the heroes of the first season still banded together (with some new character additions, some impressive and some awkward) against a shadow-monster determined to end the world, having wormed its way into Will's soul.

The sense of mystery is terrific and had me scrambling to make sure I watch one more episode each time one ended. I thought the casting was also spot-on - the young actors playing the gang of boys, especially Milli Bobby Brown, playing the role of El/Eleven - the girl with the psychokinetic powers who is forced to go through the tortuous experiments that screws with her mind, is a terrific actress. She essays the raw pain that her emotionally unhinged character goes through really well. In Season Two, her character evolution arc is fairly short limited by the storylines penned by the writers and the limited scope of the monster-universe in Stranger Things. But she's always a pleasure to watch on screen. I also loved the manner in which the producers have used Will's character - while in both seasons, Will is the central lodestone around which the mysteries abound, for the first season - Will is relegated to the background - stuck in an alternate universe, kidnapped by this monster. Season 2, Noah Schnapp brings forth his incredible acting chops and has a lot more meatier role to play. The other three boys are all super talented as well, Dustin ( Gaten Materazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McClaughlin) playing the comic goof-balls while Mike ( Finn Wolfhard) plays the serious, self-conscious boy who falls for El's character.

I was a bit disappointed with the cramming up of new characters in season 2 - introducing Max (new girl in school whom both Dustin and Lucas fall for!) and her brother Billy (a short impressive cameo by Dacre Montgomery), Joyce's new boyfriend Bob played by the ever affable Sean Austin. Then there's Paul Reiser playing the suspicious role of Dr. Owens at the lab, trying to come to terms with the catastrophes of Season One.

Winona Ryder is a pleasure to watch - her steely resolve to get Will back at any cost or protect him from the shadows in season 2 is the role of a mother bear with her claws out. From being anxious to maniacally disturbed by the turn of events, Winona was a surprise package with her broad gamut of emotional pallet on display. She is only upstaged by the talented bunch of kids, who are always a delight to watch. But throughout both the seasons, the one character who has grown to be my favorite is Steve - the handsome-jerk boyfriend of Nancy (Mike, one of the four kids' elder sister) who turns one-eighty-degrees by Season Two. Showing a lot of heart and guts to stand up against the evil that is threatening this small town.

Overall, the production design is stunning and the whole dark creepy atmosphere is very authentically done as well. In a nod to Stephen King, the master of horror - the creators Duffer brothers have created a thoughtful and engrossing new series that explores the unknown. And the best part of this is not even the nostalgia but the talented cast and a smart storyline that keeps you on the hook throughout. Season 3 has been green-lit and we can't wait! 

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