Idiot Box: “Stranger Things” on Netflix
 Alibi V.25 No.30 • July 28-Aug 3, 2016 

Idiot Box

The Monster Squad

“Stranger Things” on Netflix

If Steven Spielberg and Stephen King had a secret love child back in the ’80s and that love child had been flash frozen for 30 years, then thawed out and thrown on TV, you’d have something that looks, sounds and feels a hell of a lot like Netflix’s new limited series “Stranger Things.” Like some heaven-sent mash-up between It, Goonies, Stand By Me, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Firestarter and Watchers, “Stranger Things” is a nostalgist’s dream and one of the most addictively watchable shows of the summer.

Set in a small, midwestern town during the mid-1980s, “Stranger Things” concentrates on a group of 12-year-old nerds who band together to play Dungeons & Dragons and run their mid-school’s A/V club. When their pal Will suddenly goes missing, however, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) vow to locate him. What they find instead, traipsing around the nearby woods, is a mysterious young girl named Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) somehow linked to a secret government facility hidden on the outskirts of town. Meanwhile, Will’s divorced and mentally unstable mother (’80s kid Winona Ryder) starts cracking up, believing that her son is trying to communicate with her from “the other side.” Also, there appears to be some scary, faceless monster running around kidnapping people. Throw in some well-meaning but clueless adults, a couple of older teenagers on a romantic collision course and a cadre of evil government scientists (led by Vision Quest star Matthew Modine), and you’ve got the greatest ’80s mini-series never made.

There have been a number of attempts recently to replicate the gee-whiz nature of Spielberg-style sci-fi/supernatural adventure tales (Earth to Echo, 8mm and Midnight Special to name a few). At best these come off as slavish tributes filled with in-joke names and winking references. But “Stranger Things” gets basically everything spot on. It feels less like a replication and more like a contemporary whose well-worn VHS tape could have sat comfortably on a Blockbuster Video rack next to Explorers. What worked so well about those ’80s hits was Spielberg’s ability (whether serving as director or just producer) to deliver scares, humor, thrills and drama in near-equal measure. “Stranger Things” nails its temporal setting—never hammering the music or the fashion too heavily. But it’s the sincere “feeling” of those old favorites that this gets so perfect. The series is a blast from start to finish—funny, scary, exciting, emotional. The dialogue is snappy, the characters are charismatic, and the story is intriguing. The whole thing is like a bag of potato chips—good luck not downing the entire thing in one sitting.

That this highly polished effort comes from a pair of relative newcomers is astonishing. Aside from some short films, a few episodes of FOX’s “Wayward Pines” and the little-seen horror/sci-fi hybrid Hidden, writer-directors the Duffer Brothers are virtual unknowns. That changes here and now. If the image of kids on bicycles pedaling around town with flashlights trying to fight off some government conspiracy triggers a primal part of your brain, then “Stranger Things” is the must-see flashback for the ’80s preteen movie-lover in you.

All eight episodes of “Stranger Things” season 1 are available now for streaming on Netflix.