There’s something indescribably satisfying about watching a well-made tv show or movie that harkens back to an era from childhood. Nostalgia has long been a successful marketing ploy for the entertainment industry, but it isn’t as simple as throwing together a few nods to the decade in question. In an age where consumers are nuanced and sophisticated enough to recognise authenticity from any old hack, the field of visual entertainment requires something extra to make it stand out from the crowd. The first season of Stranger Things is authentically 1980’s right down to the core. If you were born in, or have any recollection of the 80’s and early 90’s, chances are this show is custom-made for you.
Set in Hawkins, Indiana in 1983, the main plot focuses on the mysterious disappearance of a young boy named Will Byers at the hands (possibly claws?) of an unseen creature. The day after Will vanishes, a young girl in a hospital gown with a shaven head is discovered stealing food from a diner. The owner takes pity on her and calls social services, but armed men arrive instead, along with a woman posing as a social worker. The girl escapes and is later found by Will’s three friends Lucas, Dustin and Mike who are all searching for Will.
The trio name the girl El and it emerges that not only does she have psychokinetic powers, but she also knows where Will is. Getting to him is somewhat of a challenge though, as he is trapped in another dimension (known as The Upside-Down) caused by a space-time tear, which created a passage allowing a monstrous creature to cross over. Will’s disappearance becomes the catalyst for other characters to deal with issues in their own lives, including his mother, Joyce, his brother, Jonathan and the police chief whom Joyce solicits to help her in her frantic search for her son.
Casting directors have a hefty responsibility with this type of show. Engaging viewers and convincing them that they are truly immersed in a story from an era like the 1980’s is no small task. The audience has the right to accept or reject certain actors as the personification of the characters and those actors in turn have a responsibility to correctly convey the era. Enter Winona Ryder.
If you’re looking for an actress who immortalised the 80’s and early 90’s, this lady is the winning ticket. It was Ryder’s casting that swayed me and many others into watching Stranger Things to begin with. Playing Joyce, Will’s mother, Ryder’s performance encapsulates the frenzied panic that occurs when a child goes missing for even a minute and she maintains that heightened sense of fear and hope simultaneously throughout each episode of the season. In many ways, Joyce is the unsung hero of Stranger Things as much of the drama hinges upon her desperation to get Will back and the lengths she is prepared to go to in order to save him. The entire performance is top drawer, in particular when Joyce figures out a way to communicate with Will through a string of lights and a painted alphabet. It’s been quite some time since a script of this calibre has reached Ryder and brilliant to see her in a role that encompasses an era she is well-loved for.
David Harbour’s portrayal of Hopper is one of the more intriguing casting choices. This character was given a phenomenal story arc considering that in the first episode he is underwhelming as a functioning police officer and human being. Having lapsed into drug and alcohol abuse after the death of his daughter and dissolution of his marriage, his decision to trust Joyce’s intuition that Will is alive is a complete turnaround for the character. In helping to save Will’s life, Hopper is released from some of the overwhelming guilt about his helplessness during his own daughter’s passing.
Undoubtedly it is Millie Bobby Brown’s turn as El that stands out. The product of a government abduction and subsequent experiments fronted by Matthew Modine’s terrifyingly sinister Dr. Brenner, El is likable, sympathetic and intimidating all at once; a tall order for a twelve-year old actress. Whether El will return for the next season remains to be seen, but either way she will be remembered. In particular, the flashback sequences to her time in a sensory deprivation tank are impressively constructed. Scenes to look out for include where she refuses to inflict pain on a cat and another where she intercepts a Russian spy psychokinetically. El suffers severely for her memories and for her gifts, but she uses them to help others. It is this sense of suffering and vulnerability juxtaposed with strength that makes her so endearing. When she recalls accidentally opening the gate between the two dimensions, thus allowing the creature through, El’s fate starts to become clearer. The rest of the child actors are believable and all avoid the over-reaching hamminess that so frequently seeps into productions featuring younger performers.
Not everything about the 1980’s was as engaging as a majority of the themes here. Whether or not it was a specific choice due to the nature of the show being a period drama, the treatment of Barb has been widely criticised. The scene in which El is immersed in a makeshift pool of water in the high school gym in order to find out the fate of Barb and Will is disappointingly familiar. A number of viewers seem to have felt this was reminiscent of the sexism that was (and still is) so rampant among male/female character arcs. The fact that the revelation in the scene comes so late in the first season may have a lot to do with why people didn’t completely disengage, but it has rightly been criticised as a poor move on the part of the show’s creators.
Stranger Things has been widely well received and this is due in no small part to the Duffer Brothers meticulously well-written love letter to films such as E.T, Carrie, The Thing, Alien, The Goonies, Explorers, The Shining, Commando, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Firestarter, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Poltergeist and Stand By Me. The tone of the show is reminiscent of a luxurious Twin Peaks and The X Files mashup, replete with shadowy background figures who don’t do much talking (Brenner is the Cigarette Smoking Man of Stranger Things, people). The poster of a young Tom Cruise on Nancy’s bedroom wall is also a nice touch as it accompanies some rather retro looking ornaments and bedroom paraphernalia that feels genuinely 80’s. Throughout this season, Stranger Things has, like many of the films it references, firmly established itself as a cult favourite. Channelling the celluloid essence of many respected storytellers, we can only hope that the second season brings a further variety of familiarity and novelty all at once.
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Michelle Audrey 2016