Netflix's new original series, Stranger Things, didn't land on my radar until just a few weeks ago, when a trailer for the series arrived out of nowhere to announce the show's July 15th debut. Somehow, two relative unknowns (the Duffer brothers) had made an entire series threaded with the DNA of Amblin-era Steven Spielberg and late-'80s Stephen King without me becoming aware, and the unlikelihood of that blew my mind. I was sold. I made a note to give the show a shot when July 15th rolled around, and I went about my business.
I should have been more excited.
Stranger Things is an absolute marvel, a show bursting at the seams with confidence, style and intelligence. I knew I was a goner ten minutes into the first episode, and by the end of episode four I'd resolved to finish the thing in one sitting. When the Duffer brothers stuck the landing in episode eight, I wanted to head out into the night and go door-to-door, proselytizing my way through the neighborhood ("Have you heard the good news?!") and demanding that people give it a look. That's the sort of thing that'll get you shot in Texas, though, so I've opted to spend my Saturday morning writing this recommendation instead.
This is one of those "the less you know, the better" situations, so I'll refrain from all but the most pertinent details.
Here's the setup: Stranger Things is set in Hawkins, Indiana in the mid-'80s. It revolves around the sudden and inexplicable disappearance of a local boy named Will, who vanishes into thin air one night after seeing something strange in the woods. The very next morning, a terrified young girl in a hospital gown stumbles into town. Unable to speak and seemingly baffled by everything around her, this girl (who we'll come to know as "Eleven") joins forces with Will's pals to help track their friend down and find out where she came from.
Plot-wise, that's about all you need to know.
What I will say is that Stranger Things continually surprised me, in ways big and small. By the end of the first episode, I thought I had a good idea where all of this was headed, but it turns out I was underestimating Matt and Ross Duffer (better learn those names, folks, because I suspect we'll be hearing a lot more from these guys in the years ahead). The dual mysteries at the heart of the show are solved with clockwork precision, meting out clues (and, more importantly, satisfying answers) at perfectly-timed intervals. Crucially, the solutions to these mysteries will eventually run neck-and-neck with our love for the characters we meet along the way, of which there are many. It's all just so well-executed. At a certain point, I was racking my brain trying to remember the last time television gave us a longform mystery this compelling and addictive.
I'm finding it impossible not to mention how deftly Stranger Things exploits our nostalgia for the '80s, and, indeed, I expect we'll be inundated with hot takes over the next few weeks questioning whether or not that's a good thing. Aren't we usually opposed to nostalgia porn? Well, yes, but that's only because so much of it is shallow and bad, surface-level nonsense that's meant to evoke a Pavlovian nerd-response in lieu of having anything new to say. I would argue that Stranger Things does nostalgia right, building on what's come before in interesting ways and sometimes using it to subvert our expectations.
Even if you choose to consider Stranger Things a remix of familiar elements, you've gotta admit that combining Spielberg with King produces one hell of an irresistible flavor. People have aimed for this sort of thing in the past (JJ Abrams' Super 8 will be most people's go-to example on this point, and they won't be wrong), but it's never produced something this perfectly-balanced. It works not only because we respond to that which is familiar (a Spielberg shot here, a direct nod to King there), but because it's applied in just the right amounts to an intriguing mystery filled with fun, likable characters with honest-to-God arcs.
Speaking of characters: performances here are across-the-board great, from the main players all the way down to the smallest side roles. The four main kids - Finn Wolfard (soon to be seen in Andy Muschietti's It), Millie Bobby Brown, Caleb McLaughlin, and Gaten Matarazzo - are all perfectly cast (Matarazzo's my hands-down favorite; I think he'll be yours, too). In the great Amblin tradition, these feel like actual kids, a crew you might really be able to find playing a round of Dungeons And Dragons in someone's basement. Their dialogue crackles with wit and authenticity, and it wasn't long before I found myself seriously invested in their well-being. I look forward to seeing more from all of them, both as characters and performers.
The adults, meanwhile, fare just as well, with Winona Ryder (as Will's fiercely determined mother) and David Harbour (as the town's haunted sheriff) as the standouts. I'd also like to give a shout-out to Matthew Modine, who turns in a legitimately sinister performance as the silver-haired Dr. Brenner (who knew?). Natalia Dyer and Charlie Heaton - as two teenagers who get roped into the mystery - are also great, and their characters reveal unexpected depths as the series goes on.
Stranger Things cherry-picks the best of both King and Spielberg with dizzyingly awesome results. It's expertly-plotted, stylishly-directed, creepy, funny, touching, and a million other things. I don't know who the Duffer brothers are, but I'm enormously impressed with what they've done here, and I'm here today to give their show my strongest recommendation. Carve out eight hours or so for Stranger Things, the best show to hit Netflix in some time, and I'm almost positive you'll thank me for it.
PS: Feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts in the comments below, but don't be a dick - avoid drifting into spoiler territory. This show deserves it.