The Netflix Original eight episode series Stranger Things is released in its entirety Friday July 15th. Dork Shelf’s TV nerds Peter Counter and Susan Stover join forces to recap the wonderfully strange, wickedly smart, and super spooky series. Don’t be a stranger, this show’s a love letter to the 80’s classics that’ll draw you in from its very first frames.
“The Vanishing of Will Byers” is Chapter One of the Stranger Things saga wherein we are introduced to a mysterious monster, a group of misfits, a missing boy, an odd girl, a bored police chief, and an seemingly evil government body.
Rolling a Seven
Peter: Sometimes being a hero just doesn’t work out. Little Will Byers finds this out the hard way in chapter one of Stranger Things. Playing a D&D campaign in Mike Wheeler’s basement with his fantasy nerd buddies, Lucas and Dustin, he rolls the dice to launch a fireball at the immensely menacing Demogorgon represented by a tiny pewter figurine on a grid. The dice fall off the table, out of view, and Mike’s mom shouts down the stairs, putting an end to the game because it’s past their nerdy little bedtimes. But Will saw the result, a seven when he needed to roll a thirteen. He tells Mike before he leaves for home on his bike, arriving with the lights off and no one home, just in time to confront whatever it is that punched its way out of the nearby top-secret government facility.
D&D can give you insight into your own self image, your hopes, dreams and values. Instead of learning from the failed dice roll, the waifish Will runs to his family shed to cast the real life version of fireball by way of bullets and a hunting rifle. Life imitates play, and Will’s bullets prove ineffective. After the credits roll, Will is as invisible as the dice he failed to make manifest his heroic action.
Susan: He is a super brave kid though. Seriously, if some terrifying hairless werewolf/monster man followed me to my empty house, opened the chain lock from the OUTSIDE, and then 911 didn’t work I don’t think I could have handled any of it as well as this kid did. Like, I’d reach for something stupid, like a spatula.
Peter: Oh, I’m not about to contest Will’s A+ crisis management skills. That boy has a whole lot of bravery underneath that mushroom cut of his.
Susan: Don’t underestimate the mush, Peter.
Susan: Heroes and villains are plentiful in this first chapter and we’re introduced to none other than the “complicated” Hawkins Police Chief Hopper. A child’s drawing on his wall, stick figures and all depicting a two-parent one-child household directly juxtapose the empty beer cans and pill bottles that litter the obvious home of a bachelor. In these first frames, we don’t hear him speak a word, just the grunts and sighs of a hungover man who smokes a dart while brushing his teeth, but we are given important information from the TV (that he apparently leaves on even when he leaves his house) that: 1) There was a huge power outage the night before and 2) There’s gonna be a lot of rain tonight.
When he finally does get into work, he makes a joke about fucking his coworker’s wife and ignores the Office Administrator Flo. But he’s got some work to do and is greeted by the flustered Joyce Hawkins (Winona Ryder) who’s finally figured out her son is missing. He’s not too worried though, Hawkins is a sleepy town and in the four years he’s worked there, there’s been nothing more exciting than a nocturnal bird penetrating an updo. However, Hopper starts to perk up when he finds Will’s bike abandoned on the side of the road outside “Mirkwood.” Is he more than an alcoholic mess?
Peter: Lack of heroism aside, Hop the Cop is an instant fave for me. David Harbour takes an archetypal sketch of a character and imbues him with a deep pathos that just radiates dark charisma. The alcoholic police chief with a broken family is difficult to make fresh, but Harbour plays his trope-laden lines with a counter-intuitive resignation that deepens Hopper’s character and just makes him so compelling. Also, he looks a lot like 1980s era Jack Nicholson and I love it because that would be perfect casting in the alternate reality version of this show that aired thirty years ago.
Have You Seen Me?
Peter: Another big surprise was a one-two punch. I’m still mourning The Knick, so when Chris Sullivan (who played the show’s lovable brute Cleary the paramedic) showed up as Benny the diner owner, I squealed in joy. It’s through Benny we get to first know Eleven, a little girl linked to the secret government shenanigans happening in the Greater Hawkins Area. Benny’s rapport with Eleven is sweet, and totally sets up an adoptive father/big brother plot line that would have happened if we were watching a mid-2000s network serial that ran for 23 episodes per season. But Stranger Things is super fast paced, and so some shadowy agents feed Benny a bullet before the end credits. It was upsetting to say the least. In my denial I headed to IMDB just to see if he really was gone for good. The database confirmed it, and so I started to drink. Rest in peace all over again, Sully.
Susan: Let’s all cheers to Mr. Sullivan.
Peter: Eleven, played by Millie Bobby Brown, seems to be the focal point of the show. With her shaved head, expressive face, appetite for curly fries, and serial number tattoo, she seems to be our window into whatever is happening with the government lab (which itself is definitely connected to the Will-eating monster loose in Hawkins). Thank god Brown is such a good wordless communicator, rising to Sullivan levels of acting prowess in their shared scenes. I have a feeling a lot of the more sci-fi stuff is going to fall on her shoulders as the show starts to make a bit more sense of the titular stranger things, and that kind of material always lands better with the application of some good child acting.
Susan: The child acting is superb in this show! I also appreciate the mild swearing (douchebag and shit sound funnier coming from a child) even though all the adults are constantly yelling “LANGUAGE!” One of those adults is Scott Clark, who might be an attentive Earth and Biology teacher at Hawkins Middle School who runs the AV club for the aforementioned fantasy nerds, but he’s not so great at picking up the subtleties of English. During the search of the woods, he talks to Hopper about his child, and misses the use of past tense when Hopper explains how his daughter used to love science. It’s an understandable mistake, but when Clark presses Hopper more about his daughter, Hopper explains she lives in the city with her mother and quickly leaves the conversation. Then some nosey lady sets Clark straight and tells him that Hopper’s daughter is dead. Doesn’t say how, just that she died a few years back.
Peter: I thought that reveal was interesting, because I was leaning toward Hop’s daughter having gone missing years ago in a related monster experience. In any case, it was interesting to see that interaction between near-cliche masculinity with prototypical science teacher father figure. The conversation helped underline that this show isn’t only about tabletop fantasy nerds.
Susan: Yeah, we also got the archetypal virginal schoolgirl Mike’s older sister Nancy. She has a “study” session with the popular douchebag Steve, her almost-boyfriend with a Flock of Seagulls haircut and a rakish smile. Safe from the downpour outside, whilst being serenaded by Toto about the rains down in Africa, Steve tries to start a game of strip-studying and makes a move, but Nancy makes it clear she’s not DTF. The scene’s a little slut shamy for me, but it’s obvious the two have chemistry. Meanwhile in the real precipitation in the forest, Mike, Lucas, and Dustin search for their lost companion, but instead find Eleven standing in the heavy rain.
Peter: And so we end the first chapter of a compelling televised genre novel. For all the Lord of the Rings (“The Hobbit!”) and Dungeons & Dragons being used to really nerdify the weird goings on in Hawkins, I’m not completely sure that we’re dealing with anything from the official Creatures Handbook when it comes to what ate (or abducted?) Will Byers. The second time we are taken to the sterile government facility we follow some hazmat suited stooges into a dark chamber with a giant Cronenberg-ish sore on the wall, like some sort of architectural herpes blister. The head shadowman, the one with white hair, says that it came out of there.
Susan: It may be the very thing responsible for Will’s vanishing act. Will Byers is still officially missing and the midnight forest hunt turned up fruitless, but what’s with that phone call? Will’s breathing is heard on the other end with crackling static. The frantic Joyce played by the 80’s icon Winona Ryder knows that it’s her son, but the receiver is given an electrical surge before she can hear anything else.
Peter: I don’t know about you, but that kind of fleshy portal talk and supernatural phone malfunction tells me our heroes are bringing their Pathfinder campaign to a different table, with a different game. Portals, vanishing, electromagnetic phenomenon, telekinetic abilities, cops haunted by their past — that’s Lovecraft territory. Someone better get these kids a Call of Cthulhu rulebook ASAP before any more fireballs get thrown.
Susan: Even if you’re not a gamer, you can totally appreciate this show is scary as shit, funny as hell, and nostalgic as fuck.
The Strangest Things
Love Letter to the 80’s
Susan: There’s something distinct about the 80’s style bully. Like, were people just meaner back then?
Peter: Right? Leave Dustin alone! Crytocranialdisplacia is real.
Susan: That toothless smile is the cutest thing on the show, if you don’t count Will’s forest fort “Castle Byers” where there’s a sign on the outside that says “ALL FRIENDS WELCOME”
Susan: Mike’s dad is a real dud huh? It’s obvious that his mom is the only one running the house, but it’s pretty hilarious when he’s left alone at the dinner table, “What’d I dooooo?”
Peter: Oh my god I know! I know we’ve barely seen Mike’s dad, but he is easily the most loathsome monster in Hawkins.
Sweet sounds of the 60s, 70s and 80s (today)
Peter: Mega props to Netflix for springing for licensed music. The era is really brought to life with diegetic tunes like Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” and Toto’s “Africa.”
Susan: I totally agree, composers Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein did a bang-up job at choosing both 80’s classics and their original compositions.
Peter: As I mentioned up in the recap, there’s definitely a mid-2000s network drama vide happening with Stranger Things despite its period piece aesthetic. So much of this reminds me of LOST, Jericho, Fringe, and the various imitators that only lasted a season. Stranger Things stands to have a lot more rewatchability, though, since it’s only eight episodes as opposed to 23.