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Thursday, August 18, 2016

Stranger Things

It took my abiding fascination for Winona Ryder to get me into the world of streaming. I had heard so many good things about her new show, Stranger Things, that I didn't want to wait for the DVDs and got myself one of those doohickeys that stick into your TV and magically I was offered all sorts of shows. Technology comes late to me.

Anyway, Stranger Things, which I've now finished (the concept of all episodes being available at once is still novel to me, though I did not watch more than one episode a day) was a great start. It was compelling television, and also nostalgic, as it played like a Steven King novel as directed by Stephen Spielberg (which I believe has never happened, but now it doesn't have to). Beginning with the credit font, which looks King book covers, to the adventures of children, which reminds one of Stand By Me and It, this has King's fingerprints all over it. Spielberg comes in with the character of Eleven, who is very much a human E.T.

The show is set in prime King/Spielberg time--1983. The setting is a small town in Indiana that is also home to a laboratory run by the Department of Energy. They've let loose some kind of monster, which snatches a boy who is part of a quartet of Dungeons & Dragons players. His mother is a harried single mom (Ryder), who begins to believe that her son is communicating to her via Christmas lights. At first the town's police chief (an excellent David Harbour) thinks she's nuts, but when he realizes that a body found in a quarry might not be the boy in question, starts to suspect the government of a cover-up.

Meanwhile, the three remaining boys start their own investigation. They are aided when they find a mysterious girl in the woods, known only as Eleven. She has escaped from the government facility, and has amazing telekinetic powers (shades of Carrie and Firestarter). She doesn't know much of the world, but the boys befriend her and she uses their role-playing nomenclature to indicate that Will, the missing boy, is in a place called the Upside Down and threatened by something called the Demagorgon.

In eight crisp episodes, created by the Duffer Brothers, Stranger Things does a magnificent job of creating a world, anchored by Ryder, who plays that mom with a gusto that is eye-opening to those of us who have followed Ryder's every move. The sight of her grabbing an ax from the shed and then sitting on her couch, the ax across her lap, ready for a monster to come through the wall, is gripping. The show also hinges a great deal on loyalty--between the three boys and Eleven (though her inability to fully communicate with them will lead to misunderstandings) and then Harbour, when he starts to believe Ryder, are affirming. Harbour plays one of the great heroes of this year's entertainment, superheroes be damned.

I should also point out the wonderful performances by the children, including Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven, who does not have many words but is wonderfully expressive (and gets a great mad face when she's about to use her telekinesis), Finn Wolfhard as Mike, the Dungeon Master and leader of the group, who falls a little in love with Eleven, and Gaten Mattarazzo as Dustin, the group's comedian (and compass expert) are also wonderful.

The show has a terrifically satisfying ending, with Harbour and Ryder going into through the rip in time and space to find Will, but there's just enough doubt to justify a second season. I can't wait. Stranger Things is an example of how the many platforms beyond cable and network have made this a golden age for television, that has just about eclipsed feature films (at least from Hollywood churns out). Stranger Things is better than any film I've seen this summer.

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