Author and screenwriter Matt Wallace is one of the few people to discuss the pacing problems that binge-watching creates for writers. Matt argues, and I agree, that a show that can be watched in one sitting has to be even more structural secure than one that’s going to be broadcast over months. A concentrated dose of attention on your audience’s part demands a similar concentration on that of the writers.
Stranger Things is the textbook example of how to do this exact thing. Its eight episode run is almost unfeasibly tidy, wrapping almost a dozen plot lines around a single incident: the disappearance of a young boy in Indiana in 1983.
The boy, Will Byers (Noah Schapp) is an honest, good hearted geek kid. He’s also terminally unlucky, happening to bike home at the same time something horrific happens in the secret government buildings at the edge of town. Will’s abduction is an early highlight not just because it’s terrifying but because he makes all the right choices. He looks after himself, he makes sensible decisions and he still gets taken. No one is a victim here, Will least of all.
That disappearance detonates a small bomb under the lives of the rest of the town. Will’s mum, Joyce (Winona Ryder on blistering form), is frantic to find her son as is his older brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton). Joyce is barely holding it together before the disappearance and when her boy vanishes, she seems to go off the deep end. Jonathan – a shy, near dropout who has picked up the slack for his absentee father – buckles under the weight but holds it together.
Until he realizes his mother thinks she’s communicating with Will through electrical disturbances…
Only Nancy (Natalia Dyer), the older sister of one of Will’s friends seems to want to help. But there’s the small matter of Steve (Joe Keery), the popular kid who hates Jonathan and wants Nancy.
Chief John Hopper (David Harbour, again doing career best work) wants nothing to do with it. A drunken burnout, Hop is marking time until his retirement in town. Until Will disappears and as he digs deeper, his old detective, and paternal, instincts begin to emerge.
Finally, Will’s best friends Lucas (Caleb McClaughlin), Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Dustin (Galen Matarazzo) decide to rescue their friend. The four boys have bonded over being the only geeks in the school. They see the world through the ethical framework of their D&D campaign and, when they find 11 (Mille Brown) in the woods, that framework is tested to the limit. Terrified, almost mute and terrifyingly powerful, 11 is the key to it all. Especially finding Will.
An entire town in various states of panic, all of them searching for the truth. And the whole time, the government offices led by Doctor Brenner (Matthew Modine), are doing everything they can to shut it down.
A lot has been written about the 80s feel and the countless homages in Stranger Things. This is a show born from The Evil Dead, The Thing, Stephen Spielberg’s early work and Stephen King’s entire back catalogue. But there’s so much more going on here than tips of the hat and cute nods to the past. This is a character study filled with some of the best written and performed roles you’ll see this year, wrapped around a chilling science fiction/horror hybrid story arc.
For a start, the show does an incredible job with its child cast and characters. Child actors, especially en masse are usually a recipe for disaster but here they’re flat out brilliant. Wolfhard’s determined, compassionate, erratic Mike is the de facto lead but McLaughlin and Matarazzo especially get a lot to do. What emerges as the show goes on is three kids who live by a code of honor. They watch each other’s backs, they resolve their own disputes and when it comes to it, they rescue themselves. There are numerous brave choices folded into their scenes not the least of which is Lucas, the only black kid in the cast, being the one who has a problem with someone different.
It’s Dustin and 11 who you’ll remember though. Matarazzo’s Dustin is the grumpy, slightly belligerent cleric of the group. He makes sure people are fed, he makes sure everyone’s in communication and on several brilliant occasions uses science to work out what they have to do.
And also has a real thing for chocolate pudding. Dustin is endlessly sensible, endlessly compassionate and one of the most charming characters you’ll meet this year.
Whereas 11 is one of the most chilling. Brown was last seen in the BBC’s adaptation of Michael Marshall Smith’s Intruders and again here she demonstrates an authority far in excess of her age. 11, or Elle, is the ‘E.T.’ to Mike’s Elliot but there’s constant, roiling rage and fear under the surface. She’s intelligent, driven and completely otherworldly and the show’s best scenes involve her and the boys working out how they can exist together. Brown is, bluntly, astounding throughout the eight episodes. Intensely vulnerable one moment and utterly terrifying the next she, along with Matarazzo steals the show. Which with a cast this great is no mean feat.
Of the others, Keery does excellent work as an unusually nuanced preppy evil sort-of boyfriend and Heaton and Dyer are flat out great as a pair of teenagers who know there’s something between them but have no clue whatsoever what it is. Every character, even minor ones are as well written as they are acted. You get a sense of this simply being a day in the lives of these people, albeit an extraordinary one. There’s no sense of exposition, no feeling of everyone emerging store-bought fresh at the start of episode one. Just the oddest day ever in the life of a small town.
A huge part of that is down to Ryder and Harbour. Ryder blows this show out of the water with a performance that’s frantic, nervy and at no point mannered. Joyce is a pit bull, a woman who will do any and everything to get her son back and who has no time to care about what other people think. She’s incredible, a never ending force of nature who carries most of the show’s emotional weight on her shoulders. Many of Ryder’s early scenes are with nothing but Christmas lights flashing in sequence but she demands attention with a performance that’s utterly strong and at the same time completely, painfully human.
If Joyce is the show’s heart then Hop, played with deadpan, scruffy surliness by David Harbour, is its brain. Harbour has been banging on the door of leading man status for a while now and he’s given a peach of a role here. Hop is broken, and we find out why as the case he’s on becomes one that hits entirely too close to home. Harbour shows us it all; the horror and grief mixed with the new found purpose and quiet joy at his old instincts waking back up. He’s got plenty of zingers (If ‘coffee and contemplation’ is not on coffee mugs by the end of the month I’ll be amazed) but Harbour does his best work silently. There’s one moment, in the final episode, involving an oxygen mask that will absolutely break your heart and it’s all him. Watch for it, and so many more tiny character grace notes scattered through this amazing cast.
Then there’s the arc, and that’s where what we’ll call Wallace’s Law really comes into its own. Eight episodes means the show has no spare time and every episode drives the plot along. The conspiracy, why there’s something horrible in the woods, where it comes from, who or what Elle might be and where Will is are all set up and answered in short order. The satellite plots; Mike and Lucas’ friendship, the threat of a pair of bullies, Nancy and Steve and Jonathan’s triangular relationship and the rest all take turns driving and being driven by this central idea. The show, for all its tidiness, feels as messy as every small town. Nothing is easy, everyone knows everyone else’s business and no one goes into the woods alone. At least not more than once.
Verdict: Rounded out by some devastatingly simple and successful effects sequences, Stranger Things is one of the most fundamentally satisfying TV experiences you’ll have this year. It’s also a blueprint for how to do streaming drama successfully. Essential viewing. Roll on season 2. 10/10
Stranger Things is streaming on Netflix now globally