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Television Review: Stranger Things (2016)

“Stranger Things” was released through Net ix on July 15. (Photo courtesy of Netflix)
“Stranger Things” was released through Net ix on July 15. (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

By the end of this summer, the only thing more anticipated than catching up on some last-minute, much-needed sleep was catching up on Netflix’s new hit show “Stranger Things.

Released in mid-July, “Stranger Things” has been making waves for its mash-up of unapologetic ’80s exuberance and skin-crawling horror sci-fi vibes, as well as the strength and depth of its characters.

A brief synopsis for those of you who haven’t yet had your ear talked off about this show by everyone within a hundred miles of you: “Stranger Things is an eight-part Netflix original show about a boy who vanishes under mysterious, supernatural circumstances, and his family and friends’ search to find him.

Directed by relative newcomers, the Duffer Brothers, and filled with a cast of young, breakout stars, if nothing else, “Stranger Things” has shown the entertainment industry that you don’t need name recognition to succeed in doing the unexpected (though I’m sure having Winona Ryder on the lineup certainly didn’t hurt).

And doing the unexpected was exactly what “Stranger Things” was all about. It is a show that simultaneously invites in every stereotype and turns each of them on their heads. Initially, every character appears to be built almost by template from an amalgamation of every ’80s movie ever: the gruff small-town cop, the hassled working mother, the rebelling, former goody-two-shoes teen, and the gaggle of nerdy tween-aged boys.

Though all of these roles are established at first, completely without irony, they are gradually and carefully complicated throughout the narrative in a way that even now, thirty years after the films it is modeled after, we don’t often see.

One particularly pleasant surprise was the fate of Nancy, the good-girl-gone-bad. She begins the show entangled in a newfound not-relationship with Steve, the sexed up, bad boy. In any other ’80s horror film we would know exactly where this was going: girl meets boy, girl has sex, girl gets shamed for having sex, girl gets killed for having sex. Classic.

But instead of being the sacrificial slut, killed off as they so often are by the mere act of rebellion and premarital sex, Nancy becomes a complete badass, leading her own parallel mission to fight back against the supernatural forces entrapping more and more citizens of her small town. Even her jerk of a boyfriend gets his moment of redemption.

Every character is lovable and complex in their own way, and you find yourself rooting for them, even in the moments when they are working against each other’s best interests. In fact, the only characters who were not consistently a joy to see on screen were the bumbling, Simpson’s-esque Officers Callahan and Powell, whose sole function seemed to be to make you appreciate how well written every other character is.

Stranger Things is “Twin Peaks” meets “Supernatural” meets “X-Files,” with a healthy dose of self-awareness. Does it have its flaws? Of course. Despite the preponderance of strong female characters, the gender and race ratio of the cast skews notably white and male, there’s some troubling moments of making light of stalking, and I will admit I have heard it described as “aggressively straight.” But on the whole, “Stranger Things is a breath of fresh air in the arena of retro sci-fi horror, filled with characters you would go monster hunting with any day of the week. I can only hope that it is a harbinger of a new era of self-aware, sci-fi fantasy, but if nothing else, it certainly makes for a thrilling weekend watch!