With the forthcoming release of Stranger Things 3 on July 4th, I thought I’d take a step back and examine what it was that made Stranger Things a phenomena.
Stranger Things first dropped on Netflix in 2016 and captured the imaginations of young and old. It was a love letter to the 80’s: a touch of Stephen King, The Goonies, E.T, and Stand by Me. It hit all the right nostalgic notes, with a little help from a killer original score by the electronic band Survive.
In that first season we ventured into the Upside Down for the first time. We battled the Demogorgan. We rooted for Hopper. We laughed at Dustin. We sympathized with Joyce. We worried about Will. We hated - then loved - Steve. We forgot about Barb.
In eight seemingly quick episodes we met our favorite D&D party, our favorite telepathic tween, adventured alongside them, and in no time it was over. We were left wanting more. This couldn’t be the end. The Demogorgan was defeated, but what happened to Eleven? What was up with Will puking up Upside Down Slugs? We had questions and we wanted them answered right away. But why? What made Stranger Things so special?
The magic of Stranger Things, to me, was in the characters. The story itself is by no means groundbreaking. It’s really just a mashup of every 80s Sci-Fi/Adventure/Coming-of-Age trope. But the characters made us care. The perfect castings made us care. The chemistry among the cast made us care. The dynamic between the group felt like I was watching my friends from school.
Mike (Finn Wolfhard) was amazing as the dungeon master/group leader. Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) was lovable and goofy. What we saw of Will (Noah Schnapp) was interesting and he would come into his own in the second season. Lucas (Caleb McClaughlin) rounded out the group with a serious and down to earth demeanor, he was often the voice of reason and often ignored. He too would come into his own in the second season.
Hopper (David Harbour) had a gruff exterior that hid a tortured interior, and his character felt so real. He was flawed, funny, and in the end he cared. Joyce (Winona Ryder) seemed to be coming apart at the seams before Will goes missing. It’s impossible not to sympathise with her as she searches for her son in a world where everyone calls her crazy. Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathon (Charlie Heaton) both play very different older siblings who still care about their younger siblings but have their own things going on. Their hunt for the Demogorgan and navigation of high school life is one of my favourite storylines from the first two seasons of the show.
Then there’s inimitable performance of Eleven by Millie Bobby Brown’s. Her performance was definitely the highlight of the first season as she did so much with so little in the way of dialogue. Character was at the heart of the first season and it’s what had us coming back for more. It was a cast of freaks and misfits coming together. In the end, it was the weirdos that saved the day.
Luckily, the Duffer Brothers knew what they had and why people loved the show. We got more of those amazing character moments in Stranger Things 2. We were introduced to more characters that leapt off the screen. Mad Max (Sadie Sink) didn’t lose a step as the new member of the group. Bob (Sean Astin) was an earnest and lovable nerd whose sacrifice was one of the most poignant moments of the season. Billy (Dacre Montgomery) was on the opposite end of the spectrum and very easy to hate. He embodied every 80s bully that terrorized kids across the world. The Snow Ball in the final episode was also full of payoffs that took two seasons to build toward. Mike and Eleven finally were able to share a dance together and just be normal kids for a night. Then there was Dustin, alone on the dance floor. I’ve never connected with a character more than in that moment. I was that kid once and my heart broke for him. Then Nancy came to his rescue. A far cry from shutting the door in his face in episode one of season one.
Another high point of Stranger Things 2 was the running theme of fatherhood throughout the season. Hopper, Bob, Steve, and Dustin all became surrogate fathers leading to some of the best moments of the season, and some of the best memes in Steve’s case.
Much like the first season, the second season reached a crescendo in the finale and wrapped up one story while setting up the next. The final shot of the season is one of the best in the entire series. The camera slowly flipping around and taking us into the upside down, and the image of the shadow monster looming over Hawkins… Damn. Way to leave us wanting more, Duffer Brothers.
The good news is more is finally here. Stranger Things 3 is finally on the horizon and drops July 4th. Judging by the trailers things are going to get bigger and wilder. I’m sure the character moments will be present as well, even though they’re absent from the action oriented promos. I’m excited to see where things go from here and I’m interested in seeing what the new cast members bring to the table. Plus, I can’t wait to catch up with the returning cast. I would like to see more of Mike and Eleven together. That’s one thing I missed in season 2.
I also hope to see more of the unconventional pairings like Steve and Dustin that made Stranger Things 2 so good. I definitely want more Papa Steve, but maybe having Nancy interact more with Eleven and Max could lead to something interesting. One thing that’s been confirmed is that Lucas’ sister Erica will have a more prominent role in Stranger Things 3 and I couldn’t be more down for that. She was hilarious and stole every scene she was in.
Things are shaping up to be another stellar season of TV and I’m sure I’ll binge it all in short order. One thing I didn’t talk about in this article is the spectacle and action that each season has had. Just to briefly address that, it’s been getting bigger and better every season, but without the character moments I discussed there wouldn’t be any substance behind it. I accidentally skimmed over most of the plot, which was not my original intention for this article. But as I wrote it became clear what I really wanted to write about was the cast and the brilliant characters they play. In the end that’s what makes the show so good. It’s intensely satisfying to see the outsiders in Hawkins come together and find their place with each other. To see them come into their own, and save the world in the process, is my favourite thing about the show. As Jonathon asked Will in Stranger Things 2, “Do you want to be normal? Do you want to be just like everyone else?” The show’s answer is a loud and clear “No”. That to me is the strange heart of Stranger Things.
See you in the Upside Down!
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