Review: Stranger Things – Season 1, Episode 1

Producer(s): Karl Gajdusek, Cindy Holland, Brian Wright, Matt Thunell, Shawn Levy, Dan Cohen, Matt Duffer, Ross Duffer, Iain Paterson, Shannon Tsang
Director(s): Matt Duffer, Ross Duffer
Writer(s): Matt Duffer, Ross Duffer
Starring: Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, Noah Schnapp, Joe Keery, Matthew Modine
Distributor: Netflix
Genre: Science Fiction, Horror, Supernatural
Rating: TV-14+
After having pitched their show to most of the major cable networks and being rejected by all of them, the Duffer brothers started to doubt their future in television. It wasn’t until executive producer Shawn Levy came across the pitch script of the first episode in early 2015 that things started moving, and quickly. After purchasing the rights to the show, yet still keeping the Duffer Brothers in charge of writing, the team met with Netflix, who had just come off of a wave of hit original series (House of Cards, Orange is the New Black). It didn’t take long for Netflix to order the first season and production began with a 2016 target. The show is now heading into its third season and has become a cultural phenomenon.

Content Guide

Spiritual Content: There is no spiritual content in the episode.
Violence: The opening scene does not end well for the scientist in it; nothing is shown, but it is clearly implied his death was not pleasant. A man is shot in the head onscreen, though it’s not graphic. The aftermath of a quick fight is shown, including two bodies and some blood.
Language/Crude humor: S**t, p***y, a**hole, f*g, and d**n are all used, the first on this list rather frequently. The sheriff makes a quip about spending the night with another man’s wife – an event that did not happen.
Sexual Content: There are a couple of make-out scenes, as well as a teenage boy unsuccessfully trying to coerce a girl into undressing.
Drug/alcohol use: A couple characters are shown with beers, almost every prominent adult character smokes a cigarette. The sheriff is on a medication, although it’s not clear if he is overusing it or not.
Other negative themes: The young cast members are the ones doing a majority of the swearing. Useless father figures.
Positive Content: Upon learning their friend is missing, the remainder of the D&D crew does everything within their ability to search for him. The lengths parents, particularly mothers, will go for their children.

Recap

The show opens on a lab in crisis. Alarms sound as a panicked scientist runs towards the elevator and, upon arriving, immediately breaks the first rule of multistory laboratory escape survival: Always check the elevator ceiling. He doesn’t, and that goes about as well as one could expect when a creature is loose. The next scene is a lighter one, where we are introduced to Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), and Will (Noah Schnapp) as they reveal their true natures at the end of a ten hour game of D&D. We also catch a short glimpse of Mike’s older sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) talking on her corded phone in her room. The boys’ game is stopped while it is at its most tense. Mike’s mother (Cara Buono), more concerned about the fact it’s a school night, shuts the game down as Will throws the game-deciding dice roll off the table. Everything is a scramble to save the game on two fronts, but it all comes to an end either way. Thankfully, everyone is within biking distance from Mike’s house, but not everyone has a smooth trip.
Will is startled off his bike by a strange figure near his house. He rushes home on foot and finds his house empty, but sees the figure coming towards his home through the window. After attempting to call 911 and discovering not only that something is preventing the call from going through, but that the figure is now opening the door, Will runs to the shed and grabs a rifle off of the wall. The last time we see Will in the episode is when he turns to meet the figure standing behind him. The shed light flashes, and Will is gone.
After getting a look at sheriff Jim Hopper’s (David Harbour) lifestyle through his morning routine, it’s fairly easy to see he has some deep scars. Empty beer cans fill his house, food packaging – empty or otherwise – take up the rest of the space, and he downs his medication with a room temperature swig of beer and a draw from his cigarette. Worst of all, he leaves his house without turning off his television. This isn’t the only morning preparation used to show off the cast. Joyce and Jonathan Byers (Winona Ryder and Charlie Heaton respectively) are shown off as a family hectically getting ready for the day. Jonathan, Will’s older brother, dutifully makes breakfast while Joyce searches for Will. There is slight panic when it is realized that neither Jonathon or Joyce knows if Will even came home. They attempt to reassure themselves that he is already on his way to school, but they are clearly uncomfortable.
The focus then transitions to the school, and the noticeable absence of Will Byers. After being harassed by bullies, the remaining three-quarters of the D&D troupe are left to speculate about their friend. Nancy is clearly having a better day. A meet-up between Nancy and her new boyfriend Steve Harrington (Joe Keery), along with a promise of a future get together later that night will leave parents of teenagers squirming. Thankfully, the focus shifts again to Hopper soon after. Joyce has arrived, and has been waiting for Hopper. Hopper quickly sets up a missing persons report and tries to comfort Joyce by telling her how safe and uneventful Hawkins is, but he made his mistake by saying things work out ninety-nine percent of the time. Joyce becomes transfixed on the remaining one percent.
Off in the woods, unknown to the Hawkins community, the laboratory begins to address the problematic events witnessed during the show open. Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine) and his team don their hazmat suits and investigate, only to find a doorway made of monster parts, Brenner’s new subject of study, while his old one (we can assume) takes her first steps into the real world. Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) makes one of the greatest discoveries of man on her first day in the outside world: The burger joint. After getting caught taking some food, the owner decides to help the fugitive, and figure out where she came from, so he makes a call.
Back at the school, right before truly being able to experience the new Ham radio, the D&D and AV club enthusiasts are called into the office to answer questions about their missing friend by Sheriff Hopper. After some childish yet entertaining fighting, Tolkien references, and some light intimidation by Hopper, the boys head home with the realization the situation is much more serious than they believed. While the boys struggle with what to do next, Eleven is learning the joys of the hamburger and practicing her superpowers by shutting down noisy fans with her mind. The lab knows where she is, though, so both parties are looking grim.
Meanwhile, the search is on for Will. Starting with Will’s impressive, yet empty stick fort in the forest named Castle Byers, to his abandoned bike, and finally the evidence in the shed of something nefarious, it becomes clear the case is not as simple as Hopper believed. The problems in the forest are not over yet, because Mike and friends decide it’s time to take on the quest of searching for their missing party member. As Mike departs his house, he discovers Steve on a quest of his own as the teen clumsily climbs into Nancy’s room window.
The life of a burger shop owner is also not simple in Hawkins apparently, as the supposed social services agent brings an end to Hawkins burger supply while Eleven escapes into the forest, though not before putting the kibosh on a couple g-men. While Eleven and the AV club’s paths come closer together, Joyce receives a call from her son, and his new, unwanted best friend in the monster who took him. This one-sided conversation destroys the phone and leads to an understandable breakdown from Joyce. While one child is missing, Eleven is found, adding a second major quest for the D&D troupe.

Review

As someone who is not all that familiar with D&D, it seemed like a risky move to introduce main characters through a game night, but it was clearly the right choice. What impressed me the most was how close the friends appeared in this first scene, which I looked up and discovered was the first scene shot for the show. Even the Duffer Brothers were surprised at the chemistry shown by the boys as filming began. This continues throughout the episode, especially during the scene between Sheriff Hopper and the three boys in the school where the banter and quips carry the moment and add heart to a serious scene.
The young cast members of Stranger Things have serious chops, and should be interesting to watch as they mature. Even more beneficial to the younger actors are the mentors they have to work with. Winona Ryder owns every scene she’s in. Her journey to find Will is definitely going to become all the more engrossing simply due to her performance, where the intensity of a mother looking for her child is genuinely felt. David Harbour also has a strong debut as Hopper, showing his strengths in the morning routine scene, in which he is able to tell us all we need to know about his character without saying a word.
Though the cast is strong, the main thing that kept creeping up is the fact there’s a whole lot of cast. The number of introductions we went through, and the character developments coming up, bring about some concerns that certain characters will not be as involved or have fully fleshed out arcs throughout the season. Despite the added runtime of the episodes in the season, with only eight episodes to work with, finding the right balance will be difficult, and added to that, pacing could become a problem, as it was in this episode. When trying to introduce people to Stranger Things, I find the first episode has some trouble drawing people in due to the slow start, especially the constant breaks to revisit yet another make-out scene with Nancy and Steve. If the first episode of eight in a season has trouble gathering some people’s attention due to pacing, it’s definitely something that will need to be addressed in future episodes.
 I did find one scene to be incredibly out of place in the episode. Stranger Things thrives on revealing information on their terms, and letting mysteries hang until a character discovers the answer, or shows a part of themselves we had not previously seen. This is why the reveal of Hopper’s daughter’s death felt pretty offhanded and lazy to me. It seems like it would have had a much stronger impact – and within the strategy the writers were taking with everything else – if this had been kept from the audience and revealed through Hopper himself later instead of through a nameless character we most likely won’t see again giving the information in the most intrusive way possible. Those are the kind of people you avoid at parties.
The recreation of the 1980’s aesthetic is done brilliantly. The references and the music, both original and licensed, add to the tone of the time the show is attempting to either remind the audience of or teach them about. Wardrobe choices, hairstyles (looking at you Barb), and the set designs all come together in the best, feel-good way. All of this added to the strong chemistry and performances, especially from the younger cast, and it’s no wonder Stranger Things has become as big as it has.

The Bottom Line

If you haven't given the new cult breakout hit a try, there's no better time than now. Impressive performances and tactful writing make the show both charming and intense. Every episode is on Netflix right now, so what are you waiting for?

 

8.4

Isaiah Kaufman

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