TV Review: Stranger Things Season 1 (2016)

Posted: September 12, 2016 in horror
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Chapter 1:  The Vanishing of Will Byers

In 1983, in Hawkins Indiana, scientists are working on something top secret in the Hawkins National Laboratory, which is part of the Energy Department.  A boy named Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) disappears after playing a game of Dungeons and Dragons with his friends, Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard) Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas Sinclair. (Caleb McLaughlin) Will’s mom, Joyce (Winona Ryder) reports Will missing to the local Sheriff, Jim Hopper. (David Harbour)

A mysterious mute girl, named Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) walks into a diner wearing a hospital gown, and the diner’s owner, Benny Hammond (Chris Sullivan) takes sympathy on her. Popular high school boy Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) starts dating bookish Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) Where is Will?  Does his disappearance have anything to do with the experiments at the Hawkins Lab?  Who is Eleven, why is she mute?

This show reminds me a lot of early Speilberg, Close Encounters, Goonies, or the JJ Abrams movie Super 8.  There’s an abduction and kids are trying to figure out what happened before the adults do. Whoever the Duffer Brothers are, they must have watched a lot of Speilberg growing up.  Good comeback role for Winona Ryder, de-emphasizing her looks, playing a small town mom.  I like it, so far, it’s very suspenseful, with the right amount of strangeness.

Chapter 2:  The Weirdo on Maple Street

While looking for Will Mike, Lucas, and Dustin find Eleven in the woods.  Mike takes her back to his house, she seems to know Will, but where did she see him?  While looking for Will, Hopper finds Bennie, dead, and concludes that it is suicide, is it? Nancy goes to a party with Steve, while friend Barbara (Shannon Purser) tries to play chaperone. But then Barbara disappears.  Where did she go?

I still like the twin mysteries and the music fits in perfectly, in this episode it’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” by The Clash.  But there are several dumb sci-fi/horror movie redundancies which are rearing their ugly heads.   Government conspiracies, pre-teen kids smarter than parents, teen kids dumber than anyone, smart girl looks frumpy, mom of missing kid looks crazy, those are such worn out clichés that I can’t stand the sight of them anymore.

Chapter 3 Holly Jolly:

Nancy realizes that Barb is missing, and fears she might be dead.  Mike continues to look for Will, with the help of Eleven, who has flashbacks to her life before she met Mike.  Is Will communicating with Joyce? Does Hopper find Will?

After three episodes, the writing on this show is grating on me. Suddenly it seems like a badly written episode of the X Files.  The characters are horrible representations of high school and grade school kids.  Nancy is more concerned with her social life than looking after her best friend’s welfare.  Steve is a popular jerk, Hopper is a jerk too, the only likeable ones are Mike, Eleven, and Dustin. For some reason the writers made Lucas a wiseass, and Jonathan, Will’s brother seems like a weird creeper.  The writers seem to forget, that for a show to succeed, the viewer has to like most of the characters.  I’m starting not to care about this collection of creeps and oddballs.

Chapter 4:  The Body

Joyce is convinced that the body the police found is not Will’s.  Jonathan and Nancy team up to try to find Barbara. Can Eleven communicate with Will?  Mike seems to think so.  Dr. Bremmer (Matthew Modine) continues his experiments at the Hawkins lab.  Hopper gets some unsatisfactory answers from the trooper who found Will’s body, so he breaks into the autopsy room, and gets a look at the body.  What does he find?

This episode answers the cliffhanger from episode 3.  The viewer finally sees what’s going on at the Lab.  Nancy and Jonathan team up?  Is that good news or bad news for Nancy?  There’s not a whole lot to choose from for teen girls in Hawkins Indiana, that’s eminently clear. Whose bright idea was it to write that teenage boys had to make Eleven look more girly? Put her in a pink dress and a blonde wig?  Some chauvinist wrote that for sure.  This show also has hints of Poltergeist and Pacific Rim woven in, but the homages age getting to be a bit much.

Chapter 5:  The Flea and The Acrobat

Mike, Lucas, Dustin, and Eleven think they know where Will is, and they’re off to find him.  Hopper tells Joyce what he found at the morgue. Jonathan and Nancy are off to find whatever Jonathan photographed in his pictures, but then Nancy disappears.  Where did she go? And after a fight with Lucas, Eleven disappears.  Where did she go?

This is probably the best episode since the first episode, Nancy is still annoying, and Jonathan is still strange, Steve is still a jerk, but they’re all looking for the same thing.   And finally Hopper and Joyce are on the same page.  And there are still some mysteries to be resolved.

Chapter 6:  The Monster

Dustin and Lucas go to find Eleven while Lucas tries to find Will, and finds the Lab instead.  Hopper and Joyce search for Terry Ives (Aimee Mullins) whose daughter Jane has been missing for 12 years.  Terry is in a drugged stupor, but her sister Becky (Amy Steinmetz) tells Hopper and Joyce about the experiments at Hawkins Lab. Jonathan and Steve fight over Nancy, and Jonathan gets arrested.  Dr. Bremmer starts to look for Eleven.

Even though the middle episodes were kind of bad, the last two episodes have really hooked me. There are references to Carrie and Altered States in this episode.  The kids bullying Mike plotline is getting old, and Steve is still a jerk, and Lucas is really badly written, but I really want to see how this season turns out.

Chapter 7:  The Bathtub

Joyce and Hopper help Mike, Lucas, Dustin, and Eleven hide from Dr. Bremmer and the government officials chasing after Eleven.  Steve confronts Tommy and Carol and goes to find Nancy.  Nancy and Jonathan try to find whatever was in Jonathan’s photograph.  Eleven tries to find Will. Does she succeed?

The episode is mostly good, things are coming to a head between those trying to find out what happened to Will and Barbara, and those trying to cover it up?  Who will prevail?  One of the few missteps here is the writers tried to make Steve sound heroic.  After being a jerk for the most part of 6 episodes, it’s a little late for that.  Also, Barbara is treated like an afterthought, that’s not right.  The rest of the episode was pretty good.

Chapter 8:  The Upside Down

Joyce and Hopper try to find Will.  Jonathan and Nancy try to hunt down whatever Jonathan photographed, they are joined by Steve.  Mike, Dustin, Lucas, and Eleven are hiding out in the middle school gym, with Dr. Bremmer in hot pursuit.

The finale did what the finale does, it wraps thing up.  I can’t say that I was surprised by anything that happened, I didn’t really care for the any of the Steve, Jonathan Nancy, characters but it seems like the writers want to create a love triangle between the 3, to waste time in season two.  Of course, like all horror movies, the writers hinted at what would happen in a second season.

Overall, it was a pretty good series, but it left a lot more questions unanswered.  It also made a lot of references to 1980’s movies,  ET, Goonies, Poltergeist, Altered States, Alien, Stand By Me, Carrie, and even current movies like Super 8 and Pacific Rim.  And there are lots of references to Dungeons and Dragons.  This show was supposed to be set in 1983, but the look reminded of early 1970’s that was obviously a choice made by the director.  There was one mention of Atari, Atari was huge in the late 70’s and early 80’s.  MTV was huge in the early 80’s and no mention of MTV, I understand there are agreements that have to be signed to mention things in movies, but for a show that used music so well to set the mood, not to mention MTV, when MTV was ubiquitous in the 1980’s, seems a little odd.

There was also a little too much overreliance on bullying, it seemed that whenever the writers needed some plot filler, bullies would show up out of nowhere, and the teen bullies would attack Nancy, or Barbara, and fill up some more plotline.  And Eleven was used too much as a deus ex  machina, whenever the kids got in trouble.  Ironically it was the pre-teen kids roles who were the best written, I really liked Mike and Dustin, and Eleven.  Lucas could have been more compassionate at the start, but someone had to be the skeptic, and Lucas was that character.

The acting is better than the writing in some instances.  I thought Winona Ryder overplayed her role at first, but then either I got used to her or she toned it down.  I liked her performance.  I thought the opposite of  Matthew Modine’s performance, he totally underplayed the Dr. Bremmer role.  He was so calm, he was almost sedated, it was hard for me to dislike him, and he’s supposed to be an antagonist.

I really liked Finn Wofhard as Mike.  He played the sensitive friend of the three and was really convincing on that role, he always looked out for his friends, and tried to make his friendship with Lucas work.  His relationship with Eleven was sweet. He pulled off the awkwardness of a first relationship very well. Gaten Matarazzo was excellent as the nerdy science kid, it could have been a really stereotypical role, but Matarazzo made Dustin funny, and an all-around good guy.  Caleb McLaughlin played a tough role pretty well, so he must be a pretty good young actor.  Millie Bobby Brown did the best acting job of all, she displayed a lot of emotions with not so many words.  She has really expressive eyes and she expresses a lot of hurt with those eyes. I don’t know if the teens were badly written or just bad actors, I couldn’t tell.

The direction was pretty good, the pacing was good and brisk on each episode, they got pretty good performances from the “stars” and most of the kids, there was nice interplay between the music and the scenes following the music, they telegraphed whatever Jonathan photographed at Steve’s party with appropriate music and sound effects.

Should you watch it?  It starts well, there’s two or three clunky episodes in the middle, but it finishes strong, so yes, I think it’s worth a watch.  It’s not as good as the buzz and the critics say, but it’s not as bad as I thought it might be.  The good outweighs the bad for sure.

Stranger Things:  Stranger Danger

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