How ‘Stranger Things’ Got it Right

Released in mid-July, this Netflix original series has proven to be a hit among kids, teens, and adults alike and has received positive reviews all around. So what exactly makes Stranger Things such a success?

Be aware there are some minor spoilers ahead.

Set in 1983 in Hawkins, Indiana, a group of young boys set out on a quest to find their missing friend Will, who mysteriously vanished while riding his bike home one night. The group of friends, led by Mike, meet a soft-spoken young girl named Eleven, who they call ‘El’ for short, while searching through the woods.  With Eleven’s help, the boys, along with Jim Hopper, the town police chief, and Will’s mother, Joyce, begin to uncover the sinister doings of the U.S. Department of Energy and the supernatural forces that have converged on their town.

hThe first appealing factor of this show is of course the era it is set in. Many people who lived through the 1980s will notice and appreciate the homage that Stranger Things pays to classic ’80s films such as E.T.The GooniesStand by Me, and Poltergeist. The show’s creators, the Duffer brothers, are clearly very influenced by the works of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Stephen King, providing the more mature viewer with a sense of nostalgia and wonder. Even those of us who didn’t live through the ’80s though, will be transported back in time while watching Stranger Things. There is something comfortingly familiar about this show and yet at the same time, something very fresh and exciting.

Adding to the nostalgia feel that the creators were going for is the stellar soundtrack. Scored by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, members of the band S U R V I V E, the music in Stranger Things, catapults the viewer back in time with a synth-heavy, retro-themed soundtrack. The music adds to the ’80s vibes of the show alongside era-appropriate clothing, props, and pop-culture references.

Stranger things kids
Caleb McLaughlin, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, and Gaten Matarazzo in Stranger Things (2016)

Another reason this show has been such a hit is due in large part to the actors. So often in movies or TV shows the child actors are either poorly written or unable to believably portray their character. In Stranger Things, the whole cast is very likeable and believable. From Mike, the emotional moral compass of the group, to Dustin the amusing comic relief, and Lucas the realist, all of the kids are perfectly cast. Eleven, in particular, played by Millie Bobby Brown, was a joy to watch on the screen as the quiet and yet powerful ‘El’. El largely acts as the heart of the series providing all of the most heart-wrenching moments.

The older teen actors in the show are also commendable. The teen drama for the story comes from Jonathan, Will’s brother, played by Charlie Heaton, Nancy, Mike’s sister, played by Natalie Dyer, and Steve, Nancy’s boyfriend, played by Joe Keery. They bring the classic ’80s tropes of Stranger Things to life. Jonathan is an outsider in high school who prefers to take pictures of people and things rather than interact with them. Nancy is a supposed ‘good girl’ who is going out with the bad boy in school, finding herself entangled in a love triangle with Jonathan and Steve, creating friction between the two. They make these classic narratives feel new and fresh while at the same time keeping Stranger Things glued to its roots.

stranger things- jonathan, nancy, steve
Charlie Heaton, Natalie Dyer, and Joe Keery in Stranger Things (2016)

Winona Ryder as Will’s mom, Joyce, and David Harbour as Jim Hopper, the town’s chief of police, were also excellent casting choices. Harbour brings depth to Hopper and fleshes out the character’s troubled past, while keeping the story moving. He also proves to be quite the badass! Winona Ryder as Joyce was excellent and helps to further connect Stranger Things to the ’80s due to her stardom in the era.

stranger things-winona ryder
Winona Ryder in Stranger Things (2016)

The show manages to balance everything very neatly, from the stereotypical high school teen problems, to the teasing of the Upside Down and the monster that dwells within. Nothing feels overdone and everything is uniquely blended to create a heart-felt story that feels relatable. The classic problems that both the kids and the teenagers experience in school, such as not fitting in and relationship drama are juxtaposed against the realm of the Upside Down, a parallel dimension that harbours a faceless monster. The Upside Down is slowly brought into play in the show and we, as the audience, are brought along with Joyce and the others as they come to realize and understand its existence. This story runs counter to another wherein security forces of the U.S. Department of Energy are racing to recover Eleven and use her powers to contain the threat of the monster.

The use of special effects and CGI in Stranger Things are worth a mention as well. For a show about parallel dimensions, monsters, and telekinetic powers, Stranger Things is remarkably restrained in its use of CGI; this is part of what makes it so good. Limited by a relatively small budget, Stranger Things was forced to conserve its use of CGI and effects, thus making them more significant when they do occur. We are treated to only flashes of the monster for the majority of the show, but that’s part of what makes the creature truly scary and the show so suspenseful: we don’t totally know what’s going on. Similarly, to add realism (and save money) the Upside Down was created using mainly fog machines and ash floating in the air. Using CGI sparingly and practical effects when possible, Stranger Things elevated itself to the next level. (If you’re interested in how the budget of Stranger Things affected the show, be sure to check out “4 times the budget constraints of ‘Stranger Things’ actually made the show better” from Tech Insider here).

 

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Noah Schnapp in Stranger Things (2016)

The cinematography of Stranger Things also needs a mention. All scenes that take place in the Upside Down are remarkably beautiful and shot in a very artful way. Not only that, but the use of light and electricity in the earlier episodes as a medium of communication between Will and his mother allow for some of the series’ best shots. Joyce being led down a hallway by a series of blinking Christmas lights, or having words spelt out on the living room wall through a makeshift light-up keyboard are two of the shows best-looking moments.

Stranger Things, then, is sure to be back for many more seasons. The nostalgia and familiarity of the show combined with freshness and innovation has made Stranger Things into an instant classic. A show perfect for the whole family, Stranger Things introduces some fresh faces while bringing back some others that you love, balances story with exceptional visuals, emotion with spectacle, and suspense with heart.

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Author: Ryan Northrup

I'm recent graduate of McMaster University's history program in Ontario, Canada and I have a passion for a good story.

2 thoughts on “How ‘Stranger Things’ Got it Right”

  1. Great article! I didn’t realise that there were budget constraints guiding the use of special effects but I definitely appreciated the eerie realism to the scenes in The Upside Down. I’ll have to keep an eye out for how sparingly CGI is used when I get around to a rewatch.

    Minor nitpick: Stephen King’s first name is spelled with a “ph” 🙂

    Like

    1. Thanks Avery! Due to the overwhelming success of Stranger Things’ first season, the show will no doubt operate with a much larger budget for its second season. It’ll be interesting to see how this impacts the second season of the series.

      Also, I’ve fixed Stephen King’s name in the article. Lots of ‘Steve’ variations to keep track of in this one.

      Like

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