Review: Stranger Things

I don’t watch a lot of television. Most days the set (is it still OK to call a television a set?) is on, usually tuned to a live sporting event or accepting feed from my Blu-Ray player for one of my stupid superhero movies. But I find most television series, with the rare exception, too painfully dull to watch on a regular basis.

Subscription services are beginning to change my viewing habits. They provide more consistent quality, from clever adaptions of dystopian classics to an amazing character study which I really have to review on its own one day. And the ability to download multiple episodes to my iPad has been enormously beneficial on long airplane flights; start with the season premier on takeoff, and as the flight attendant asks me to lift my tray table for landing I’m watching the credits roll for the seventh or eighth episode, the hours haven disappeared.

For my most recent trip last month, I downloaded a Netflix series which my sister all but demanded I watch, as she said the show’s characters reminded her of… me. It’s about kids who play Dungeons and Dragons in the 1980s! And yes, when I saw those four boys gathered in the basement, rolling dice and cowering with mock terror as Mike the Dungeon Master dropped a cast-metal figurine of a powerful demon onto the table, I couldn’t help but laugh. For over a decade, fantasy role-playing games were my principal form of entertainment (I didn’t have much use for television back then either), and having that life portrayed in an authentic and appreciative fashion (the actors must have played the game extensively) was certainly a treat.

Yet the appeal of Stranger Things (and it’s equally strong second season) goes well beyond nostalgia for unrepentant geeks such as myself. The series works through a consistent focus on its characters, who represent both the good and bad of geek culture. It’s easy to care about these characters, and the relationships among them are both genuine and touching.

The series premise is, quite frankly, preposterous, some nonsense about secret government experiments and energy fields and monstrous dogs without faces who get loose and start eating people. The only people preventing our world from turning into a plate lunch are a handful of teenagers and a few confused adults — in other words, the plot of a Scooby Doo cartoon.

If you can get beyond the silly premise (and I understand those who can’t, or are turned off by the horror genre in general), you discover a set of kids in their early teens who are easy to root for. Highly intelligent and curious, fiercely loyal to each other, you can almost believe the courage and resourcefulness they show in their battle against the monsters from another dimension. But they are also naive and insular, refusing to seek the help they so clearly need until it’s nearly too late. When they’re at their best, they are admirable, and their flaws are understandable and endearing.

Season 3 is scheduled for release this July. Despite my eagerness to find out what new trouble these kids get themselves into, I’m probably going to wait to download the episodes in December, just before my next long plane flight.