This post contains major spoilers from Stranger Things season 1. If you’ve yet to finish the show, proceed at your own peril.
As the camera pulls out of the Byers’ dining room in the eighth and final episode of Stranger Things (for now), and the haunting main theme begins to play, some odd feelings took hold of us. Aside from Will’s dark final secret casting a shadow on the upbeat final moments, this hybrid, coming-of-age thriller left us with lingering feelings of joy, warmth, and of course, 80s nostalgia.
Netflix’s latest smash hit has risen above water cooler fodder to become a roaring success with critics and audiences alike. Yet, despite its dark (and at times terrifying) moments, the show’s adventurous story and earnest young characters had a sense of optimism that we haven’t experienced much from the many critically acclaimed dramas in TV’s new golden age.
An oasis in the age of dark, dreary dramas
Stranger Things‘ overarching good vibes stand in stark contrast to the most critically acclaimed shows in recent years, which all seem to have a mean streak. Alongside the praise heaped on shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and True Detective were comments about how bleak they all feel. For the last few years, it seems you can’t enjoy the so-called “prestige dramas” without digging down in the muck to follow their cinematic, but dark storylines and flawed characters.
Stranger Things, too, feels more like a trip to the cinema than television, but that’s where the similarities end. Twin showrunners Matt and Ross Duffer’s unabashed homage to the idols of their childhood — Spielberg, Carpenter, King, and others — results in a show more concerned with the straightforward trials of youth than the muddy introspection of adulthood. And that makes for seriously fun binging.
It has clear enemies and winnable battles
Stranger Things frequently employs Dungeons & Dragons not just for world-building, but also as metaphor for its story, and that reveals a lot about the show’s philosophy. Our core young players — Mike, Lucas, and Dustin — frequently turn to the role-playing game for inspiration on how to search for their missing best friend, Will.
Stranger Things is a straightforward tale of adventure where the heroes are good, the villains are bad, and the nostalgia is almost tangible.
The D&D scenario the boys play out in the first episode has them facing a powerful monster (specifically the demon prince, Demogorgon), and Will’s failure to roll against the fictional monster foreshadows his subsequent abduction by the real one. As fearsome as the Demogorgon is, it is still something that can be beaten, and the boys view their quest to find Will in the same way. By making the right moves, they know they can find their friend and defeat the monster.
That D&D connection is also underlined when the high school crew in Jonathan, Nancy, and Steve fend the monster off, though with baseball bats and gasoline instead of arrows and fireball spells.
By the end of the season, pretty much every major character comes through alright. Will is back among family and friends (though his parasitic secret makes for an admittedly unsettling cliffhanger); Joyce and Jonathan are happy to have their family back together; Nancy and Steve have worked things out; and the boys’ D&D games can go on without the threat of real-life interdimensional monsters. According to a newspaper clipping in the epilogue, the federal government even shuts down what is left of villain Brenner’s project.
The only sad losses for our heroes are the disappearance of their powerful new friend Eleven (who vanished along with the monster), and Sheriff Hopper’s apparent collaboration with the government, both of which appear to be the seeds for season 2. Overall, it’s an optimistic ending, one in which plucky youths outwit a government conspiracy and a few teens fight off an otherworldly abomination with homemade weapons.
The critically acclaimed dramas these days tend to have a heavy emphasis on introspection and moral ambiguity, but Stranger Things is a straightforward tale of adventure where the heroes are good, the villains are bad, and — especially for those who grew up in the era — the nostalgia is almost tangible. It’s enjoyable thanks to its purity of spirit, just like the best Spielberg films of old.
Antiheroes, you’re not wanted here
In contrast to the morally corrupt leads of shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, the heroes of Stranger Things are also remarkably wholesome, whether its Will’s best buddies, his mother Joyce and Sheriff Hopper, or Nancy and his brother Jonathan.
Although they have their moments of conflict, none of these characters approach the depravity or inner turmoil of TV’s recent wave of antiheroes. Mike and Lucas quarrel over how much they can trust Eleven, but they reconcile and are stronger for it. Steve, seemingly the arrogant ’80s rich kid archetype, also comes through in the end, going back to help Nancy and Jonathan fight the monster.
Even the adults are fundamentally good folk. Joyce’s maternal instincts, though fierce, never drive her to do evil or descend into madness in Will’s absence, and Michael’s parents are kind and mean well in a clueless sort of way.
The closest Stranger Things comes to an antihero is Sheriff Hopper, whose penchant for drinking and brawling would make him a fine drinking buddy for Don Draper or Tony Soprano. But Hopper’s quick fix of punching out government agents is more in line with action heroes than antiheroes. His lost daughter helps carve out some dimension, too, pushing him to tirelessly search for Will. His only real failing comes when he strikes a deal with Brenner, offering Eleven’s location in exchange for access to the dimension where Will is trapped. A betrayal, certainly, but one born of a desire to save Will, and a far cry from Walter White’s multiple sins as he increasingly “breaks bad.”
A fantastical new era of TV
Netflix first original hit was House of Cards, an American adaptation of a British political thriller. The show has drawn acclaim and awards, but it’s still riding the wave of dark prestige dramas. It features an antihero lead, but where Don Draper and Walter White struggled with their moral shortcomings, Frank Underwood is gleefully averse to the very idea of morality. Ambiguous or not, though, the show’s faulted characters place it under the same banner as so many before it.
In contrast, despite owing copious debts to earlier works — from The Goonies and Close Encounters to The Thing — Stranger Things feels like a new kind of TV show. After years of networks trying, successfully and not so successfully, to replicate The Sopranos, a warm childhood adventure story is a bold project — one that was reportedly rejected by 15 to 20 networks before landing on Netflix. The show is a shining example of how bold streaming services can get when they gamble on new ideas, and how fruitful the payoff can be.
Dark, bleak character dramas will always have a place, but television in the new streaming era is like a rainforest; we seem to discover new species daily. Here’s hoping more movie-like TV adventures will follow in the enchantingly fun foot steps of Stranger Things.
Stranger Things is streaming now on Netflix.