It’s easy to get lost in a game of Spot the Reference while watching “Stranger Things.” This creepy Netflix drama about odd events in a small Indiana town in the ’80s calls upon the ghosts of “Stand by Me” and “The X-Files,” and large parts of it serve as an extended homage to the mid-career work of Steven Spielberg, especially “E.T.”
It’s not just the banana-seat bikes and sassy pigtailed little sister that evoke that classic film. “Stranger Things” also mourns lost innocence and probes the tender fault lines of fractured, beleaguered families. At the same time, it efficiently unites various aspects of horror and suspense serials you’ve seen before, and some of its scares are joltingly effective, which makes up for the fact that originality is not exactly its strong suit. Even so, this promising drama often has ambiguous and even sad things on its mind, and the familiar contours of its plot are most effective when they serve as a cover for somewhat deeper explorations.
Like Spielberg, George Lucas and J.J. Abrams, “Stranger Things” creators Matt and Ross Duffer use sturdy genre conventions to explore an array of entirely relatable anxieties, like the fears of parents and children who are growing apart, and the scary gulfs that lurk between friends and longtime acquaintances who realize they may not really know each other at all. But there’s magic, too: “Stranger Things” depicts an unexpected bond that springs up between kids and an unusual visitor whose presence hints at intimidating but possibly wondrous mysteries.
This is the Duffers’ first TV project, and so it’s not a dig to point out that they aren’t in the league of the filmmakers they idolize. But it’s encouraging to see the duo employ well-calibrated restraint and solid character-building to such generally enjoyable and evocative ends. If you’re of a certain age, “Stranger Things” will make you nostalgic for Trapper Keepers, the Clash and even the small-town vibe of “Breaking Away,” and yet this occasionally engrossing drama is not just another example of dutiful, uninspired imitation run amok. It’s a mainstream piece of entertainment that wonders if something has gone awry in middle America, a question that is as relevant to 2016 as it is to 1983, the year in which the drama takes place.
Winona Ryder, whose tightly coiled intensity effectively anchors the series, is one of its most retro aspects. She’s most heavily associated with Gen-X essentials of pre-Internet alienation and dislocation like “Reality Bites,” “Heathers,” and “Beetlejuice,” and her presence, here playing the overworked mother of two boys, evokes the prickly, sarcastic characters that she embodied with such wounded intelligence and flinty dignity back in the day. Ryder has a number of solo scenes in which odd and possibly supernatural things happen to her or her home’s appliances, and in the wrong hands, the scenes might have seemed faintly ridiculous, or clichéd. But her passionately committed performance and quicksilver versatility make those moments not just scary but, at times, even moving.
David Harbour is quietly excellent as the town’s depressed top cop, Chief Jim Hopper, who is nursing an unbearable loss beneath his laconic exterior. Sporting a plain, dark suit and a grim expression, Matthew Modine is effective as a mysterious man who appears to be involved in the odd things happening at a hush-hush government research center at the edge of town.
All that said, “Stranger Things’” greatest accomplishment may be in the casting of its younger characters. Millie Brown plays a key figure in the series, and her storyline would likely be ruined if it were discussed in any depth. All you really need to know is that she is note-perfect in her role, which requires her to be both an enigmatic object of scrutiny and a regular kid who is put in an array of confusing and difficult situations. She pulls off everything that is asked of her and more with exceptional facility and subtlety.
The other young members of the cast not only avoid the kind of cloying hamminess too frequently seen among child actors, they also mesh well as a group. “Stranger Things” almost effortlessly leads the viewer deep into the friendships of the four boys at the heart of the story, and the gang’s arguments over “Lord of the Rings” trivia and their late-night forays into a local forest are just as engaging as the straight-up horror elements that slowly come into play. Without the kids’ winning blend of innocence, camaraderie, sarcasm, and fear, “Stranger Things” would be a lot less binge-able.
Despite occasional instances of streaming drift (a frequently encountered pacing issue that sometimes affects cable series as well), the first four of the eight “Stranger Things” episodes do a good job of whetting the appetite for more. At times, they also do a better job of evoking the stronger output of “The X-Files” than the frustrating Mulder and Scully mishmash that aired on Fox earlier this year. “Stranger Things” is the kind of genre entertainment that doesn’t forget the second word of that phrase, but it is primarily interested in watching believably flawed people wrestle with the idea that some things are unknowable, and that having “answers” doesn’t necessarily prevent the arrival of pain and confusion.
And like another retro classic, “Freaks and Geeks,” “Stranger Things” takes refuge in the idea that hard-won connections with other human beings can be a balm in a sea of confusion. It’s not a radical or original concept, but it is a comforting one.
For a podcast discussion of “Stranger Things” (as well as “The Night Of” and “Mr. Robot”), go here.