Five Reasons ‘Stranger Things’ Worked, and One Big Question

Gaten Matarazzo, Finn Wolfhard and Millie Bobby Brown in 'Stranger Things.'
Courtesy Netflix

Stranger Things” has pulled off an increasingly rare feat. In an age in which TV is saturated with what often feels like too much TV, it’s become a true word-of-mouth hit.

Of course, “hit” might not be the right word: Netflix, of course, does not release viewership figures. But there’s no denying that “Stranger Things,” which had a relatively low profile at its release, has gotten a lot of buzz. Positive reviews probably helped, but anecdotally speaking, people are doing a very old-fashioned thing: They’re telling their friends that this spooky drama is something special. It’s been fun to watch the show’s fanbase grow, quietly but relentlessly.

So I’d like to revise my review a little. When I first wrote about “Stranger Things,” I’d only seen four episodes, and now that I’ve seen all eight, my assessment is even more positive. There’s a decent chance it could end up on one of my year-end Best of TV lists.

When I filed my original review, I was somewhat measured in my praise. Though I thought the show was generally strong, some of those early episodes made me wonder if it would suffer from the kind of meandering Streaming Drift that so often afflicts not just Netflix, Amazon and Hulu shows but a number of cable dramas. Just because an episode of TV can go beyond 45 minutes doesn’t mean it should.

Also given how many dramas with supernatural elements have failed to capitalize on them effectively, I was worried about how “Stranger Things” would wrap up its first season. I wish I had a dollar for every promising otherworldly-tinged drama that let me down in recent years; I could buy my own network. All in all, there was a lot of potential in “Stranger Things,” but it occasionally offered reminders that it is the first TV series from brothers Matt and Ross Duffer. I’d hoped it wouldn’t fumble its most promising elements and conclude the tale in sloppy and unsatisfying ways.

Apologies if you hate the phrase “stuck the landing,” but in the final episodes of its debut season, “Stranger Things” did just that. If you find yourself getting a little choked up when a Spielberg-inspired project hits the home stretch, it has paid the right kind of homage to the master. Some thoughts on why the drama worked so well follow (and most of them aren’t spoiler-y). 

Reason 1: The ending worked — and the rest mostly worked — thanks to the show’s emotional foundations.

This isn’t a show that gets under our skin just because its monsters are creepy and its world-building is solid. “Stranger Things” sticks with viewers, I think, because it uses horror and sci-fi conventions to paint pictures of people and relationships in the midst of believable crises.

Classic fare from Stephen King and Steven Spielberg (among others) quickly and effectively get us to care about ordinary people who are worried about fraying relationships and who go through hard — and sometimes joyful — emotional breakthroughs. “Stand By Me” and “E.T.” are classics because the bonds of trust among those characters were not just relatable but expertly and compassionately explored. When the characters were sad or angry, it was impossible not to understand why, and feel their pain (or their excitement).

A lot has been written about the constant pop-culture homages in “Stranger Things,” but the reason the show didn’t feel too derivative is because it had learned the most important lesson of all: It tried to create a mood of accessible empathy in almost every scene. The characters weren’t just curious about the mysteries in their town, they were curious about each other, and the process of discovery in both realms intertwined nicely. 

In the wrap-up to “Stranger Things,” people who’d feared they were growing apart — parents and children, siblings, friends — learned that their bonds had actually been reinforced by their tribulations. Even the teen-movie villain with the hilariously puffy hair got to have a somewhat redemptive arc. 

Reason 2: It generally used genre conventions well.

If nothing else, “Stranger Things” is proof that streaming services and cable networks should be taking far more chances on quality science-fiction, fantasy and horror fare. There are a few of those shows that are doing good work, but there aren’t enough of them, not by a long shot.

These kinds of stories do need dramatic crescendoes and big reveals, of course. But too many dramas have over-emphasized those elements, or overly complicated mythologies that nobody cares about because the people in jeopardy are bland ciphers. The Duffer Brothers talked to Variety about how a lack of money, to some degree, drove their visual conception of the show’s “Upside Down” scenes, but, as has been the case for so many classic genre series, a tight budget is less of a limitation if the creators’ imaginations are used well. 

Originality is always something to be prized, of course, but “Stranger Things” shows that you don’t necessarily have to reinvent the genre wheel in order to come up with meaningful stories that win over viewers (see also Syfy’s “Killjoys”). And it’s not that TV isn’t making some frisky forays, but too many science-fiction, fantasy and horror TV series fall apart all too quickly. Just one example: “Orphan Black” could have been so much bigger had it not become way too convoluted in its second season and beyond.

Reason 3: There were only eight episodes.

Eight episodes was better for this story than the typical 10, 12, 13 or (heaven forbid) 22. I’m not dissing shows that have 22 episodes (I’d watch 44 episodes of “Jane the Virgin” every year, if the cast and crew could crank out that many). But a serialized story premised on supernatural events can only run so long before it starts repeating itself and destroying its own momentum. (I wonder what “Fringe” might have been had it only run for 10 episodes each season — it might have found its voice much sooner.)

Reason 4: The young cast was amazing. 

Millie Bobby Brown is about to be cast in a lot of projects. With a very small number of lines, Brown gave an indelible performance as Eleven; the ways she subtly yet movingly conveyed fear, sadness, doubt, love and a yearning for connection will stay with me for a long time. She reminds me of Mia Wasikowska, Jodie Foster and, yes, Winona Ryder. Like them, at an early age, Brown has the kind of presence that some actors take a lifetime to acquire. El was basically on her own, and “Stranger Things” and Brown showed admirable restraint in how it depicted that heartbreaking loneliness, as well as her sweet desire for friendship.

I don’t want to discount the four other young actors who were very good in “Stranger Things.” [Spoiler alert going forward.] Noah Schnapp wasn’t in “Stranger Things” much, but his quiet innocence was winning. Finn Wolfhard carried a lot of the core plot very ably, and his scenes of budding romance with Eleven were very sweet. Gaten Matarazzo was awesome as Dustin, the gang’s voice of reason. Caleb McLaughlin was terrific as Lucas, the group’s skeptic, and he won my heart forever when he shouted “Eat sh*t!” at the scary guys in government vans. Charlie Heaton, Joe Keery and Natalia Dyer gave a lot of nuance to high-school characters who could have been one-dimensional. I was sad that Barb bit the dust, not just because she was charming but because the actress, Shannon Purser, looked exactly like I did in 1983, right down to the huge glasses.

Reason 5: The adult cast was terrific.

From episode one, Winona Ryder had to depict different kinds of fear, terror, confusion and anger, and she found new ways into those emotions in almost every scene, while still creating a character whose personality and arc made sense over time. I especially loved the scene in which she went into her workplace, bought all those Christmas lights and asked for an advance on her pay. Her boss resisted, and Ryder’s Joyce quickly cycled through desperation, anger, assertiveness and quiet despair. It was a small moment, but it perfectly displayed her quicksilver intensity.

David Harbour gave the whole series a necessary grounding as Jim Hopper, the sheriff who united the various plot threads as the season progressed, but he was far more than just an expositional character. Harbour has been doing good work in TV for years, but this was the kind of part that had the potential to lift him beyond the arena of workaday character actors, and he took that potential and ran with it. The storyline involving his dead daughter could have been overly sentimental, but it was moving, thanks to the gravity and intelligence Harbour gave the character. 

Matthew Modine didn’t get a ton of screen time as the creep Dr. Martin Brenner, but I bet if the show returns to Hawkins, viewers will learn a lot more about him. He did such a fine job of underplaying his character that he left me wondering if there’s more to Dr. Brenner than meets the eye. 

The big question: Should “Stranger Things” get a second season set in Hawkins, Indiana?

That leads me to my biggest question about “Stranger Things”: Should it get a second season? It hasn’t been renewed yet, but I wonder if I really want it to return to this particular story. A key moment in the eighth episode — when Hopper and Joyce find Will — could have served as “Stranger Things’” farewell moment. What if the screen had just faded to black after that scene?

Part of me wishes the show had dropped the mic at that point, and demonstrated that, even though it relied on references from the pop-culture past, it was willing to embrace the future by leaning on the flexibility that is becoming the hallmark of the Peak TV era. No show has to go 100 episodes to be considered a success. Couldn’t eight be enough?

That said, I won’t exactly be upset if there’s more “Stranger Things” on the way next year (and the Duffer brothers have told Variety about some of their ideas for a second season). But what if “Stranger Things” pursued the anthology model and left Hawkins, Indiana and told a new tale in season two?

It’s an idea worth mulling, but the greedy side of me wants to see more of the interplay between Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Matthew Modine and Milly Bobby Brown and the rest of the show’s stellar cast. The truth is out there — and they might yet stumble across it.