STRANGER THINGS: Turning TV upside down

From the perfectly 80s genre opening title card, through the eerie opening scenes, into that glorious, magnificent, hitting-every-pleasure-center title sequence, STRANGER THINGS started its journey flawlessly, and only got better from there.

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It was the breakout hit of the summer — the show we never knew we needed, but that we couldn’t get enough of. The showrunners — The Duffer brothers, identical twins — served up a beautiful mix of all the Spielberg movies and all the King novels that we loved from the 80s, along with a massive helping of other 80s movie references, but all done in an aggressively fresh and original way. It tapped those memories of long, hazy summers reading IT and seeing Stand By Me and E.T. And yet it felt so new, so modern, even as it hit those nostalgia buttons, and kept hitting them. Too much was never enough.

What made it perfect?

It all starts with the writing. This was storytelling at its finest. Swift characterization, distinct and authentic dialogue, and the careful unfolding of the mystery. The deeper we got into the story, the more the characters evolved. Over 8 episodes, each titled as a chapter, there were numerous arcs, surprises, reversals, shocks, and SO MANY EMOTIONS.

Without the great writing, we wouldn’t all be obsessed with the show. But without perfect casting, the show would be a shadow of itself. And the casting on this show was some of the best casting we’ve ever seen. The kids — Gaten Matarazzo as fan fave Dustin, Caleb McLaughlin as the conflicted Lucas, Noah Schnapps as the vanishing Will Byers, the epically named Finn Wolfhard as Dungeon Master Mike, and British newcomer Millie Bobby Brown as the mysterious Eleven — all looked like 80s-style Spielberg kids, which was a feat in itself.

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Even better, they were all fantastic actors who invested their roles with heart, humor and conviction. But it didn’t stop there: David Harbour, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton and Joe Keery all delivered grounding, haunting performances, as did Shannon Purser, brilliant in her first ever role, playing Barb, who ended up being one of the most beloved TV characters of the year. And of course, Winona Ryder and Matthew Modine brought veteran class and skill to their respective roles, Ryder’s highly strung Joyce, and Modine’s cool, sinister Dr. Brenner.

Assembling a legendary cast like that elevated the show to rare heights.

But those performances still need to be part of a bigger picture, a richer tapestry, and the Duffer Brothers more than delivered. They directed seven of the episodes, with exec producer Shawn Levy taking the eighth. This was such a visually rich show, with incredible cinematography from Tim Ives. Whether it was the wood-paneled suburban feel of Hawkins, Indiana, or the futuristic labs, or the horror-spookiness of the Upside Down, each world felt lived-in and authentic.

They played with the iconography of their favorite movies (E.T., Aliens, Stand By Me, Poltergeist, The Thing, and many others), but did it in a naturalistic way. All this, coupled with the hypnotic, immersive, none-more-80s, instantly iconic synth soundtrack from Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein of the band S U R V I V E (and that soundtrack is available in suitably epic form, 75 tracks across 2 albums, utterly essential listening), brought us a mesmerizingly atmospheric world, rich in detail and emotion.

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It’s no wonder the show took off and generated instant and sustained buzz and excitement. This show is exactly what TV needed. It turned expectations upside down, and showed us a new way forward.

To be fair, it has had some criticisms, mainly for its supposedly negative treatment of women. But such criticism seems to almost willfully ignore the facts.

The show’s most powerful character, in all senses, including agency, was Eleven. No one and nothing on the show had more literal power than her. If it wasn’t for her, the boys, who, let’s face it, are often hapless idiots, would be dead. Also, probably everyone in the town would be dead. As she goes on her own journey, she helps the boys go on theirs. That kiss with Mike wasn’t just for his emotional development — they both needed that moment. Character and story were one in Eleven.

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The character with the biggest arc, the one who travels the furthest, was also female: Nancy, who, as played to perfection with always believable emotion and heart by Natalia Dyer, journeys from neat-sweater-wearing-girl-next-door-in-an-80s-teen-movie to Sarah Connor in T2 style badass.

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The show’s most beloved, legendary character was a woman. Let’s take a moment of silence and pour one out for Barb.

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Much criticism has been leveled for the fact that she goes out like a punk pretty early on. We should refocus that: she’s brilliantly written, and perfectly played, and that’s why we all so desperately wanted her to be saved. (And btw, she’s not 100%, absolutely, conclusively dead, you guys — sure, things didn’t look good at the end there, but she was just cocooned, and as fans of Newt from Aliens know, being cocooned ain’t necessarily the end)(apparently switching directors is the end, so let’s be grateful the Duffer Brothers are still on board).

The character who first figured that weird shit was going down was a woman — Winona Ryder’s heartbreaking Joyce.

stranger things joyce

It’s Chriiiiiistmaasssssss (that’s one for fans of UK Xmas music)

Of course, did any of the men in her life believe her? They did not. Kind of like how the boys don’t trust Eleven entirely until late in the game. Let’s face it, if the men did believe the women right off the bat, that would actually be less believable that the Upside Down and the monster.

Far from having a “female problem,” as some articles and commenters have suggested, it’s pretty much operating at Jim Cameron levels of female badassery.

It was, basically, a glorious love song to 80s Stevens (and Stephens), but one that couldn’t have been more now in its execution. Netflix sure made us sweat it out, but they finally announced that season 2 will be coming, set one year after the first season. Which means that the masterclass in how to make truly great TV will continue.

Stranger Things 2

We can only hope they call it this

Time to go fireball a demogorgon.

Rating: Five out of five Eggos.

The Nine Lives Of Chloe King

From Alloy Entertainment, the illustrious YA book/TV packing behemoth behind massive pop culture hits like The Vampire Diaries, The Secret Circle, Gossip Girl & Pretty Little Liars amongst many others, comes The Nine Lives Of Chloe King, ABC Family’s contender for new genre show of the summer.

In truth, it’s much more than just a contender: it fully and skillfully owns its genre DNA, relishing it like few other shows on the air right now. Based on the trilogy written by Liz Braswell, both the show and the source material feel like YA Stephen King, with their rock-solid grasp of genre, and gleeful approach to story.

The show begins with a breathless chase sequence on the morning of the sixteenth birthday of Chloe King, a normal-seeming San Francisco teenager, who is being chased to the top of Coit Tower, from which she falls. And dies.

And then comes back to life.

As in all great YA stories featuring kids with extraordinary abilities, the supernatural changes that Chloe starts to experience dovetail smoothly with the turbulence of adolescence. This combination of the supernatural and everyday is one of the many things the show does brilliantly. Chloe’s relationships with her longtime best friends Amy and Paul, with her adopted mother, with her annoying boss in the store where she works, and with the mysterious guy Brian who shows up in the store one day — all these are given time, depth and convincing backstory. All those scenes have an easy, natural quality that grounds the more fantastic elements of the world.

But the show is about the fantastic. Aside from coming back from the dead, Chloe starts developing speed, agility… and claws. She discovers that she’s the key figure in a prophecy of the Mai, an ancient race of, as you may have guessed from the title, cat people. The Mai are engaged in a war with the Order of the Tenth Blade, a war in which Chloe is the unwilling focal point. The show follows her developing powers, her struggle to reconcile her human life with her new and extraordinary world, and, of course, a breathless and urgent love triangle.

Where this show succeeds (and others fail), is its ability to shift gears on the fly between episodic events, major story arcs, intense supernatural fight scenes, and small, intimate character moments. It has a great genre central story fueled by secrets, revelations and the many intense emotions that make up high school and complex family life. Its grasp of all these elements makes it a natural successor to Joss Whedon’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

The writing, directing and soundtrack are all strong, propulsive and highly entertaining, but shows like this also need a solid cast, and in this respect, The Nine Lives Of Chloe King kicks major ass. The show’s star, Skyler Samuels, channels her inner Kate Winslet to portray the simultaneous power and quirky vulnerability of Chloe in a consistently winning performance. As Chloe’s best friend Amy, Grace Phipps is also front and center in terms of performance, bringing an engagingly live-wire chaotic charm and emotional intelligence to the mix. And Amy Pietz brings a complex, deep sense of emotional truth to her portrayal of Chloe’s adoptive mother: their scenes together are often painfully real, and are one of the important grounding elements in the show.

The show is a charming, entertaining mystery with claws, teeth, raging hormones, and a series of engaging plotlines that, thanks to the instinctive understanding of genre and awesome writing of original author Liz Braswell and now Daniel Berendson & his team, all successfully intertwine with the central war between supernatural species.

ABC Family has consistently provided a complementary alternative to the CW’s darker programming slate, by carving out a great track history in teen drama and edgier fantastical fare, such as Kyle XY (exec produced by The Vampire Diaries‘ Julie Plec). The Nine Lives Of Chloe King is another excellent example of that trend.

It’s a perfect summer show that successfully takes the supernatural teen baton from The Vampire Diaries and runs with it. Let’s hope the show itself has more than one life, because there’s more than enough intrigue and story potential for many more seasons.