And who said original ideas in modern cinema and television were dead? In an era of interconnected universes, ceaseless remakes and reboots, continuations no one asked for, and stories that seem copy-pasted and bland at best, Netflix's Stranger Things is an especially potent breath of fresh air. Which is amazing, considering in recent years, Netflix has become a hive of said boring content, with genuinely good titles on the streaming platform constantly shafted, cancelled, ignored, or taken away for one license reason or another, it seems Stranger Things, along with other heavyweights such as Better Call Saul and the litany of interesting documentaries, is singlehandedly carrying the service in its darkest era, where millions are now reconsidering their subscription statuses due to rumors of imminent ads being injected directly into the viewing experience. One thing's for sure, ST's mix of action, conspiracy thriller, supernatural elements, intrigue, horror, and simultaneously wholesome found-family is certainly worth the watch, as it seems to contain something for everyone. Set in the 80s buzz, the show revolves around an escaped government psychic esper named Eleven seeking to flee from her captors and meeting a DnD friendgroup in the process, ultimately forging a series of bonds within the town of Hawkins and blowing off the lid on an entirely different realm of existence.
With four seasons and counting (the fourth season still having two more episodes to be released on July 1st, a few days after this blog is posted), Stranger Things has become somewhat of an international sensation, garnering a fanbase from across the world for its captivating story, visuals, character development, and portrayal of 80s cultural zeitgeist. To review each episodes of this story would be nigh-impossible (though if I ever have the time I might as well someday), so instead this post will be an overview of the story, concluding with a comprehensive ranking of each season.
Overall, the Stranger Things story dabbles into numerous genres as I've aforementioned, but such an expansive portfolio wouldn't be complete without a stellar cast of characters to carry such a narrative. Eleven, her real name being Jane, is a truly compelling protagonist with relatable, yet still otherworldly struggles. Her loneliness and distance from the world, coupled with an innate anxiety and fear given her being raised in a soulless government laboratory, is ultimately washed away upon meeting her new friends, mainly in the primary group the show follows. Mike, Lucas, Dustin, and Will, the four amigos that play Dungeons and Dragons together, all are excellent characters of their own right and have their moments to shine, though one can argue that in recent seasons, it's been primarily Dustin getting the attention due to his friendship with another beloved fan-favorite, Steve Harrington. Each of these characters has a distinctive personality that melds well together in creating a believable group that undergoes trials and tribulations like never before, and through them other great segments of this show are introduced. Through Lucas we are introduced to Max and Billy, two amazing characters who receive excellent development throughout their tenures. Max going from a troubled introvert to being accepting of her new friends and them protecting her, and Billy going from a mean-spirited abuser to an eventually understandable victim at the climax of Season Four. There's also Nancy, who is honestly a perfect example of a strong female character. Despite her plotlines often being tied to her lovers (Steve and later Jonathan, another character we see introduced in S1), she is still an independent woman that learns how to navigate the alien crises that befall her town, spurred on by the murder of her beloved best friend Barb very early on in the show. Her first boyfriend, Steve, at first starts out like your stereotypical jock 80s boy, but undergoes a metamorphosis and overcomes his pretentious nature to become a grounded and likeable individual, mainly through his friendships with Dustin and Robin, another strong female character who is introduced in Season 3.
But they're not all. Far from it, the adult characters are just as amazing in this story, mainly the two main leads in Joyce Byers (the mother of Will and Jonathan) and Jim Hopper, the Hawkins Police Sheriff. Both of these characters undergo their own changes (some argue that Jim becomes somewhat of an overcontrolling stereotype in Season 3, but I digress), and enshrine themselves in truly memorable roles. Joyce's ferocious protectiveness and determination to rescue her children made me glued to the screen, and Hopper going from what we initially believe is simply a sloppy police chief to a highly dedicated and skill protector of the town is frankly astounding, and I really hope we get to see more of them in Season Five. Murray Bauman is an honorable mention here, first starting as a predictable conspiracy buff character that morphs into a supporting role for all of our cast, providing our child and adult characters the empowerment and assistance they need to uncover the Upside Down's mysteries.
Of course, no show is complete without its villain cast. There are your standard entourage of bully gangs that often prey on our characters given their nerdy and outlandish nature, but as for entirely malicious elements, the show doesn't lack in those whatsoever. There's Doctor Martin Brenner, a masterfully portrayed mad scientist behind the project which birthed Eleven and numerous other psionically-gifted children with their telekinetic powers, and honed them. Brenner seems a superficially power-obsessed villain, but his role as a manipulator and goader to Eleven and generally creepy aura make him standoffish at best. Even in Season Four, where Brenner takes on a more caring and doting role, his intentions remain questionable at best. But of course, the main villains are the monsters of the Upside Down, a realm mirroring Earth's that is of unknowable eldritch power, permeating with demonic creatures. Season One had our heroes square off against a Demogorgon, little more than an animalistic predator. But Two and Three then introduced the true mastermind behind the Upside Down, the Mind Flayer, a terrifying Lovecraftian entity aiming to absorb our world into his own. However, having a Cthulhu-esque malevolence as the main antagonist is fine, but our characters still need a more personal demon to battle against, and that's where Vecna comes in with Season Four. A cruel, monstrous entity that was once a disillusioned human, Vecna is pure evil, and unlike the animal Demogorgons or distant Mind Flayer, is a totally malicious man who absorbs his victims unto his hivemind. With that out of the way, I'd like to now rank the Seasons.
For me, Season Four has so far been the most compelling Stranger Things has ever been. It certainly benefits from three previous season' worth of exciting buildup and development, but this seems more like the 'Infinity War' event of this universe. This season introduces Vecna, exactly the type of villainous presence which I felt Hawkins had so far sorely lacked in its other antagonists, those being the animalistic Demogorgons and all-powerful, yet esoterically distant Mind Flayer. Vecna, named after an evil Dungeons and Dragons character, is a ruthless serial murderer who preys on the traumatizing pasts of individuals in order to weaken them and subsequently murder them, adding their souls into his collection. But aside from the stellar villainous presence, we see a multitude of plotlines all taking place parallel to each other. Continuing forward, Season Two is my second-favorite of the bunch. Going right off the back of the captivating first cour, Season Two introduces the Mind Flayer threat and gives the Upside Down far more precedence as an active hivemind organism rather than simply a mysterious realm. The government conspiracy angle continues, but with the introduction of new characters like Doctor Owens and Bob Newby, Joyce's boyfriend after the events of S1. This is also the season that introduces Max and Billy, follows El's journey to reconnect to her family, and the transition of Steve Harrington into a widely beloved character. Without going into an abundant amount of detail, Season Two is definitely a compelling continuation and exactly what the show needed to move forward.
Season Three is starkly in the middle. By no means is it a bad epoch of television, as it introduces elements that I found entertaining, such as the Soviet Union as an antagonistic force and direct opposition to our heroes, Robin, Erica (Lucas's sister) as a character that comes into her own, and the Mind Flayer returning by consolidating organic matter into a flesh-based monstrosity. The thriller 80s Cold War feel just didn't jibe as well as the other genres for me, though by no means did it completely ruin the show's feel, as I still found myself captivated from beginning to end just as with every other run of this series. The idea of the Mind Flayer only having a small sliver of himself in the world and still causing so much damage, alongside being able to possess people, is something truly haunting and further emboldens him as one of TV's most powerful antagonists.
Lastly is Season One. No, I don't think this Season is bad either. After all, it started it all with the Will Byers kidnapping, Eleven's arrival, the Demogorgon, government conspiracies, and simply a pack of children and teenagers way out of their depth. The only reason Season One is at my personal bottom is because everything which comes after it is so compelling and amazing. They all built off the foundation that Season One's epic storytelling set. It's rare when sequels and subsequent seasons are superior to the original, but I'm happy to say Stranger Things isn't such a case.
Overall, being a major Dungeons and Dragons enthusiast along with seeking something original in today's dull movie and television climate elevated Stranger Things to a position of acclaim in my mind, and I'm BEYOND excited for Volume 2, which I will review as well, and Season Five. If you found any part of my review compelling, please, make sure to check out the Duffer Brothers' greatest masterwork yet! And stay tuned for many more reviews of everything from movies to videogames to anime to other shows coming this year, including yet another entry from my favorite Director, Evan Jacobs! That's all for now, have a good one!