When people ask what I think of the sci-fi Netflix series “Stranger Things” — the hot streaming show last summer — my guard goes up, I tense a bit and, mealy-mouthed, I say it’s OK, not bad, pretty good.
In truth, I want to say it’s not that great, it’s overpraised, it’s kinda, well, meh. But I don’t. It’s exhausting being that guy, the crossed-arms critic who can’t “let go” and “enjoy.” (Brother.)
(I bring up the series because the trailer for “Stranger Things 2” is now out here. Season 2 arrives on Netflix, four days before Halloween.)
I didn’t not enjoy the show, he said defensively. It’s entertaining, vivid, sporadically funny. And yet — and this is vital — it’s almost never scary. As much as I stuck with it and went along for the ride, I wanted it to be less of a wholesome family show and more of a spooky supernatural thriller, which is what its premise — a boy is abducted by unknown forces and the fraught search for him is aided by a mysterious girl with psychokinetic powers — promised.
With its largely youngster cast, “Stranger Things” reminds me of a glorified version of ‘90s kiddie show “Goosebumps,” a would-be creepy anthology series that supplied as many chills as a camp-fire spook. Not much is chilling in the Netflix show either, at least nothing you haven’t seen in superior movies from which the Duffer Brothers, the show’s twin-sibling creators, poach and pilfer. The result, as many have noted, is a studied pastiche of ‘80s supernatural thrillers, horror, sci-fi and scrappy kid adventures like “E.T.,” “Poltergeist,” “The Goonies,” “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Stand By Me.”
Set in 1983, the show looks good, persuasive in its (at times ham-fisted) period detail, murky cinematography and all. But the Duffers don’t seem to know where to go with their fetishized homages, from obvious period pop tunes and a tinkly synthesizer score worthy of John Carpenter, to apt fashions and hairdos. They coast on the easy fumes of nostalgia that GenXers and retro-mad millennials are so eager to huff.
What plays like a rote missing-persons drama, with bonus scenes of sinister figures in hazmat suits and a slimy monster-thingy, finally feels empty, clunky and too familiar. The show never brushes the sophisticated originality or creep-outs of, say, “The Twilight Zone.”
The Duffers also over-emphasize how cute the boys are with their dweeby tween banter and precocious smarts of incurable nerds. That said, all of the young actors, even the mysterious girl who’s mostly a saucer-eyed cipher (Millie Brown), are quite good.
What actually is scary in “Stranger Things” is ‘80s screen queen Winona Ryder as the missing boy’s shaken mother. Locked in hyperventilating hysterics, she’s strained and haggard, like she might be hurting herself. Shrieking and puffing a cigarette with a quaking hand, it’s a repetitive performance and, if it wasn’t so irritating, a risible one.
Never mind all that for a moment. “Stranger Things” is critics’ catnip. It’s racked-up several Emmy nods and enjoys a 76 out of 100 score at Metacritic and a 95% rating at Rotten Tomatoes. I stand baffled, if not bowed.
Again I feel like the ornery outlier, the curmudgeon who won’t play along, lean back, pull out the popcorn. But as a teenager tells his younger brother in the show, “You shouldn’t like things just because people tell you you’re supposed to.”
Like most of the series, it’s not an original idea, but it’s one I’ll stick by.