The 50 best TV shows of 2016: No 3 Stranger Things

Our countdown of the year’s best TV has reached No 3: the Duffer brothers’ meticulous mix of 80s pop culture, sci-fi, horror, nerds and telekinesis. And by the way, what is a Demogorgon?

More on the best culture of 2016

The key ingredients barely need repeating. The Duffer brothers took the best of 80s pop culture – elements of John Carpenter, Steph(v)ens King and Spielberg – shoved them in with Dungeons & Dragons, New Order and Winona Ryder, and ended up with an algorithm-busting, genre-melding, word-of-mouth smash. From the deep-dive discussion of the plot to the soundtrack, the title graphics, the endless memes and a new star in the shape of Millie Bobby Brown, Stranger Things provided a genuine 2016 TV moment.

Set in the fictional Indiana town of Hawkins, Stranger Things is the story of the mysterious disappearance of Will Byers, one-quarter of a gang of Dungeons & Dragons-playing nerds. It quickly spread its narrative out over eight episodes into string-theory-twisting sci-fi horror via real-life CIA conspiracy thriller with a side of high-school romance.

Freaks and geeks … (from left) Caleb McLaughlin, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown and Gaten Matarazzo in Stranger Things.
Freaks and geeks … (from left) Caleb McLaughlin, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown and Gaten Matarazzo in Stranger Things. Photograph: Netflix

What’s interesting about the Duffers’ vision is that their nostalgia for the 80s is secondhand. They were born in 1984, so their depiction of the era is told through a language learned from VHS tapes and old records. It’s 90s kids giving us their version of an 80s where 11-year-olds were free to ride their BMXs around pitch-dark towns; where parents wouldn’t notice if their children sneaked an escapee from a government black-ops experiment in to live in the basement. If you grew up watching ET or It from behind the sofa, it’s a world that’s a long way from today’s helicopter-parented Gen Zs. But it’s not like you had to be steeped in the intricacies of Dungeons & Dragons to lap up its love of its period. (What actually is a Demogorgon?)

Stranger Things triumphed on two key fronts. Its plot whipped viewers through the series, delivering a narrative cycle as satisfying as the first season of Twin Peaks. (Though, one wonders if a second series will also struggle to deliver in the same way that Lynch’s did.) But it was the performances that really made it hard not to binge episode after episode in a spooky Netflix haze.

1Stranger Things
Take note … Winona Ryder, Charlie Heaton and Natalia Dyer in Stranger Things. Photograph: Curtis Baker/Netflix

Leading the way were the four (then three) nerdy boys – particularly the wonderful Gaten Matarazzo – who managed to combine doctoral-level physics with basic compassion in the hunt for their friend. Then a Freaks and Geeks-like dynamic of younger and older high-school kids was added with the dark, non-love triangle between Natalia Dyer’s Nancy, Joe Deery’s Steve and Charlie Heaton’s Jonathan. And that was a nod to the kind of 80s movies starred in by Ryder – whose bereft, mad-not-mad Joyce, Will’s mother, confirmed the TV rebirth hinted at by her turn in David Simon’s Show Me a Hero in 2015.

Stranger Things karaoke: Dustin and Lucas sing 80s movie classics

But the breakout star ended up being English actor Millie Bobby Brown as the shaven-headed psychokinetically-powered Eleven. An escapee from a government facility’s MKUltra-style experiments, her abilities powered the entire story. Brown’s intense performance (undercut slightly if you happened to land on the videos of her singing Amy Winehouse songs on YouTube) made her the face of the show. At just 12, she has the makings of a superstar.

The makings of a star … Millie Bobby Brown in Stranger Things.
The makings of a superstar … Millie Bobby Brown in Stranger Things. Photograph: PF1/Wenn

After a terrifying first episode, Stranger Things became gradually less scary as it unfolded and explained (or sort of explained) its secrets. But it still contained a moment that had this viewer considering going to bed with the lights on – and not the fairy lights in the living room. Let’s just say that many of us will never listen to Should I Stay Or Should I Go? in an empty house again.

At the end, we learned of Will’s fate. (Though it’s not exactly clear what happened to Barb.) We also got a final scene suggesting that we’ve not seen the last of the creatures from the Upside Down. Given the year 2017 is shaping up to be, the idea of slipping into a pitch-black parallel reality filled with demons might not be the strangest thing in the world.


Will Dean

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The 50 best TV shows of 2016: the full list
Guardian TV’s favourite programmes of the year

06, Dec, 2016 @12:31 PM

Article image
The must-watch TV of autumn 2017, from Blue Planet to Stranger Things
Strictly sparkles, David Simon goes hardcore, Jodie Foster bags a Black Mirror, Spike Lee has to have it – and it’s welcome back Winona Ryder, Larry David and the League of Gentlemen

Stuart Heritage, Mark Lawson and Kate Abbott

14, Sep, 2017 @5:00 AM

Article image
Stranger Things season 4 finale review – so perfectly judged it could be the ending for the entire show
This crazily luxurious, firework-packed double-bill makes so many impeccable choices that it would be the ideal way to end the franchise. How will it follow it for season five?

Jack Seale

01, Jul, 2022 @10:03 AM

Article image
The 50 best TV shows of 2016: No 9 Transparent
As our countdown of the year’s best TV continues, we salute a masterwork full of heartbreak, trauma … and turtles

Chitra Ramaswamy

11, Dec, 2016 @9:00 AM

Article image
The 50 best TV shows of 2016: No 8 Line of Duty
As our countdown of the year’s best TV continues, we remember Jed Mercurio’s extraordinarily intense cop drama. Urgent exit required!

12, Dec, 2016 @7:45 AM

Article image
The 50 best TV shows of 2016: No 7 The Night Manager
As our countdown of the year’s best TV continues, writhing torsos, superb performances and a chilling dose of moral ambiguity stopped the BBC’s big-budget Le Carré adaptation from descending into A Bit of Spy and Laurie

Archie Bland

13, Dec, 2016 @7:00 AM

Article image
From Don't Look Now to The Child in Time: why do we crave stories of lost children?
It’s every parent’s worst nightmare. As a new TV adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel starring Benedict Cumberbatch hits our screens, we explore our fears and fantasies around the ultimate horror

Alex Clark

21, Sep, 2017 @5:00 AM

Article image
The 50 best TV shows of 2016: No 2 Fleabag
Continuing our countdown of the best TV of the year, we salute Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s sad, grubby and flat-out astonishing sitcom that’s gone stratospheric

Stuart Heritage

18, Dec, 2016 @8:27 AM

Article image
The 50 best TV shows of 2016: No 10 Hypernormalisation
Adam Curtis’s dissection of ‘post-truth’ politics and the manipulation of global power made uncomfortable, provocative viewing – especially when it came to Colonel Gaddafi

Paul MacInnes

10, Dec, 2016 @9:00 AM

Article image
The 50 best TV shows of 2016: No 4 Happy Valley
The second series of Sally Wainwright’s Calder Valley cop drama was devastating, satisfying – and even more brutal than the astonishing first

Lucy Mangan

16, Dec, 2016 @7:24 AM