Since Netflix came along, people talk about such things as a "summer binge." Nothing wrong with that. Watching the news would make you weep. We can all do with hours of escape into good, absorbing fiction. Especially fiction that makes us rethink the past and put it in perspective while paying tribute to it.
Stranger Things (starts streaming on Netflix Friday) is certainly binge-worthy, and both thoughtful and gripping while never approaching true seriousness. It's just wildly entertaining.
There are two things going in this eight-part Netflix original – first, an homage to eighties pop culture and, second, a disturbing supernatural mystery about a missing child. Both blend nicely. And happily for viewers not rhapsodic about their memories of the 1980s, the homage is more subtle than screamingly overt. Not that it is cheaply sentimental – it's a nicely sympathetic mix of mystery, black comedy, rueful sentimentality and a traditional coming-of-age story.
The drama is set in the small, rundown town of Hawkins, Indiana, in 1983, where Joyce (Winona Ryder, who is excellent) is a bone-weary, hard-working single mother trying to provide for and take good care of her two boys. The younger one, 12 year-old Will (Noah Schnapp), hangs with his buddies playing Dungeons & Dragons and being nerdy about the audio-visual club at school. Then, one night, he disappears.
The viewer has some sense of what happened, because the entire drama opens with something going terribly awry at a research centre near the town of Hawkins. It's the standard thing – a guy in a lab coat is seen running in panic. Then some mysterious, angry thing consumes him. Something menacing and dangerous has been let loose and this kid Will seems to be one of the victims.
Local police chief Hopper (David Harbour) at first declines to take the missing-kid case seriously. Nothing ever happen in Hawkins, so the kid will turn up. It's only the kid's mom and panicky, frazzled pressure that gets him interested and working on the case. And as we learn, the police chief ended up in quiet Hawkins because he wanted to run away from the facts about his own daughter's death.
Things get even more mysterious when the incident of the missing boy is followed by the appearance of a strange young girl, who at first is assumed to be escaping captivity or abuse and then is found to be extremely dangerous.
You will find hints of The X-Files in the plot thread about the inscrutable girl and the figures from the research facility who seem to be pursuing her. When Will's young friends set out to search for him, you will get hints of Stand by Me. And in the teen romance between a sister of Will's friend and a local boy, you will find it resembles those old John Hughes movies.
There is also, at times, a very Spielberg-ian feel to the entire drama – like several of Spielberg's early movies, the story is about reuniting a family unit.
That said, it would be wrong to overstate the connection to movies and TV shows from a few decades ago. There is no overtly mawkish nostalgia for the 1980s here, nor is there sly mockery. What's going on is a genuine salute. While there are special effects used to create the necessary sense of hazard and threat, the series also celebrates old-fashioned, pre-digital-age storytelling. There are no smartphones or computers, nobody is on Twitter or Facebook. Kids talk to each other in person or ride a bike to visit somebody. A phone is a thing with a rotary dial on the kitchen wall.
All of that makes Stranger Things (created by Matt and Ross Duffer, who also wrote for Wayward Pines) seem fresh, even if much of what happens in the plot is unoriginal. Some ghost stories and conspiracy theories always hold up. And yes, it's very binge-worthy, this strange, retro drama.
Airing Thursday night
Bosch (CTV, 10 p.m.) is a series from Amazon Studios and was one of the shows acquired to kick start CraveTV a while back. It's a good, though talky, adaptation of Michael Connelly's excellent crime novels set in Los Angeles. It's very noir, slow burning and deliberate. Remarkably, it truly captures Connelly's L.A. – the gloss of the entertainment industry hovering over a cesspit of greed, crime and corruption. And all of it looking alluring.
Our anti-hero is LAPD detective Hieronymus (Harry) Bosch (Titus Welliver), a laconic man who lives and breathes his work and is allergic to any sort of ordinary home life. The series was adapted by writer-producer Eric Overmyer, who worked with David Simon on Homicide: Life On The Street, The Wire and Treme.
There is a lot of Simon's type of loitering slowness here. (You will also find Lance Reddick, best known for portraying Cedric Daniels on The Wire, as a senior cop.) You need patience to get the tone and style of Bosch.