Unlike a movie studio or traditional broadcast network, Netflix is not in the business of appealing to a mass audience with each new release. Instead, for their original productions, the streaming service tries to create shows that will find a niche audience. The business model for a show like NBC's America's Got Talent involves delivering ads to the largest number of people at once. But Netflix doesn't sell ads. It sells subscriptions, and its execs know that it will only take one great show to hook someone into paying that monthly fee. Netflix doesn't release rating numbers, but shows such as Orange Is the New Black, House of Cards, Sense8, and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt have enjoyed critical praise while amassing large enough loyal audiences to justify their existence. In the traditional advertising model, the interests of the networks are more closely aligned with their advertisers, but selling subscriptions directly to the audience switches that allegiance to the fans.
The latest successful product of this realignment of forces is Stranger Things. Netflix took a chance on a pair of twin brothers from North Carolina, Matt and Ross Duffer, a pair of newbies with a killer pitch: What if we remade all of the films of the 1980s at once? Well, not all '80s movies, just the low- to mid-budget sci-fi and horror films of the type Hollywood rarely makes any more. Like The Goonies, the heart of the story lies with a group of precocious kids. Mike (Finn Wolfhard) is introduced as the dungeon master in the midst of the weekly Dungeons and Dragons session with fellow tween dweebs Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Will (Noah Schnapp). After a 10-hour bout of snack food and polyhedral dice, the boys bike home, but Will is intercepted in the dark woods of rural Indiana by a sinister, faceless monster who kidnaps the boy into a spooky parallel dimension that resembles the spirit world from Poltergeist. The next morning, Will's mom, Joyce (Winona Ryder), calls the police, sending Chief Hopper (David Harbour) on a search for the missing boy.
Meanwhile, a young girl wanders out of the woods. Disoriented and almost mute, she has a shaved head and a tattoo on her wrist identifying her as "11." When the owner of a diner offers her aid, a group of shadowy government agents show up in pursuit. Led by Dr. Brenner (Matthew Modine), the staff of Hawkins National Laboratory seem to be somehow involved with the monster's parallel universe and responsible for Eleven's telekinetic powers, whose depths are slowly revealed as the series progresses through eight episodes.
The Duffer Brothers follow the Tarantino formula of creating a pastiche out of loosely related genre films, taking images and moments from films like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Stand by Me, and Flight of the Navigator and sculpting them into something fresh. Stranger Things subverts as it mimics. Mike's older sister, Nancy (Natalia Dyer), escapes the sexual punishment aspect of '80s horror, while her prudish bestie, Barb (Shannon Purser), disappears into the netherworld. The crumbling Midwest of the Reagan era is painstakingly reconstructed, and the Duffers' meticulous world-building pays off again and again, such as the way they luxuriate in 1983's lack of cell phones, allowing them to keep information selectively hidden from their characters while letting the audience in on the bigger picture.
None of that would work without good characters, and Stranger Things has those in abundance, led by Winona Ryder in pedal-to-the-metal parental hysterics mode. The other adult standout is Harbour as the deeply damaged police chief, haunted by memories of his dead child. The heart of the show is Millie Brown as Eleven, whose combination of spooky intensity and wide-eyed innocence personifies the appeal of Stranger Things.