“Stranger Things,” the new sci-fi horror series on Netflix, is a cool summer treat. It’s spooky but not scary, escapist but not empty. It’s a genre throwback to simpler times, with heroes, villains, and monsters. Yet it’s also haunting, and has a rare respect for both adult grief and childhood suffering. It’s an original.
This may seem like peculiar praise for a show that is explicitly a pastiche of eighties pop culture, a TV box made of movie memories. The show’s creators, the brothers Matt and Ross Duffer, who are in their thirties, are like baby Tarantinos, but, rather than pulp thrillers or spaghetti Westerns, they’re obsessed with Steven Spielberg and Stephen King. The neon-red title sequence could be ripped from a paperback of “Cujo.” The story, about a little boy who gets tugged into an alternate reality, includes visual references to “E.T.,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and “Altered States.” There’s a superpowered girl, straight out of “Firestarter.” Goo pours down walls, as in “The Amityville Horror.” A gang of kids fights evil, just like in “Stand by Me.” I even got a “Breakfast Club” whiff from a montage of a weird girl who gets a makeover, in a scene with a Tangerine Dream-like soundtrack out of “Risky Business.” The show has a bifocal demographic appeal: it’s designed to charm both nostalgic Gen-X’ers and younger viewers who are drawn to a prelapsarian world of walkie-talkies, landlines, and suburban kids left free to roam wherever they want on their bicycles.
Yet the story itself feels organic and immersive, not like a gimmicky trick—and, like some of the best recent TV dramas, it’s uncynical. Three threads follow the search for that lost boy, Will. Mike, Lucas, and the very funny Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) are Dungeons & Dragons buddies who stumble upon a girl with a mysterious past. There’s a heroic dirtbag cop, Hop (the fabulous David Harbour, hardly recognizable from his time as one of the few bearable characters on “The Newsroom”), who teams up with a single mom, played by Winona Ryder. And there’s Nancy (Natalia Dyer), a pretty, suburban teen-age virgin who, in a slightly different version of the story, would surely be stabbed to death and/or attending a prom with two dates. Nancy’s best friend is Barb, an echo of nineteen-eighties First Ladies that is typical of the show’s layer of in-jokes.
These three plots collide with an “X-Files” scenario involving a scary monster (“Alien”-sticky) and a scarier governmental-scientific conspiracy (creepily clean). With so much going on, “Stranger Things” could easily have become structurally lazy, exploiting the Netflix viewer’s bad habit of hitting “Next Episode” no matter what we’re offered, like the experimental squirrels we are. It never does. I could nitpick a few choices: Does the “friends don’t lie” theme need to be so heavily underlined? Should the best character die so early on? But this is astoundingly efficient storytelling, eight hours that pass in a blink, with even minor characters getting sharp dialogue, dark humor, or moments of pathos.
Still, “Stranger Things” might feel like a mere retro roller coaster were it not for that slow drip of sorrow and trauma, the residue of Reagan-era anxiety about the nuclear family. As the old P.S.A. used to put it, “Do you know where your children are?” This melancholy wells up most effectively during a set of beautifully constructed flashbacks, which appear whenever our heroes are under high stress. Without spoiling any plot points, some involve sweet memories of lost children, like the one of a boy, seen from behind, sharing a favorite song with his younger brother, as his parents fight in the next room; others sketch out disturbing scientific experiments. These flashbacks could easily be mawkish or cheesy, cheap shortcuts to establish motive and to jerk tears—it’s happened on some of the greatest shows, like “Mad Men.” But “Stranger Things” has the confidence not to show already awful things as being even worse than they are. The main plot is a swift-moving caper with jokes and jolts. The flashbacks are about vulnerability, how people are bruised in places that no one can see. The combination of those two tones is almost musical, with a sincerity that feels liberating.