Stranger in a stranger land

For me, Netflix’s “Stranger Things” is familiar territory that looks, well, unfamiliar. At first, anyway.

The show, released just last month, felt like going home to the odd township that’s made up of the type of stories I love the most. But watching it also reminded me I hadn’t paid a visit for some time.

See, it’s rare to get a story like this. Years can pass, and I tend to forget that quality of this caliber isn’t mythical.

That didn’t last long.  Eventually a portal yawned open in the ethereal fabric of space-time and the familiar came seeping through the doorway like a fungus from another dimension, smothering the unfamiliar, drowning it.

Until I couldn’t remember leaving this place.

Set in 1983, “Stranger Things” follows the story about a young boy named Will who disappears from his Indiana home, the search to find him, and everything his friends and family find in the dark along the way.

When we first meet Will, he’s invested in a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, torn between blasting a dungeon squatter with a fireball or throwing up a forcefield.

“Will. Your action,” dungeon master and pal Mike demands.

“I don’t know,” he says.

“Fireball him!” fellow adventurer and pal Lucas chimes in.

“I’d have to roll a 13 or higher,” he says. (Note: actually a semi-tough feat on a D20).

“Too risky. Cast a protection spell,” Dustin, the final member of this charming quartet, says.

Flustered, Will impulsively rolls for the fireball. Dungeon Master Mike’s mom breaks up the game, though – lame – and we never get to see the result. Later, as Will bikes home, he is pursued by something; a creature that creaks and groans like a door hinge and staggers drunkenly through shadows. Will runs. His escape ends in a shed behind his home. He loads a gun left inside the creepy workshop and points it at his pursuer. There are no friends, no adventurers to consider this time. Just him. He’s all fireball this time, no doubts.

You shall not pass.

But then he disappears.

Police, led by the town’s brooding Sheriff Hopper, begin a search. Will’s mom and brother – understandably – don’t think it’s good enough.

Will’s trio of remaining friends pursue their own search. They find help in the woods. It’s a young girl clad in a hospital gown who frowns often, speaks rarely, and is on the run from some very bad people. She has no name, so the boys give her one, based on the number she has tattooed on her skin. Eleven, “El” for short. El can do terrifying things.  She has powers, but they drain her quickly. She’s a telekinetic iPhone 5S, basically.

(El is also a Hebrew word for “god” or “deity,” by the way. But I’m sure that’s just coincidence.)

And so the story goes. All search parties start to figure things out along the way. Someone has flipped a table and destroyed a puzzle, and everyone concerned with finding Will begins to re-assemble it in their own separate corners of the room.

This is “The Goonies” and “Stand By Me, “X-Files” and “It.” It’s “Alien,” “Close Encounters,” and even a little bit of “E.T.” It’s a story about misfits and losers fighting dark things and regimes in horrific dungeons. It’s a story about fireball spells and protection spells, why both and more are needed in combat such as this.

Fictional stories like that matter to me. They are reminders of potential. They encourage loyalty and bravery, even (especially) in the darker moments. Filmmakers like Spielberg, Richard Donner and Ridley Scott seemed to have an ironclad grasp of that in their 70s and 80s flicks. I rooted for their characters. I was horrified and sad when they died or were in peril. The makeup and effects were frequently pretty goofy, but you could tell these artists cared deeply about every second of celluloid they printed on.

“Stranger Things” creators Matt and Ross Duffer bring the same meticulous obsession to this project. They love their characters, their story, their humor, their darkness and light. They seem to feel privileged and honored to make what they’re making.

And, according to one story, they never compromised.

I rarely love TV. Movies are easier to love, I think. They don’t require as much of a time investment. Five times out of 10, TV shows fall on a scale of completely solid to “meh, it’s fine.” The other 4.5 times, it’s boring or a dumpster fire. But every once in awhile, I get something special: a “Breaking Bad” or “True Detective.” A story that seeps into your bones like summer heat with characters you swear you know from somewhere.

“Stranger Things” is there now. I didn’t recognize it at first, but sometimes the best things sneak up on you.

Either way, it’s good to be home.

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