You can learn a lot about a TV show from its opening credits, apart from the names of actors and filmmakers. It erects a bridge between your life outside the screen and the story within it, escorting you to another time or place or, sometimes, an actual other dimension. More than that, though, it previews how you’re about to feel—joy? longing? dread?—for the next hour or until your binge-watch ends.
The opening credits to Netflix’s latest original, Stranger Things, works in all of these ways. It’s a microcosm of why the show is so good on its own, but particularly as a summer binge. It’s transporting, but unpretentious; hypnotizing, but markedly simple; dark, but permeated by streaks of light.
Stranger Things, which takes place in a small Indiana town in the 1980s, is an unabashed salute to the sci-fi and horror masters of that decade, including Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter. It centers around the mysterious disappearance of a young boy named Will, and his Goonies-like trio of friends trying to find him. They encounter a girl with strange abilities. There’s some sort of government conspiracy at work. And, of course, there’s a monster. You don’t want to know much more than that going in.
The Netflix series arrives in the middle of a 1980s nostalgia renaissance, highlighted by films like Super 8, J.J. Abrams’ ode to Spielberg, and It Follows, a Carpenter-inspired horror. Whether or not Stranger Things captures the spirit of 1980s classics like E.T. or The Thing is up for debate, but Stranger Things reminds us why those movies worked so well.
First and foremost, Stranger Things nails sight and sound—it just looks and sounds really cool. Clearly inspired by Spielberg’s penchant for techniques like the slow dolly zoom-in, and backlit silhouettes, the Duffer Brothers, who created the show and directed most of the eight episodes, imbue Stranger Things with an alluring visual style. You can see it on display in the show’s first nine minutes, available here.
When the show’s not pulsing with otherworldly synthesizers and spectral effects, it’s playing ballads of eras past, perfectly tailored to each moment, like Jefferson Airplane’s ”White Rabbit” or Peter Gabriel’s cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes.”
Music is often an under-appreciated component of television, capable of elevating ordinary moments into extraordinary ones. Good TV music won’t force you to feel a specific way; rather, it will take what you’re already feeling—in Stranger Things, it might be dread, or a sense that something is just a little off—and accentuate it. Part of what made Carpenter’s Halloween so scary was the now-iconic soundtrack. Much of what makes Stranger Things such an absorbing, binge-able romp is the way it sounds.
None of that would matter if the five kids at the heart of the show couldn’t act convincingly, but they can. While each one serves some type of cliché—there’s the meek, but honorable hero, the cynic, the goofy comic relief—they’re each believable in their roles. The rest of the cast is excellent, too, from David Harbour as the weathered chief of police with a tragic past to Winona Ryder, a natural fit to play a mother who’s not sure if she’s grieving or going crazy.
What brings Stranger Things together, and what makes it the ideal summer binge, is that it feels so familiar, no matter when or where you were born. Going on adventures as a kid is not unique to 1980s middle America. Themes of grief and of faith—not necessarily religious faith but of believing in something that you can’t quite understand—are not creations of Spielberg or Carpenter.
Stranger Things might be especially nostalgic for people who grew up in the 1980s, but it’s also nostalgic for those of us who didn’t live during that decade or even grow up on its movies. It transports you to a time that we all knew as children, when anything seemed possible no matter how outlandish, when friends could come together and save their missing comrade from a monster. It shows us a place that we ache to return to, again and again. And soon, you’ve watched every episode.