It is quite possible to throw together a bunch of familiar plots, influences, and cinematic styles and still come up with something fresh. Case in point: “Stranger Things,” a new Netflix series that, if you were an entertainment-ologist, you could pin down and dissect for its many movie and TV allusions and progenitors. Set in 1983, the series borrows from the 1980s suburban sci-fi films of Steven Spielberg, the pre-MTV teen setting of “Freaks and Geeks,” the institutional paranoia of “Heroes” and “The X-Files,” the horror stories of Stephen King, as well as the sweet boys adventure of the film adaptation of King’s “Stand By Me.”
At one point, in episode three, a mysterious little girl named Eleven who can barely speak wanders through a typical suburban Indiana home, gazing in wonder at the appliances and comforts she sees. She gets close to the TV set and begins to push its buttons with a long, extended finger. The image evokes the touch of “E.T.” and many of that classic movie’s poignant feelings. It’s a Spielbergian moment of childlike innocence that can’t last. And it’s a sincere nod, with none of the humorous or ironic undercurrents you might expect.
Indeed, show creators Matt and Ross Duffer, doing business as the Duffer Brothers, don’t appear to be deploying references to Spielberg, “Goonies,” or “Poltergeist” just to be witty. This isn’t a horror version of the hyper-referential “Community.” The Duffers are clearly enamored and respectful of their inspirations, and there is a bit of nostalgia in the air; but their depiction of America in the 1980s is nonetheless relevant, as the families we get to know are constantly dodging financial and emotional disaster, particularly Winona Ryder’s single mom Joyce and her two sons. Some things have changed since the 1980s, not least of all those wall dial phones, and some things haven’t.
The central story revolves around the disappearance of Joyce’s youngest, Will (Noah Schnapp). Joyce falls apart more with each passing minute that he’s gone, and she begins sensing Will’s presence. The local police chief, Hopper, played beautifully as weary and wise by David Harbour, is leading the search with a personal motivation weighing heavily on his mind. Meanwhile, Will’s pals, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) — all bike-riding Dungeons & Dragons geeks with big imaginations — are secretly searching for their friend. To them, it’s another romantic quest. They’re also dealing with the strange appearance of the alien-like Eleven, who is terrified of being found. In one of the show’s most moving connections, Mike is committed to protecting Eleven — played with remarkably subtle layers by Millie Bobby Brown — and hiding her in his family’s basement.
What I like most about “Stranger Things” is the way the Duffer Brothers never short-shrift the emotional content of the show in favor of thrills and CGI. They know that the frights won’t truly register if we don’t much care about the people — particularly the kids — whose well-being is at stake. The kids are the heart of the show, with their abiding trust in one another. They’re too young and sheltered, too steeped in “The Lord of the Rings,” to understand why trust is fragile. In a town where at least one child has gone missing, you worry for their safety along with their parents. The young actors, too, are wonderful, as they banter and tease without contemporary tones of snark.
Ryder has a difficult role in “Stranger Things,” as the escalating problems in Joyce’s life, most of all Will’s disappearance, push her toward madness. I wish she’d toned down her performance a notch or two; sometimes stillness can be more haunting than erratic motion. Her hysteria can be grating. At points, she’s almost a parody of a crazed mother, one that might fit in more on a different, more comedic show.
Starring: Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Matthew Modine, Finn Wolfhard, Natalia Dyer, Cara Buono, Charlie Heaton, Noah Schnapp, Millie Bobby Brown, Caleb McLaughlin, Gaten Matarazzo
On: Netflix, available Friday