I have a particular fondness for little boys. Their humor, their antics, the orneriness. I love it when my dad talks about his boyhood antics. Never in a million years would this girl have thought about dropping a cherry bomb down a chimney or hopping on a train! I enjoy reading about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn because Mark Twain knew what it was like to be a little boy. He wrote what he knew. He was, most probably, an ornery little kid. And the best fictional boys come from those who were ones.
Maybe that’s why Netflix’s Stranger Things is such a success. It’s the part Alien, part Goonies brainchild of the Duffer Brothers, two grown-up sci-fi 80s nerds who recall VHS tapes, lumpy tape recorders, and big hair with fondness. Stranger Things is the perfect blend of nostalgia and creepy-crawly scares. It’s a risk-taking show whose main characters are lovable, eccentric, delightful preteen boys.
The story starts out with best friends playing Dungeons & Dragons in the basement. There is the generous, intuitive Mike. Dustin provides laughs and the chocolate pudding. Lucas is the exasperated cynic, who expects the worst. And quiet, sweet Will holds them all together. Until he goes missing on the way home. He vanishes without a trace. His frantic mother calls the local sheriff. His friends, not content to let the cops find him, set out to rescue him themselves. Along the way, they stumble across “El,” a girl with strange abilities who has escaped from an experimental lab. There’s a set of adult and teen characters also, but the show’s heart and soul lies in its brilliant little boys.
The Duffer Brothers capture the joys, trials, and tribulations of boyhood in a way that captivates its audience. It gives its heroines time to shine, but the story’s strength lies in its exploration of men at all stages of life: awkward boys who aren’t sure if they like girls yet, teenagers competing for chicks and status, even the gruff sheriff’s need to fulfill a “dad role.” And while anyone can enjoy it, it’s got a strong attraction for boys through its story arcs, focus on its male leads, and… well, all the gross goo and monsters.
Each episode reveals the creators’ fondness for childhood, from the nuanced perspective of adults who understand the complex relationships between friends, romantic partners, and what it’s like to “start” growing up. Despite the wild and crazy stuff that happens (from an upside-down reality to an evil laboratory that performs experiments on kids), it feels real, because the emotions are real. The fear of a lost child. The pain of a dead child. The uncertainty of first romantic attraction. Of growing up. Not knowing what you want. Fighting with your best friend. It’s all there, and then some.
A lot of productions “age up” child protagonists. The tween hero of the wonderful Spook’s Apprentice books became an eighteen-year-old in the movie. It flopped. To give Susan a love interest, Disney made the ten-year-old Prince Caspian seventeen in their second Narnia adaptation. Also a bomb. Part of the power of the original stories is that their leads are children. For me, that’s why Stranger Things is such a pleasure to watch—it allows its main characters, its heroes, to be little boys. These aren’t just any kids. They’re smart. Courageous. Can-do. And I like every single one.
I could go on endlessly about what I love in this series, but I appreciate its relationships the most. One of the best story arcs turns up in season two when Dustin finds a much-needed “big brother” in the teenage Steve. First season Steve was a jerk. Second season Steve steps in when Dustin needs a friend. Steve acts as a mentor, protector, and helps him transition into being a teenager. And, he finds a better role than just being a jock.
Another powerful arc is El’s relationship with Hopper. She needs a dad, and he needs to heal from his daughter’s death from cancer. Their relationship is never easy. She has a bad temper, and so does he. She is furious when he misses dinner. He’s mad when she trashes the place. They sometimes wind up in screaming matches. It echoes the difficult but honest relationship of parents and children everywhere—the anger, tantrums, misunderstandings, the slamming of doors, and the unconditional love.
Our world wants children to grow up fast. It exposes them to much more in the modern time than ever before, not all of it good. And it doesn’t always let little boys be little boys. Stranger Things harkens back to a more innocent time where boys rode bikes and had adventures in the woods instead of peering at cell phones. It reminds us of the joys of boyhood. Their antics. Their struggles. I think Mark Twain would approve. It reminds us that boys may not always be nice, but what a boring world it would be without them.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Charity Bishop devotes her free time to eating chocolate, debating theology with her friends, researching the Tudors, writing books, blogging, and searching for spiritual truth in all aspects of life.