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Cancel your weekend plans and go watch 'Stranger Things'

The new Netflix series blends classic King and Spielberg to create masterful contemporary television.

Curtis Baker/Netflix

If we can trust Hollywood, there was something magical about small towns in the '80s. Movies like "E.T.," "The Goonies," and "Carrie" all found small suburban settings to be the perfect backdrop to -- that's right -- stranger things. And yet few stories since have nailed that narrative in which American banality gets crashed by something so supernatural, it takes the innocence and imagination of children to understand it and fight it off.

The new Netflix original, "Stranger Things," is a story in the same vein as these '80s staples. But what starts off feeling like an homage to movies of yesteryear ends up establishing itself as a modern cult-classic. Here are seven aspects that made us love "Stranger Things."

    1. The credits alone are awesome.

    The opening credits for most TV shows are occasionally well-done, rarely memorable, and almost always perfunctory. They're just there because they have to be. But "Stranger Things" starts off every episode with a minimalistic sequence that's as engrossing as it is simple. All you see at first are technicolor neon-red shapes against a black background, filled in by a pulsing synthesizer score. As the shapes finally come together to spell out the title of the show, you notice the crackling imperfections of the black background, like actual film, and the distinctly Stephen King font you've seen on book covers like "The Shining" or shows like "Twin Peaks." Which brings us to the next point...

    2. It references '80s classics, but never panders.

    Every scene from "Stranger Things" feels somehow familiar, in large part because it's constantly drawing subtle influence from everything from "All the Right Moves" to "Alien." The premise alone calls to mind quite a few classics: a motley group of young suburban boys ("The Goonies") go on an adventure ("Stand By Me") and along the way meet a friend with supernatural powers ("E.T."). Meanwhile, a sheriff resists the powers that be ("Jaws") to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a child ("Twin Peaks"). But while the show is in conversation with plenty of early classics...

    3. It still feels brand new.

    Government conspiracies. The monitoring of civilians. The plight of those being ostracized by bullies. The creeping advent of new technology. Sound familiar? "Stranger Things" may take obvious cues from 80s-era cinema, but it still feels vital today because we never really left those anxieties behind. And part of what makes us feel them even more acutely while watching the show is, you guessed it --

    4. It has unique characters.

    winona-stranger.gif

    Winona Ryder's performance is grabbing headlines for all the right reasons -- subverting the role of the manic mom no one believes by inserting a stronger backbone. But the distraught mother isn't the only archetype flipped on its head. Almost every character, from the asshole jock to the chubby boy who can't pronounce his S's, exercises agency. Characters with cringe-worthy weakness at the beginning of the season turn into hardened badasses by the end, and it never feels forced. It's just human. And those developments are all the more effective because...

    5. It's not afraid to go dark.

    That's right: there's real risk. Multiple characters that are likable and complex die suddenly and unceremoniously. "Stranger Things" is no "Game of Thrones," but you really don't know sometimes who'll make it through the episode. It's a page taken from Stephen King, who isn't afraid to kill off kids -- and it works. Plus, the sense of unease is intensified by something else that's just as important:

    6. The music is perfect.

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    From the title credits on, the pulsing synth music -- reminiscent of John Carpenter's film scores and yet with the modern edge of Nicholas Winding Refn's (like "Drive," and "Only God Forgives") -- acts as an IV for the show, injecting a slow drip of weird right into the bloodstream of the viewer. It's not just the score that gets the mood across. Classic '80s hits from bands like The Clash both contextualize the era, and become central indicators of the shows themes. "Should I Stay or Should I Go" could've just been background for a scene, but it becomes a question gnawing at multiple characters over the course of the narrative -- as existentially important as Hamlet's "To be or not to be?"

    7. It stays mysterious.

    For all the cool references and story-telling techniques behind "Stranger Things," the most important part of a show of this genre is its mystery. Like "A Nightmare on Elm Street" or "The Thing," you know as much as the characters do, and often that's painfully little. You spend most of the story trying to figure out where monsters come from, and what they're capable of doing. And like the best movies and shows of the genre, you're left with just enough answers to feel satisfied, and just enough questions to come back for more.

    Who knows what Season 2 of Stranger Things will look like, but here's hoping it's as spectacular as the first.