What is it about Stranger Things that everyone seems to love so much? Is it the constant barrage of references to classic eighties movies? The always-compelling narrative of seemingly ordinary people being forced to explore worlds beyond their own to protect those they love? The bitchin cars? These all contribute to the underlying appeal of Stranger Things but what ultimately makes the show so addicting is something a whole lot simpler: the completely realistic and endlessly enjoyable friendship of Mike, Lucas, Dustin, and Will.
Plenty of shows feature kid friendships but too often the friendships seem oversimplified or completely unrealistic. These friends will gather around, talk about their problems with an impossible level of self-awareness, and then help each other figure out what’s right and what’s wrong. This, of course, is not how friendship works in the real world, especially for 12-year-olds who spend most of their preteen existence trying to make sense of what the hell is going on most of the time. But on Stranger Things, the friendships feel so effortlessly crafted that it can be easy to forget these are just characters.
The core four have an underlying connection – their adorable nerdiness during a time when that was still considered a bad thing – that makes it clear why they came together in the first place but each boy also has a distinct personality that makes sense in the context of the group. Mike is the natural leader but he’s also a bit too stubborn for his own good. Dustin is the foul-mouthed lovable weirdo. Will is the kind, sensitive one who just wants everyone to get along. Lucas is the cool, level-headed one who tends to ask the questions that keep the group from getting themselves killed. You see how they would have found each other at a young age and how they’ve come to rely on each other as they deal with both the mundane and the supernatural.
And unlike a lot of other shows, Stranger Things actually demonstrates the many facets that come with young friendship. Sure, these kids are forced to take on monsters from another dimension but they also interact like actual preteens. They talk endless shit during “Dungeons and Dragons.” They pretend to understand girls and relationships way more than they actually do. They laugh at each other’s stupid jokes. They argue over who should have dressed up as Winston for Halloween. The show does a nice job of not just telling us they are best friends, but showing us this through their genuine affection and built-in familiarity.
And like any real friend group, there are a lot of strange hierarchies and sensitive dynamics at play that can change at any moment. Stranger Things exceeds at subtle world-building. Take season one, when Dustin admits that he still feels like an outsider because he’s only been friends with the other guys since fourth grade. And while the boys may act like a democracy, there is no doubt that when Mike talks, everybody else listens.
Of course, the kids can also be really shitty to each other because that’s also a part of real friendship. Like any friend group, sometimes they end up unintentionally (and even intentionally) causing each other more harm than good. In the second season, the Mike, Dustin, and Lucas too often fail to notice that Will is clearly still haunted by being abducted by a literal monster for several months. Even when they do finally realize it, Mike is the only one who does not treat Will like a freak.
Not that Mike is perfect. He transforms his sadness over losing Eleven as an excuse to be a dickhead to the other guys, especially Lucas. They aren’t above letting their own egos and desires get in the way of someone else’s feelings, like when Dustin hides his mini Demogorgon from the others to impress Max. Dumb move? Totally. But it’s one we can all rationalize.
But what really defines the core four is the fact that at the end of the day, they will always have each other’s backs. Whether it’s something as small as watching a friend try and beat a high score on an arcade game or as big as searching for a friend who most people believe is dead, Lucas, Dustin, Mike, and Will know they can count on the group to do whatever they can to help them. In one of the sweetest moments of the second season, Mike and Will have an honest conversation about their fear and confusion about what is going on with Will. The two do not find any real answers, except for the assurance that no matter what happens next, they are going to be there to support each other. Kids are good at that in real life, too.
And thankfully, the onscreen chemistry of the actors is strong enough where viewers can see how dynamics are shifted when new members infiltrate the group. In season one, Lucas is extremely skeptical of Mike’s immediate trust of Eleven. Partly because he knows Mike has the hots for her and partly because he feels threatened by Mike and Eleven growing so close and threatening the group. Eventually, Lucas comes around but when new girl Max starts to express interest in joining the group a year later, Mike gets upset, as he feels like Lucas and Dustin are willing to replace Eleven and move on with their lives. Stranger Things understands that sometimes simply adding another person to the equation can make an entire group see themselves and each other differently, for better or worse.
Stranger Things is the rare show that does not lazily idealize or dumb down kids for the sake of plot convenience. Instead, it takes the time to really get to know the characters and let the viewers get deeply invested in the friendships. Because even if most childhood friendships do not end up lasting forever, that does not mean they do not play a huge part in shaping who we eventually become.