“Stranger Things” Found in Familiar Places

By: Daniel Reynolds

If you’ve watched Netflix’s Stranger Things series — an eight-episode first season created by the Duffer Brothers just waiting to be binged — you probably felt a few emotions. One, presumably, would be pleasure, since the show is quite entertaining. Another, perhaps, would be along more heartbreaking lines, as various characters get put through some emotional ringers. The third, and perhaps most obvious from a glance, would be nostalgia. Stranger Things has no qualms with shooting straight into a spirit of unabashed 80s-ness. It relishes the look, feel and sound of that era, applying it liberally throughout. And yet, it’s hard not to ask: is that necessarily a good thing?

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The kids of Stranger Things, doing their thing.

As a child of 1984, I’m perhaps a touch too young — the 90s are more my bag — to fully appreciate all of the era-appropriate touches of Stranger Things. I didn’t grow up playing Dungeons & Dragons, or listening to The Clash. If anything, my knowledge of the time is filtered through the media of that decade after the fact — but good god is that media ever significant. The obvious starting point in discussing Stranger Things‘ throwback qualities is Steven Spielberg’s classic E.T. The Extra-TerrestrialConsider: the latter is the story of a plucky boy who befriends an alien from parts unknown and does what he can to help and keep him safe. The boy, along with his friends, bike around their sleepy suburb, trying to figure shit out while staying one step ahead of the forces after them (shady government agents, their parents). Stranger Things, by point of comparison, swaps out the alien for an odd girl (the only being more unknownable to a young boy), but keeps the rest — right down to the Drew Barrymore-esque little sister — and adds a dash of vintage Stephen King in the form of one extra supernatural ingredient.

There are more story elements at play here, of course, since Stranger Things is required to fill eight 45 minute episodes rather than a mere 115 minutes. The central boy, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), and his two friends Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), find the aforementioned girl, known only as Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), while searching for their friend Will (Noah Schapp), whose mysterious disappearance kickstarts the entire narrative. Mike’s older sister Nancy (Natalie Dyer) meanwhile is in the throes of a John Hughes-lite teen romance story, before bumping up against high school outsider Jonathan, Will’s older brother, deep into his own fact-finding quest. (That Jonathan, played by Charlie Heaton, happens to look a bit like a young River Phoenix is a coincidence, I’m sure.)

From there, things get a tad more meta. Jonathan’s harried, single mother is played by Winona Ryder, who got her acting start and breakthrough in the 80s. There’s also rumpled yet competent police chief Hopper (David Hopper), who provides shades of Kyle Chandler’s turn in the more recent Super 8 (itself an 80s homage), and the ominous Dr. Brenner, played by another era-appropriate touchstone Matthew Modine. The threat of Soviet invasion, a la Red Dawn, is used as a justification for all manner of weird science undertaken by Brenner just outside the frame. And this is to say nothing of the moody score, which is both exceptional and a conscious John Carpenter-inspired throwback. There are other Easter eggs to mention here, and probably many more I’ve missed (again, not the most 80s-immersed kid over here), but it’s not particularly strange to see things line up this way.

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Yes, it’s that Winona Ryder.

The question then becomes one of intent. Is Stranger Things a period piece, labouring to capture what life was like at a specific time, in a specific place, with all of the aesthetic accoutrements that implies? Production design is important, after all, for establishing setting and mood. Or, is the show just trading in ever-potent nostalgia and a certain reverence for media of the time in an attempt to bolster its visibility in a crowded cultural marketplace? More simply: would the show feel as strong as it does without piling all of these things on?

When the reboot/remake/re-adapt cycle of film and TV production began to ramp up in earnest over the past decade or so, there was a disconnect between the new finished works and the old. Consider it a generational thing. It’s one thing to reinvent an old TV show from the 50s, a far less media literate and saturated age, and one from the 80s or 90s. For one thing, the people predominantly consuming the latter were actually alive during both then and now; this fosters an easy familiarity, one borne on the wings of comfortable and intense childhood memories. This is also a relatively new phenomenon, as the children of the 80s (like me) now possess the spending power to consume media tailored specifically to them. For every The Man from U.N.C.L.E, a movie you didn’t care about based on a TV show your dad maybe watched, there’s a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that caters, in some small way, directly to you, to us.

If you were to put on your hat of pure cynicism, it would be easy to point out Stranger Things as a beneficiary, knowingly or not, of this trend. Say what you will of them, but media and studio financiers know a good ride when they see one. We’re in the age of a Poltergeist remake, of the Rock possibly bringing the Pork Chop Express roaring back to life, of Full House being back on TV (on Netflix no less!), of Spielberg adapting Ready Player One, a book ostensibly about how the 80s were great with him as our cultural godhead. The remake cycle is chopping closer and closer to the bone of the present day. As such, the time has literally never been better to pitch, produce and launch a show about a bunch of kids in the 80s on the run from evil forces in Anytown, USA. Yes, Stranger Things could even be accused of pandering.

This disregards, however, the very real emotive power imbued within Stranger Things. Despite some hokey and clunky missteps — in a way, another 80s signpost — it’s a power both winning and moving in its effect, through and through. How else is there to describe the endearing relationship portrayed between the four boys, the innate goodness of one determined by a D&D die role; or chief Hopper as he gradually pulls himself together, searching for clues in people or piles of microfiche to put together a puzzle he didn’t know existed; or Ryder’s Joyce, the desperate mother, and her commune with Christmas lights and an ad-hoc Ouiji board? These are moments that transcend the era from which they originated. In truth, they blow the hat of pure cynicism straight off your head. Nostalgia as a hook is rarely a productive end. It’s shortsighted and ultimately draws only exasperated sighs. But nostalgia as a path to a certain timelessness, as fuel for the imagination… well, that’s a whole other emotion entirely.

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