Warning: Spoilers Ahead. If you haven’t seen Stranger Things on Netflix, stop now and go watch it.
Netflix’s Stranger Things, the surprise break-out hit of the summer, is successful on many levels. The writing is tight, it successfully maintains a tone of both fun and suspense, nearly every actor manages to completely inhabit their role, etc. Yet the element that everyone is talking about is the nostalgia. The series isn’t just set in 1983, it is presented to us, from the music to the title fonts, as if it were an artifact from 1983.
OK, let’s get this out of the way: As someone who grew up in rural Indiana, was a total nerd, and nearly exactly the age of the boys in Stranger Things, (I would have been 13 in November of ’83), yes, this is exactly what my life was like. Except for the lack of cornfields, it’s amazing how perfectly the Duffer brothers, two ’90s kids from the South, were able to capture that place and time. But none of that is what makes it a good series, because, let’s face it, most of the TV actually made in 1983 in some way captured the zeitgeist, and most of it was mediocre to bad. Instead, Stranger Things succeeds because of the way it uses nostalgia.
Nostalgia tends to be used in one of two ways:
- “Hey, remember this? Wasn’t this cool?” This is the VH-1 I Love the ’80s type. Sometimes it’s played for comedy instead, “Hey, remember this? Weren’t we silly?” Frankly, I have little patience for this kind of use, which tends to the stupid, broad humor (I’m looking at you, The Wedding Singer and That ’70s Show).
- Setting the tone for a period piece. Normally, when we say something is a period piece, we’re thinking of Shakespeare or Jane Austen, but a series like The Americans is just as much a period piece. The nostalgia is sometimes incidental, sometimes not. Stranger Things also partially uses nostalgia in this way.
However, Stranger Things does more with ’80s popular culture than either of these two; it causes us to view the events through a different lens. Familiarity with the films and books references creates expectations in the viewer that are either fulfilled or frustrated as the story unfolds.
Shakespeare used this method in King Lear. Historically, Cordelia wins and restores Lear to the throne. This wasn’t just a historical fact, but it is something that Shakespeare’s audience would have known from other popular retellings of the Lear story at the time. So, in the end, when we have this long scene of a mad Lear believing Cordelia to be only unconscious, not dead, the contemporary audience would have believed it too. You can see more about this here.
Stranger Things is bookended by Dungeons & Dragons games. The first foreshadows everything in the series. They are confronted by a monster, the boys are in conflict over whether to defend themselves against the threat or attack in head-on, as they are in conflict about Eleven. Will, uncertain what to do, ultimately chooses the fireball (the gun), but then the die goes missing and they scramble to find out what has happened, just as the entire series becomes a scramble to find Will himself. Take note that the creature at the end is a thessala hydra, a many-headed creature associated with the water … perhaps Season Two will have multiple monsters, associated with the water in the quarry?
These same interpretative cues happen with other elements of nostalgia. When we see Will and his mother discuss Poltergeist, the reference acts as dramatic irony. In Poltergeist, a young girl is snatched to “the other side” by ghosts, and her parents are only able to communicate with her through the TV. Will and his mother will soon find themselves in a similar situation, with Will in the Upside-Down, only able to communicate through technology.
Similarly, in the episode “Monster,” the thematic question is “Who is the monster?” Is it the demi-gorgon? Eleven? Dr. Brenner? Steve and his friends? Previously in the season, we’ve see the poster for John Carpenter’s The Thing is in the basement, but now we begin to see shots framed to remind us of it … a film in which a shapeshifting alien makes it difficult for the characters to tell friend from foe.
Other times, the Duffer Brothers play with and frustrate the viewer’s expectations for dramatic effect. Perhaps the scene that most obviously exemplifies this is the chase scene from the episode “The Bathtub,” in which the kids on bikes are being chased by government agents, visually referencing an iconic scene from E.T. As a van runs head-first toward them, our nostalgia creates the expectation that the Eleven will use her powers to lift them over the van in a flying-bicycle scene … but instead she delivers a brutal telepathic punch to the van, sending it flipping over them, and presumably killing anyone inside when it hits the ground. The juxtaposition serves to remind us that El isn’t E.T., a wise old creature who only wants piece. She is, at worst, a monster and a weapon, and at best, a child with power beyond her own capacity to control and understand. The other children see what happens as cool, but adults old enough to remember E.T. should see El as dangerous, even if she is an innocent.
Without belaboring the point, the list goes on. The visual references to Alien when Joyce and Hopper go to the Upside-Down foreshadow the possibility that Will is either harboring a “chest-burster” style alien, or is perhaps not truly himself, but an alien/human hybrid. When Lonnie calls Jonathan’s Evil Dead poster “inappropriate,” we recognize the dramatic irony that it is, indeed, VERY appropriate. The Stand By Me train track walking scene should parallel both the comradery of the boys, but also heighten tension that just as the tracks in Stand by Me are a journey to see a dead body, that they too might be journeying together to see Will’s dead body.
It’s true, no doubt, that you can sell a product based primarily on nostalgia. But reviewers who see Stranger Things as mere nostalgia-bait miss the point. The Duffer Brothers don’t use allusions to ’80s films just as throw-away references, but as dramatic touchstones to guide the viewer. This is what makes them so satisfying.