'Stranger Things' Never Adds Up to More Than the Sum of Its References

The allure of Netflix's show is that the main characters define themselves in terms of their pop culture consumption.
November 2, 2017, 4:00pm
Image: Netflix

As its second season dropped last week with much fanfare and many merchandising tie-ins, it's clear that Stranger Things has achieved something increasingly rare in the age of streaming TV: the Netflix show is a full-fledged pop culture phenomenon. The widespread love for Stranger Things, created and often directed by first time showrunners, the Duffer Brothers, is undeniable.

It is also undeniable that the show has built its pop culture cache on 80s nostalgia. Much of the discourse around the show isn't about its quality, but about the number of references the show makes to 1980s pop culture detritus. One common critical response to the show looks something like this piece from IndieWire, " Stranger Things: All the Pop Culture References and Homages, Episode by Episode." Even reviews that aren't explicitly counting the pop culture references often measure the shows success in terms of its nostalgia quotient.

While so much attention has been paid to what the show is referencing, there has been relatively little conversation around how all these homages affect the show on a technical level. Does all of this nostalgia cripple its storytelling and handicap creative possibilities? After looking at the various elements of Stranger Things closely, I can't help but conclude that the answer is "yes."

The glut of nostalgia in Stranger Things is perhaps most damaging to character development.

Stranger Things follows the exploits of a group of nerdy boys and a supernatural girl as they try to uncover the secret behind some strange disturbances in their idyllic town caused by odd goings on at the Hawkins National Laboratory. The group has to take down extradimensional creatures with minimal help from adults, all while balancing family life and school.

A second season might have been used to expand upon the characters' inner lives, offer some backstory about Hawkins, delve into the social and cultural realities of the 80s, or offer some kind of allegorical message for our own moment. Instead, Stranger Things 2 (instead of "Season 2" so as to feel closer to an 80s film) doubles down on the nostalgia of the first season, even creating a sense of nostalgia for the previous events on Stranger Things. The plot follows roughly the exact same structure as the first season, with a slightly expanded scope and a few new characters. In these nine episodes, the Duffer Brothers have taken the idea of a sequel very literally. The show revisits the first season's events on a slightly larger scale, and rarely rises above the sum total of its pop culture references.

It is useful to think about Stranger Things in terms of whether it is or isn't merely pastiche, "a literary, artistic, or architectural work that imitates the style of previous work." Some art that engages in pastiche manages to transcend it. Freaks and Geeks, the beloved one-season wonder about social outcasts in suburban Michigan that launched a dozen comedic acting careers, is chock-full of 70s references, but the show is also commenting on the social realities of the time from a modern vantage point. Mad Men, the modern classic chronicling Madison Avenue life in the 1960s, set episodes in concert with major 60s events and borrowed heavily from legendary melodrama auteur Douglas Sirk. The show was always careful to linger on the social inequities of the period, often asking what there was to be nostalgic about. Who can forget the scene where the Drapers end a family picnic by leaving their garbage in the park? By contrast, it is difficult to think of a moment in two seasons of Stranger Things that offers a comment on the era beyond simply referencing it. It's hard to find an element in Stranger Things that is greater than its pop culture component parts.

The glut of nostalgia in Stranger Things is perhaps most damaging to character development. The plot takes up a percentage of any story, and the rest of the dialogue can be used for character development, world building, and the other things that make a TV show fulfilling. In Stranger Things, the space between plot is filled with non-stop pop culture references that masquerade as character development. We don't know who the characters are; we just know what pop culture they consume.

After seventeen episodes of Stranger Things, if you covered the names of Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas (Caleb McLoughlin), and Will (Noah Schnapp), could you tell their dialogue apart? There is heavy debate as to which of them is a particular Ghostbuster, or D&D character but as they debate who is a "bard" and who is a "paladin," can you remember a moment when one of them showed interest in religion, or music, or anything in particular other than one aspect of "nerd culture" that would help you make those decisions? More importantly, do you know how they feel about each other, outside of superficial comments here and there?

Even when characters are differentiated in Stranger Things, it is in relation to stereotypes long ago established in films by John Hughes and Robert Zemeckis.

We live in a moment where we define ourselves by our pop culture consumption. Are you a Marvel guy or a DC guy? BuzzFeed asks, "Which Sci-Fi Villain Are You?" Part of the allure of Stranger Things is that the main characters define themselves in terms of their pop culture consumption. One kid has a model Millennium Falcon in his basement while another has an ET poster on his wall. You could make a list of a dozen fan boy tastes for each of the boys, but what does all of that information tell us? Stranger Things is a reminder that our commercial tastes don't tell us anything about who we are as people. There is really no difference between a Marvel guy and a DC guy, except that one of them prefers films with a darker color palette.

Even when characters are differentiated in Stranger Things, it is in relation to stereotypes long ago established in films by John Hughes and Robert Zemeckis. Steve (Joe Keery) was the bully last season. Instead of humanizing him by revealing aspects of his inner life, Season two simply introduces a bigger bully. Billy (Dacre Montgomery) has a cooler car, bigger, hair, and more explicitly crotch rock inclined musical tastes. To put it in Breakfast Club terms, Emilio Estevez meets his Judd Nelson. Similarly, Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) gets a replacement for much of the season in Max (Sadie Sink), who is another tomboy who posses the requisite masculine qualities to endear him to the main characters. Eleven is magic; Max is good at video games and skateboards.

These thin characterizations make the work of actors like David Harbour (Jim Hopper) and Sean Astin (Bob Newby) all the more impressive, as they build compelling characters out of sketched outlines. They offer more than the surly sheriff and the doofy would-be stepdad, respectively, through the heavy lifting of building a character largely on their own.

Nostalgia burdens the show on a technical level too. Much of the praise around Stranger Things has been for the tone of the show. While the series does a good job of looking like an 80s movie, it misses opportunities to do more than that. The soundtrack is a glaring missed opportunity. There was clearly a mandate to open up the Netflix safe and pay for massive 80s hits in Season 2. The result is a mish-mash of punk, hair metal, country, and pop, that doesn't say anything in particular. Similarly, Stranger Things' camera work carefully mimics a 1980s look, often recreating clear homages to iconic cinematic moments from the era, going so far as to include footage that looks like it's shot on a vintage video camera. Again, the mimicry doesn't add up to a thematic statement.

In these new episodes, nostalgia even begins to impact plot. Oddly, the show is sometimes nostalgic for itself. This is done in several ways, but the oddest has to be the show's fascination with the memory of Barb (Shannon Purser). Though Barb died last season, much of Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Steve's plot is concerned with Barb. We meet Barb's parents. We examine Barb's psychological impact on Nancy. One of the last notes of the season is even a funeral for Barb. It is difficult to move the show forward if you're living in a show's past.

When Stranger Things 2 gets out of neutral and plows ahead, it can be incredibly exciting. The Duffer Brothers' years of studying 80s cinema pays off when there is an opportunity for an awesome action sequence or an unexpected monster reveal. The final two episodes of the season offer pulse-pounding, non-stop action to rival anything on TV. There is precious little time to stop and reflect on nostalgia or integrate pop culture references while the heroes finally solve the mystery and save the day. The season's final arc offers such a tight ninety minutes of storytelling, you can't help but wonder if the Duffers would be better off working in film, creating blockbusters like the ones that inspired them.

Stranger Things is not without its small, poignant moments. In the season finale, Steve drives Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) to the school dance. A few episodes earlier, Steve had shared his hair care tips with Dustin, and now, on the night of the dance, Dustin has done his hair to look like Steve's. Right before Dustin walks into the dance, Steve gives him some tips about playing it cool in front of girls. Steve shows maturity and growth. Dustin shows discomfort at moving beyond the asexual comfort of pre-adolescent hobbies. And the only pop culture reference involved is a reference to Farrah Fawcett's hairspray.

When the show gets around to lovely moments like this, you can't help but wonder what Stranger Things could be if it wasn't so burdened by pop culture references. Beneath the Millennium Falcon, Jaws Posters, Clash cassettes, Terminator ads, Ghostbusters costumes, He-Man action figures, vintage arcade games, and forced KFC product placement, there is clearly a deeper story to be told.