Televised nostalgia is the future, and the popular new Netflix show is very, very good at it.
All photos courtesy of Netflix
Warning: This article contains mild to moderate spoilers.
Human beings inhabit at least three parallel worlds in the course of a lifetime. There's childhood, the teenage hellscape, and the confused territory of adulthood. The child makes unique sense of its environment, taking cues from movies and television; the teen apes its peers; and the adult improvises with the remnants of both, which we call nostalgia.
In the early 1980s, when the excellent, desperately nostalgic Netflix series Stranger Things is set, children watched E. T. the Extra-Terrestrial; teenagers flocked to see Tom Cruise in All the Right Moves; and adults had the good-humored horror picture Poltergeist. Everybody saw Return of the Jedi. These influences are hard-baked into the show, which is set against a literal shadow world into which its characters occasionally stray, like the Dark World from Zelda: A Link to the Past or the Mirror Universe from Star Trek. More importantly, the show is steeped in recognizable, always-welcome 80s tropes like synthesizer music, Dungeons and Dragons, and Winona Ryder, that hum above a lurking fear that feels like something out of H. P. Lovecraft.
In the great tradition of Twin Peaks, Stranger Things uses a central trauma—the disappearance of 12-year-old Will Byers—to get to the heart of a parochial suburb (a fictional township in Indiana that, by no mistake on the part of director/writers, the Duffer Brothers, is a dead ringer for Jean Shepard's paradisiacal hometown in A Christmas Story). The children, Mike, Dustin, and Lucas, are game for the mystery, having already bested troglodytes and the fearsome Demogorgon in their tabletop role-playing game and boasting a vocabulary out of Tolkien. The teenagers are initially assigned to the usual Breakfast Club caste system (Will's creepy, Clash-worshipping brother Jonathan as the rebel/outsider, Mike's sister Nancy as the aspirational prep, her redeemable bully of a boyfriend Steve as the token jock, and dorky proto-hipster Barb, whose character has already spawned a cottage industry of internet worshippers).
Televised nostalgia is the future, and the 80s are an especially ripe target.
Meanwhile, the adults are a somber set of midlife crises. Ryder is in permanent high pitch as Will's mother Joyce; an alcoholic sheriff named Chief Jim Hopper staggers into his action-hero role; funny science teacher Mr. Clarke gives the kids a crash course in theoretical physics; and character actors Cara Buono and Ross Partridge pick up the slack as a stalwart mother of three and Joyce's sleazebag of an ex-husband, respectively. Wild cards include Eleven, a psychic tweenage girl the kids find in the woods, an evil scientist played by actual 80s refugee Matthew Modine (that's Private Joker from Full Metal Jacket), and a horrible monster with an H. R. Giger body and a carnivorous flower for a face. But the real star is the atmosphere, all misty canopies, wood-paneled living rooms, and rumpus rooms, lovingly accentuated with musical cues from the likes of the Bangles, Echo and the Bunnymen, Joy Division, Corey Hart, and a horrifying, if perfectly timed, "Heroes" cover by Peter Gabriel.
The period tropes do a lot to make us comfortable, but the show's unique touches are sublime: Joyce builds an intricate Ouija board out of Christmas lights to communicate with Will—mainly via the lyrics of "Should I Stay or Should I Go"—while he's lost in the shadow universe; Steve and Nancy shotgun beers and consummate their love while the monster drags Barb into a home swimming pool out of a Sharper Image catalogue; and Mike shows off his Star Wars figures to Eleven (that is how you impress a girl, right?).
Mostly, the kids steal the show, which is worth mentioning because 80s children are annoying as a rule, but the wise nerdos of Stranger Things are on the case of the missing Will, especially Dustin, whose puberty appears to be transpiring before our eyes and who wears an Artichoke Festival T-shirt for the show's climax. He calls Mr. Clarke at 10 PM on a Saturday, when all good science teachers are getting down with John Carpenter's The Thing, to ask the immortal question, "Why are you keeping this curiosity door locked?"
There's good reason to side with the kids over the incredulous adults in this case: They recognize their supernatural terrain because they've been trained for it, and so have we. When Eleven gets a makeover to pass as a high-school student, we know it's because E. T. did it first; when Nancy teaches herself to swing a baseball bat prior to a monster-bashing journey into the parallel universe, she's inheriting the mantle of another Nancy, Nightmare on Elm Street's archetypical Last Girl; and when Eleven uses her telekinesis to make a school bully piss his pants, it's the wish gratification we've carried over from everything from Teen Wolf to Monster Squad—the dream of having a monster for a friend. The bigger surprise is how easily the town is persuaded of the conspiracy: Chief Hopper gets his jocular groove back, as though he'd just been waiting for a reason to punch sinister government spooks in the face, and it only takes a missing birthmark to convince Joyce that the corpse of her son Will is a phony.
By and large, the show's heroes do what we'd like to imagine we ourselves would do in the same circumstances, and it's hard to know where the appeal of Stranger Things really rests. Are these the lessons we've learned from our own 1980s, or only the depiction of the 1980s? There's probably not an American alive that hasn't seen at least a couple of the films—I'm thinking of Aliens or Back to the Future—that it's borrowing from, and nostalgia pieces like American Psycho, Donnie Darko, or the recent Midnight Special have further supplanted our memories with a consensual fiction that confirms our idea of what the era looked and sounded like.
The good news, then, is that fans of Stranger Things (and it is almost impossible not to be one) have more of the same to look forward to. Televised nostalgia is the future, has been at least since Mad Men made power walking and smoking indoors look groovy, and the 80s are an especially ripe target. Cold War dramas like The Americans and Halt and Catch Fire (I've only seen the opening credits, but I think I get the idea) are only the tip of the iceberg. We will soon be mining the 8-bit video game, Reaganomics, lady execs in shoulder pads, and the genesis of the music video for material. At a crucial moment in the fifth episode of Stranger Things, Steve asks Nancy out to a movie, just to "pretend everything's normal for a few hours." The present is singularly unappealing, and so the past suddenly seems an easy thing to reckon with by comparison. The pleasure of the series comes with a certain peril, as our turn toward nostalgia is all but complete, the idea of art that tackles, even nominally, the noxious and immediate becomes all but unthinkable. It is night in America, and we are all wearing sunglasses.
Recent work by J. W. McCormack appears in Conjunctions, BOMB, and the New Republic. Read his other writing on VICE here.