And for all of you who’ve already seen it, you collectively thought, “Duh.”
I am not nostalgic about the ’80s. I was born halfway through them, and even though I had the glut of ’80s era pop culture available to me as a child, it’s never really struck a chord with me. I am (much to my wife’s chagrin) pretty neutral on The Goonies, and I actually don’t remember the last time I watched E.T. The only element of ’80s pop culture that I’m fond of is the X-Men comics from that time, and those I discovered as an adult; they don’t ring as truly nostalgic for me.
The reason I say all this is to establish that I’m probably not the target audience for Stranger Things. This show is steeped in the pop culture of the early ’80s and presented through a lens that distorts everything to be reminiscent of either Steven Spielberg or Stephen King at the peak of their careers. While there’s certainly room to discuss why it seems like so many recent works in popular culture seem to be built on nostalgia, that’s a side issue here. If Stranger Things is seeking to cash in on ’80s nostalgia, it’s actually succeeding at doing a lot more. I found it engrossing from beginning to end, even as someone who had no reason to care about its status as a period story.
The plot is something pulled directly from a Stephen King novel: a young boy mysteriously disappears after being attacked by some strange shadowy creature, a girl with psychic abilities escapes from a nearby government research lab, and the boy’s friends go about learning how the two are connected (also some stuff with teenagers and adults who are remarkably competent). Eighties era tropes get subverted and dissected at length, and the end result is something that evokes feelings of the period it’s mimicking without being cliche. None of the female characters are tired damsels, and the male leads are all sketched in ways that work counter to established expectations and dismiss the machismo assumptions that underpin a lot of the tropes being subverted.
Spoilers for Stranger Things are freely discussed from this point forward.
I think there’s been a good bit said about the female characters already; the three leads of Eleven, Nancy, and Joyce all exist as pretty standard archetypes (the creepy psychic child, the precocious teen, the grief-stricken mother), but they take these types and infuse them with refreshing subversions. Eleven gets to be the big hero of the children’s storyline; Nancy has teenage sex with her boyfriend and it’s rightly set aside as not that important in the context of the happenings in town; Joyce is the first to figure out where Will is, and she establishes a reliable way to communicate with him long before anyone else has even begun to assemble the pieces. These women are competent and centered in their own plotlines in ways that you don’t commonly see in actual ’80s era popular fiction.
Of course, Barbara doesn’t fare as well as the others. It’s probably due in part to her nature as a secondary character, but it’s still disappointing to see her killed off in the third episode as a way to establish the threat of the monster. On one level her death pairs nicely with Nancy’s survival as an inversion of the horror trope that punishes sexually active women, but on the other it’s a shame that she couldn’t simply hide out with Will for a while instead. No one in town seems that concerned about Barb’s disappearance, and only Nancy is genuinely sad about the news that she’s dead, which is both a hilarious comment on how nonessential Barb is to the plot and a pretty harsh treatment for the one sympathetic character who actually dies in the series.
Setting Barb’s treatment aside, I think the teen plot line is the most nuanced of the three threads. The children and the adults each have stories that are filled with awesome moments (“Why are you keeping this curiosity door closed?!”), and they’re all genuinely likeable, but those characters don’t create any complex feelings in comparison with Nancy’s subplot surrounding her boyfriend Steve and Will’s big brother Jonathan. These three characters make up a love triangle that in an older story would have ended with Nancy leaving popular guy Steve for the sensitive loner Jonathan. Instead, we’re introduced to the romance subplot by way of Jonathan taking photos through a window of Nancy undressing as she’s preparing to have sex with Steve for the first time. Jonathan’s actions here are clearly messed up and wrong, and when Steve and his friends punish Jonathan by destroying the photos and his camera, it’s hard not to feel like their actions are justified even as they follow the pattern for a typical bullying encounter. Even after Jonathan admits his fault and apologizes to Nancy, the two regularly butt heads in ways that indicate they honestly aren’t that compatible. When the last episode reveals that Nancy has chosen to stay with Steve (who we frequently see does have some positive qualities when he’s not being influenced by his jerk friends) and the couple have decided to make amends with Jonathan by giving him a new camera for Christmas, it’s a pleasant reversal. Nancy isn’t bound by laws of narrative to choose the unconventional guy, even if she is able to forgive Jonathan his previous creepiness and be friends with him.
Overall, I really liked Stranger Things. I don’t think it’s a perfect series, but it has a very clear vision of what it’s trying to evoke, and it responds to these older stories in a way that doesn’t feel narratively dated.