Nostalgia is a funny thing. We usually get comforted by our past, and the things that made us happy. Especially when you’re a young adult and the crushing realities of adulthood is looking at you in the face. I mean, look at me, I’ve been writing about the goddamn Simpsons for a year. It’s comfort food. The things that made us happy when we were kids can remind us of the carefree days of our childhood, and can be quite comforting when we’re older and dealing with the stresses of the world. But it’s also kind of a toxic thing, because as we grow up we’ll expect our childhood memories to change with us, which is ridiculous. That’s how we get violent Transformers movies. That’s just insane. But it’s not going to stop people from trying to recreate the passion they had for things from when they were kids.
Which brings us to the new Netflix series, Stranger Things. Now, I feel like everyone has already watched this show, because it blew the hell up when it was released. Basically like every Netflix show has to this point. They’re really knocking to out of the park with these series’ aren’t they? I feel like I haven’t been talking about a lot of them here, because it kind of goes against my general mission statement of geekiness. I really love Orange is the New Black and this season was superb, and I thought Master of None was one of the best television shows I’ve ever seen. But I couldn’t quite find a way to tackle them, so they just kind of drifted by. But when you tell me that there’s a new show coming out that can be described as “a Stephen King story if it were directed by Steven Spielberg,” then you’ve got my interest. I honestly didn’t know a whole lot about this show, other than it was drenched with an 80’s suspense aesthetic and that it was creepy, and went in pretty much blind. And I’m glad I did, because this show really worked for me, and after blazing through the whole season over the course of a weekend, I wanted to talk about it.
The premise of the show kind of tracks with the comparisons with Stephen King, mixed with a little Twilight Zone. It takes place in a small town in Indiana called Hawkins in the early 80’s, and opens up with a group of dorky kids named Mike, Dustin, Lucas, and Will, playing D&D. My people. And after a rousing game the kids split up for the night and all head home. And as little heads home to his house he finds it empty, his single-mom and older brother not there, and a monster attacking him. But right before he gets attacked by the monster, they both seem to vanish. What the hell?
And from there we get an incredibly twisty and strange story, because obviously people aren’t going to assume that Will was stolen by a monster, and instead think that it’s a missing person case. So we follow several groups of characters, Will’s frantic mother Joyce, his older brother Jonathan, his buddies, and a drunken sheriff named Hopper. And there’s some great stuff in there. There’s teen-drama with Jonathan and Mike’s sister Nancy, some fascinating stuff from Joyce slowly going crazy, and Hopper tracking everything down, but the stuff that’s most fascinating to me is the group of boys. Because while investigating their friend’s disappearance they come across a mysterious girl named Eleven who has clearly been experimented on in some shady government lab in town. Oh, and she has telekinesis and is telepathic. So that’s awesome.
And when the central characters are all established they get to start investigating, pulling at the strings around town and uncovering all sorts of insane conspiracies and mysteries. We get great detective stories from Hopper, creepy mystery stuff from the boys and Eleven, and even teen drama and romance from Jonathan and Nancy, and it all comes together with an insane climax that involves everyone trying to kill the mysterious monster that kidnapped Will, getting away from the CIA agents with possible MK-ULTRA connections, and motherly-love triumphing over everything. And everything ends with everyone more or less going back to normal, but with plenty of loose threads that could lead to new stories in a second season.
I liked this show quite a bit. I’ve never really been a big horror-guy, but I do have an affection for Stephen King books and John Carpenter movies, and this show is really falling within those wheelhouses. It’s got that classic King method of tossing children into scary and mysterious worlds, while also having a strong sense of conspiracy and things hiding behind the shadows that Carpenter was so good at nailing. And it came together to create a fascinating little show that certainly has a lot of nostalgic influences, but doesn’t necessarily use them as a crutch. Honestly the thing that really made me think of after watching this show was Quentin Tarantino. I think I’ve talked before on the site about how Tarantino uses homages like no one else, and manages to spin fascinating films out of a variety of sources that ends up standing on its own, and being enhanced if you know what it’s referencing. Tarantino movies don’t feel like they’ soullessly massaging your nostalgia to make you happy, he’s just remixing various influences and making a new story. And if you happen to know what he’s referencing the story gets even more enjoyable, but it’s not necessary. And that’s how I felt about Stranger Things. It was referencing a lot of stuff from the 80s, but even if you weren’t familiar with them it didn’t kill your enjoyment of the show, like a lot of other nostalgia-heavy pieces do.
It’s a very delicate balance to have, because something like this show, which leans so heavily on its love of the 80s horror/mystery aesthetic could easily fall into the realm of pastiche. It’s not a direct adaptation of anything in particular, but you can really tell where it came from. It has pinches of Stand By Me, bits of ET, a smidge of Carrie, a tad of It, and even some Pretty in Pink oddly enough. But it doesn’t just reference these shows and expect that that’s enough to be enjoyable. They took a nostalgic framework and build a really strong, mysterious story on it. They took stock characters and added something fresh and new to them to make some of the most instantly likeable and recognizable characters that I’ve seen in a long time. A lazier show would just make a mishmash of 80s nostalgia and sit back, confident that there’s a certain breed of people who only crave things they recognize from their childhood. But instead they made that a starting point and ended up creating something unique and different that seemed familiar and yet unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
Stranger Things was created by the Duffer Brothers, 2016.
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