This piece was inspired by an episode of The Cooler, KQED’s weekly pop culture podcast. Give it a listen!
(Note: Spoilers for Season 1 of Stranger Things abound in this article.)
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few months -- and friend, given 2016’s track record so far, you could certainly be forgiven for retreating there -- it was the summer of Stranger Things.
After an intense few months of teasing hype, Netflix’s 8-episode homage to the 1980s scifi-horror-fantasy cinematic landscape came as close to “watercooler TV” as non-TV can upon its release. If Stranger Things’ plot, look and feel all resemble a big blend of E.T., The Goonies, Poltergeist, Nightmare on Elm Street and every Stephen King miniseries you ever saw, it is -- and that’s decidedly the point.
The show’s creators, twins Matt and Ross Duffer (a.k.a. The Duffer Brothers) have been completely open in their intentions to make Stranger Things a loving, detail-oriented homage to the movies they love -- and it’s for this that the show has been so lauded by fans. And honestly, that’s a big, big problem: for this show, for pop culture in general and more.
Let’s get this out of the way: The near-universal adoration heaped on this show by its binge-watching viewers makes any criticism seem like a willful attempt at flying in the face of the zeitgeist. And there’s nothing actually wrong with nostalgia, or enjoying revisiting the cultural pleasures of your past. (God knows that my colleagues and I on KQED’s The Cooler podcast wax lyrical about our nostalgic obsessions from our young adulthood on most episodes, from Clueless to Carmen: A Hip-Hopera.) There’s also nothing wrong with creativity that nods to the past.
I’d also like to acknowledge this: I liked watching Stranger Things. As an homage to the 1980s young’uns-in-peril horror genre, it’s stunningly rendered -- from its pitch-perfect visuals (matte, dark) to its superb soundtrack. The acting, particularly from the youngest members of its cast and Matt Harbour as the haunted town sheriff, is fantastic.
But the problem comes when a screen creation is predicated entirely upon nostalgia -- and the feelings it provokes. For all its surface-level strengths, Stranger Things is essentially an 8 episode mood board, with a plot retrofitted to accommodate it. Its pleasures, while enjoyable in the moment, vanish as soon as they’ve left the screen, resulting in a show that is a high to consume but is ultimately fatally lacking in substance. It borrows its characters, plots and atmospheric beats wholesale from the 1980s supernatural classics that inspired it -- but instead of creating something fresh and surprising, produces only a perfectly-smooth pastiche supercut of those movies.
The more you know about the development of Stranger Things, the harder it is to deny this. Needing a trailer to pitch the series to Netflix, the Duffer Brothers literally made a supercut to demonstrate their intentions -- comprised from clips from the very 80s movies they wanted to borrow from. Furthermore, the show came into being after the duo were turned down for the job of remaking Stephen King’s creep-fest IT. For those of you who’ve watched that still-scary 1990 miniseries, with its band of resourceful, bullied kids in a small town facing down a supernatural horror from another dimension that wants to consume them -- tell me that these two didn’t just go and basically remake it anyway in the form of Stranger Things?
None of this would be an issue if this show sought to create anything fresh or surprising from its myriad references -- but it simply doesn’t. Paying genuine tribute to a creative force involves more than putting on their clothes, otherwise all we’re getting is the karaoke version. And as Entertainment Weekly’s Jeff Jensen observes, the characters of Stranger Things are literally wearing someone else’s clothes, from teen heroine Nancy in her pajamas that are a dead ringer for those worn in Nightmare on Elm Street by the character, uh, Nancy, from the little tot that’s styled to be a dead-ringer for Drew Barrymore’s Gertie in E.T.
Plot-wise, Stranger Things’ heaviest debt is probably to the incomparable Poltergeist (1982) -- a child sucked into the demonic netherworld, communicating with a distraught, determined mother through household appliances. Yet why would this show’s creators seem so utterly disinterested in doing anything dramatically new with the subject matter? (And no, swapping out holiday lights for a static-filled TV doesn’t count.)
It’s just not the derivativeness that irks; it’s the way that, when Stranger Things nods most to Poltergeist, its emotional themes lose all their power. How can I, as a viewer, hear Winona Ryder begging her missing son to communicate with her in the exact same way that JoBeth Williams cries for Carol Anne in Poltergeist -- in some moments, word-for-word -- and still be moved by anything that’s taking place? That’s line-reading, not acting. (Or to borrow an earlier analogy: It’s karaoke, not singing.)
The way Stranger Things limits itself in its tributes goes beyond plot and script. It's also evident in its musical choices, which seem to be more concerned with making sure the lyrics in question match what’s being seen on screen. The opening lines of Joy Division’s ‘Atmosphere’ -- “Don’t walk away in silence” -- play over an emotionally-fraught scene in which someone literally walks away in silence. ‘Bargain Store’ by Dolly Parton accompanies characters Nancy and Jonathan on a mission to purchase an arsenal of weaponry for an affordable price at at army surplus store. Overwrought emo-synth classic 'Sunglasses at Night' -- about spying on your probably-cheating girlfriend -- plays as series heartthrob Steve drives out to… you get the picture. As presumably-highly-considered artistic choices, they’re weirdly literal ones, in the “everything is explicit” way you might expect from a reality TV show.
The killer evidence here, as much as it pains me to write this, is Winona Ryder. Her casting was promoted as the ultimate demonstration of Stranger Things’ commitment to its 1980s vision (“Look, we even have Winona!”). Yet her casting is such a meta-nod to the people who grew up watching and idolizing her -- wanting to be her or be with her -- that it actually interferes with the concept of her character, who is ostensibly the emotional lynchpin of the entire enterprise. Joyce Byers was originally written as a chain-smoking, tough-talking Long Island mother, but was rewritten once Ryder came aboard. (This bears repeating: The show’s creators changed almost everything about a key character so that they could have Winona Ryder play her.) And accordingly, this utterly pivotal character ends up being… Winona Ryder.
You might ask: Who cares if Stranger Things is a purely-pleasurable karaoke version of 1980s sci-fi horror (or to quote Emily Yoshida of The Verge’s astute tweet analysis, “a really slickly executed ganache without any cake inside”)? To which I’d answer: When a pop culture phenomenon achieves its success by co-opting nostalgia -- while failing to question that very nostalgia -- it misses the point. And when we unquestioningly consume it, we’re missing the point too.
Because one thing Stranger Things really gets wrong is that the sci-fi horror it’s paying homage to was scary. This show is many things, but can anyone really say that it truly scared them? Poltergeist, the movie it unabashedly borrows from most heavily, understood that the the power of its child-in-peril story was rooted in the need for that peril to be truly, deliciously scary. Stranger Things is so busy trying to present a perfect facsimile of a 1983 horror that it forgets to be... horrific.
The perfect exemplar of this might be Mad Men. Initially embraced as a super-stylish evocation of a super-stylish time and place (New York on the cusp of the 1960s), this show’s value beyond its look and feel became clear very quickly. Mad Men succeeded and endured in the way it used its setting not as its reason to be, but as the jump-off point for an unbelievably considered, almost unbearably empathetic examination of the traps of being human.
What Mad Men was not was a mere sexy-suits-and-stylish-gals ‘60s shagfest -- a fact so many of its vastly inferior TV copycats failed to realize in their rush to get commissioned. One of the crappiest copycats was the swiftly-canceled Christina Ricci vehicle Pan Am, a show set in the whirlwind world of 1960s air stewardessing, and so embarrassingly brazen in its desire to co-opt some reflected Mad Men glory that it totally failed to grasp what elevated that show above mere '60s cosplay.
And that -- what happens when pop culture serves up empty nostalgia without stopping to question it -- is why we get Pan Am instead of Mad Men. Or Stranger Things, instead of the show many of us wanted it to be: a smart, critical take on the 1980s visual culture that it merely winds up cloning. Pop culture, so often derided as inconsequential distraction from the “real stuff,” is always the mirror that reflects the way we’re living and thinking now. In 2016 -- when fetishizing the past is a reflex, and people talk unironically of making America "great again" -- could there be a more suitable year to be curious and critical in how we think about, and live with, the past in our present -- and demand that our entertainment does the same?
Want even more Stranger Things thoughts and feelings? Give this episode of The Cooler a listen: