I will attempt to do the impossible and write a mostly spoiler-free review of season 1 of the Netflix original series, Stranger Things.
Here are a couple of truths. First is that a surefire way to make money in the entertainment industry is to make people feel the way they did when they were coming of age. And second, popular culture is always mostly targeted to the demographic with the most purchasing power.
Well, that demographic is finally my demographic. And we came of age in the 80s.
When I was growing up in the 1970s, TV shows and music and movies were all attempting to recreate the misremembered simple magic of the American 1950s. Happy Days brought 50s sensibility, through language, music and fashion, to a generation of pre-teens. Grease attempted to inject a 50s ethos into the disco era. And almost every radio station maintained a regular weekly “oldies” slot which was filled exclusively with 1950s and early 60s music.
Interestingly, the adults in my world were all survivors of WWII. None of them fetishized memories of that time, unlike the Conservatives of today. Rather, they preferred to construct a modified memory of times of perceived peace and prosperity: the 1950s.
As the decades rolled on, it was inevitable that the opportunistic eye of mainstream entertainment would fall upon the 1980s. For my generation, the 80s were our time of awakening, both intellectually and sexually. Whatever was playing when you had your first kiss, that’s what will become the soundtrack of your life. The prevailing cultural ethic at the time of your own awakening as a teen will forevermore be a treasured set of tropes, mores, and beats.
And the 1980s are certainly worthy of such attention. For my money, they were the best of times. Yes, I was a miserable, angst-filled teenager at the time, so one would think I would care little for the period. But I think there are some objective facts about the decade that make it a special time.
The personal computer had arrived, but the Internet was not widely known. When you called a friend, it was using the family land line, which presented a whole ‘nother layer of parental presence between you and your social life. If you wanted to know something, you had to read it in a book, figure it out for yourself, or interrogate a so-called expert (who was often a bigger, stupider kid down the street); no Google for us. And if your social circles were limiting, you were forced to make new friends, try new activities, strike up new conversations; no quick online community solution.
The 1970s were, in my opinion, a golden age of artistic filmmaking. Genuine auteurs proliferated, giving us exquisite mainstream offerings, like Taxi Driver and The Godfather –movies that would be difficult to make today without studio interference. The 80s began with that legacy, though diluted. That sense of artistry still lingered, though with a more commercial direction. Home video had made an appearance, allowing filmmakers to create content for a whole new format and market. And ticket sales were still sufficient to fund the endeavour, thus releasing the moviemakers to simply make movies without having to worry too much about advertising, clips for trailers, product placement, demographic representation, or bankable name stars. The result was a lesser golden age of risk-taking films directed to the younger mainstream.
Music saw a similar evolution. The 1970s saw the arrival of punk, of a working class ground-up approach to creating cultural content that consciously divorced itself from the corporate product of the day, i.e. disco. The 80s saw the creation of “post punk” and “new wave”, in which the same punk sensibility –that of “anybody can do this shit”– applied to more melodic, danceable music, often involving synthesizers played by people who had no idea what they were doing. The results were, in my opinion, trippily glorious.
My memory of the 1980s, beyond the time of my personal “coming of age”, was that it was a time of optimism, when all weird things were not only possible, but likely. Because we did not have 24 hour news channels or the constant chatter of social media or the constantly available pseudo-fact check of the Internet, we were all happily and willingly susceptible to the most romantic and idiotic of pleasant mythologies. Yes, my nerd friends and I exhausted many a long evening playing Dungeons & Dragons. Yes, we happily embraced the science-fiction fashion ethic of the time, with straight lines, angles, and stifling amounts of hair gel. (I proudly remember a televised interview with Mike Score of A Flock of Seagulls, who was remarking on how impressed he was with Toronto, since it was “space city”.)
Yes, the premise of Buckaroo Banzai seemed rational to some of us, that we could and should be able to puncture banal reality to enter the 8th dimension. I admit to having spent the occasional summer evening with like-minded idiot friends, prowling through the woods under starlight, hoping to open our own gateway to another dimension. Alcohol and/or questionable selected vegetation might have played a role in those activities. Might have. I admit nothing.
That brings us to Stranger Things. If you don’t already know, the 8 part first season is set in the early 1980s. There are obvious homages to the greatest genre films of that era, including The Goonies, Stand By Me, The Thing, E.T. The Extraterrestrial, and Poltergeist. I didn’t know what to expect when I watched the first episode. But it had me at the opening credits, whose font and music were obvious references to the greatest of John Carpenter’s 1980s cult classics.
The entire tone and visible tapesty of the series is a prolonged callback to the 1980s. From the scene framing to the casting to the inclusion of only the coolest of early 80s pop music, everything about Stranger Things is designed to coax we of the Middle Aged back to days of our sexual awakening. And, by Zod, how it works. I can help but wonder how younger viewers are able to enjoy the show (as many seem to… it’s an undeniable hit) without the prerequisite nostalgic references of the era. I mean, the story is good, but it’s not exemplary.
So let’s talk about the story… at least as much as I can without revealing anything. The premise is that a young boy has disappeared. It seems that he has been taken by a monster to another dimension. And the monster is now cruising our world looking for food, i.e. us. Meanwhile, unspecific boilerplate evil scientists have been attempting to breach the wall into said alternate dimension, and have also created an abused science experiment of a little girl, who, of course, escapes to the same small town from which our missing boy originated. Adventure ensues, as the boy’s friends go all Goonies on their quest to retrieve their friend. Meanwhile, the boy’s mother goes all Poltergeist in her attempt to retrieve her son from the weird other place. And a teen girl goes all Gremlins in her attempt to forge a standard small-town relationship with a boy, or boys, while also fighting the mysterious monster. And our mysterious science experiment goes all E.T. by living secretly in the basement of one of our young heroes. And so on, etc.
It’s all good stuff. I watched all eight episodes in two sittings, and still wanted more. So I immediately watched Dark Skies to sustain my creeped-out mood.
I struggle to put by finger on exactly what made Stranger Things so entertaining. The acting was superb. The music and tone were perfectly well done, as was the visual art direction and costuming. I’m a fan of subtle and nuanced character building. Unlike cinematic atrocities like Suicide Squad, Stranger Things manages to unearth the motivations and personalities of its characters by focusing on their actions, not their expository dialogue. An there is a core of profound, hopeful humanity in the characterization. The presumed hero, Mike Wheeler, who defies his friends and family to find his missing best friend, is a nerdy kid whose strength and courage far outweigh his little form. He is a strong callback to Wil Wheaton’s character in Stand By Me, complete with the bully who must be overcome to complete the quest. His probable love interest, the science experiment named Eleven, is the alien other who, much like E.T., is likely the most human, evocative and compassionate character in the panoply.
When your premise is one of monsters and other dimensions, it’s important to ground the banal aspects of your story in as much reality as possible. In Stranger Things, the town is real, the people are real, and the relationships seem very real. This really is the power of the 1980s style of fantastical storytelling, something at which both Stephen King and Spielberg excelled: dropping the fantastical into the banal, once the banal has been established as a profound and deep soup of lovable normal.
Stranger Things was a joy for me to watch. I can’t imagine there won’t be a 2nd season.