One summer can change everything.
When future archaeologists dig up the remains of our global culture, Stranger Things, the Netflix original written and directed by Matt and Ross Duffer, could be our Rosetta Stone (let’s ignore the logistical issues for a moment since we still don’t know how digital content will actually be preserved.) It might not be timelessly good – although this writer quite enjoyed it – but it encapsulates everything fun, exciting, derivative, bloated, and nostalgic about modern media.
Will, Dustin, Mike, and Lucas are four kids in suburban Hawkins, Indiana. They spend their days surviving dangerous dice-enabled campaigns on Dungeons & Dragons,until one night Will goes missing. While his mother, Joyce, desperately tries to find him, aided by local Police Chief Jim Hopper, the three remaining buddies organize a search of their own, running into the mysterious Eleven in the woods. She doesn’t say much, but she can move things with her mind. The backstory behind her powers – as anyone who’s ever consumed Cold War-era science fiction can anticipate – leads inexorably to a secret government experiment. Meanwhile, Will’s brother and Mike’s sister find time for adolescent love, slasher-movie scares, and photographic sleuthing worthy of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up. Outside of this plot particular, however, Stranger Things also tells another story: that of contemporary television.
What’s peculiar about our ongoing TV Golden Age is that its claim to greatness is founded on self-hatred. As Diego Mate writes in the Argentine cultural supplement Revista Ñ, “Most current shows are seemingly trying to erase the marks of their television origins by looking towards cinema, its genres, its stories, and its worldbuilding.” Indeed, Mate argues, that in this streaming era, when series are designed with binge-watchers in mind and are often structured as long films, “we should ask ourselves what’s left of television in television shows, besides a narrative organized in episodes of forty minutes or so, and whether we should perhaps find some other term that more precisely describe this phenomenon.”
Stranger Things is drenched in silver-screen references: gee-whiz teenage adventurers from Spielberg, high school romance from John Hughes, spooky body horror, and boogeymen from John Carpenter and David Cronenberg. In short, Stranger Things is the ultimate 1980s flick – except longer. Its running time, far from being a liability, is what allows the disparate pieces to coalesce. Proper time is given to each character and trope. This prevents the citations from standing out as fragments since they’re so thoroughly integrated into the whole. More than storytelling, it’s landscaping. Watching Stranger Things, we’re faced with a garden of pop culture, a perimeter collecting the flora and fauna of collective memory.
Yet the Duffer brothers’ cinematic references, as Mate points out, “already looked at the past.” Spielberg and his pal George Lucas paid homage to old 1940s serials with Star Wars and Indiana Jones. Carpenter’s The Thing is a remake of a 1950s classic; so is Cronenberg’s The Fly. The Breakfast Club is like a watered-down update of the serious-minded teen movie tradition kickstarted by Rebel Without a Cause in 1955, with its cast of suburban youths debating the meaning of it all in a brave new world of absent adults. But there’s a difference: these 1980s movies, as nostalgic as they were, did not really compete with their forefathers, which were then not as readily available as they would be (and in fact are) now. 30-odd years ago, home video was getting off the ground and there was no Internet as we know it. For most of these filmmakers, rewatching childhood favorites meant attending screenings at film clubs, taking advantage of theatrical re-releases, or watching cropped, shortened, un-remastered, or broken-up cuts on television and, later, VHS. The same applied for their audiences. This made nostalgia trips more like archaeological digs, diving deep into materials remembered but perhaps unseen (and if seen, in relatively bad quality) for decades.
Stranger Things doesn’t have that luxury. The movies it’s lifting from, like E.T. or The Goonies, are literally a click away – anytime and anywhere – on the same streaming service where the Duffer brothers are strutting their cinephilic know-how. They’ve also been out on VHS, DVD, or Blu Ray for a long time, in remastered versions and in widescreen format. Many fans, this writer included, have not deposited these films in distant, hazy, rose-tinted memories. No, instead they’ve worn out their cassettes and scratched their discs. They’ve replayed them a thousand times. They’ve memorized the lines and grew up with their heroes and heroines. A show like Stranger Things inhabits the same valley of constant online availability as its predecessors. The return to our childhood, once so dramatic, is now a short cursor-move away. Viewers need only choose a different box under a genre tab on the Netflix library.
This means Stranger Things feels derivative in a way that stuff by Spielberg or Lucas did not. Viewers have a stronger grasp on the originals, and the Duffer brothers can more accurately replicate their sources. They can just stream them and note down their relevant beats and tricks. Still, what’s weird about Stranger Things is that, despite everything, “the story itself feels organic and immersive,” as Emily Nussbaum wrote for The New Yorker. “It’s an original.” And so it is, because it’s television.
The plot, the characters, the imagery: much of it might be borrowed, but it has never quite been laid out, with so much professionalism, in a mainstream series. It’s The Goonies, but as long as Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó; seven hours’ worth of drama and nostalgia eye food. Super 8, from J. J. Abrams, scouted the same territory, and the same Spielbergian influences, but it was a movie, that had less time to have its fun, gave us less compelling characters, and quickly resolved its central mystery. When compared to its progenitors, it’s not as bright, not as efficient, and not as wondrous. Stranger Things doesn’t suffer the same fate. It has an ace up its sleeve: it’s longer, denser, and filled with more content than any 80s genre standard. That doesn’t mean it’s better? only that its existence is justified.
Its length, as argued above, is what makes everything come together. The length offers great possibilities for worldbuilding, for digression, for incorporation of various genres and narrative strands. It gives the characters breathing room. Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven is haunting and deeply endearing. The script might not give her much to work with in terms of dialogue, but her eyes do the talking. All she suffered during the experiments that untapped her telekinetic skills are conveyed in a look or a sigh. Gaten Matarazzo’s Dustin is an immensely likable personality. Brash and practical-minded, he’s the childhood friend everyone wishes they had met. Even Winona Ryder’s Joyce, though one-note in her hysterical suffering, manages to have a cumulative effect. Her continuous tears and screams are at first tiresome, then – precisely because of their repetition, because she cannot stop herself – increasingly worrying and depressing. This degree of characterization is possible because there are over 400 minutes of it. Super 8 drowned its protagonists in a cramped feature-length room of vintage curios. Stranger Things lets them move around and stretch their limbs, all the way into the alternate reality of Upside Down. As Adrian Martin writes, regarding long-form television in general, in a World Wide Angle column for De Filmkrant, “An episode can spend fifteen minutes in one communal room, ‘obsessing’ about the movements of nameless characters who we may never see in any other moment of the series (…). TV, as a narrative medium, can take the liberty to wander and digress in this (highly structured) way.”
Stranger Things taps into our current fixation on nostalgia, but without drowning in it. Updating cinematic conventions, it proves that – even as we enter Peak TV, where too many shows compete for too little of our time – the story of three kids, a magical girl, and a missing boy can serve as a media hub, connecting with all genre history, a water-cooler sensation that nearly everyone has seen. With a new season coming up, can the Duffer brothers strike gold twice? A tricky proposition, given that what made Stranger Things special is what it already did. That is, it added 300 minutes to an 80s movie, which is great – but what’s left to do? Nostalgia culture has that drawback: it tends towards paralysis. Our imagination and our fictions currently find it necessary to return, over and over again, to the same narrative watering holes. Stranger Things shines like a diamond, but it doesn’t light the way. Itself an inspired imitation, it might not allow for more successful imitators. It remains to be seen whether it’ll even be able to properly emulate itself.