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. 

Plucky young kids being plucky in Stranger Things
Plucky young kids being plucky in Stranger Things. (Photo: Netflix)

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. 

High school is a cruel place in Stranger Things
High school is a cruel place in Stranger Things. (Photo: Netflix)

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.

Winona Ryder as Joyce Byers in Stranger Things (Photo: Netflix)
Winona Ryder as Joyce Byers in ‘Stranger Things’ (Photo: Netflix)

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.)

JoBeth Williams and the cast of Poltergeist (photo: MGM)
JoBeth Williams and the cast of Poltergeist (Photo: MGM)

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.

Millie Bobby Brown and Finn Wolfhard in Stranger Things. (Photo: Netflix)
Millie Bobby Brown and Finn Wolfhard in Stranger Things. (Photo: Netflix)

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.

Winona Ryder in Stranger Things (photo: Netflix)
Winona Ryder in Stranger Things (photo: Netflix)

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.

Jessica Pare and Jon Hamm in Mad Men. (Photo: Michael Yarish/AMC)
Jessica Pare and Jon Hamm in Mad Men. (Photo: Michael Yarish/AMC)

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.

The cast of Pam Am (photo: ABC)
The cast of Pan Am (photo: ABC)

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:


Hear Me Out… ‘Stranger Things’ Is Not That Good 14 September,2016Carly Severn

  • Tyler Schoening

    “… 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.” No, I don’t think anyone wanted stranger things to be a smart critical take on anything. You seem to have written an entire article being upset about a show you liked, because it wasn’t a different show you might have liked?

    • jeffJ1

      While I agree with some of the points she makes, I agree, the tone of this article is awfully weird

  • Arrive-without-traveling

    Sorry Carly. Just because you didn’t “get” it doesn’t mean we didn’t either. I’m not saying the show was perfect. It was flawed in many ways. However, since you were barely alive during the 80’s (if at all) you really don’t get to vote. As a GenXer, I can confidently say, we were THERE! We lived through all of it and fondly appreciate accurate homages to our past. The 80s wasn’t just spandex and poofy hair! All the camp, corn and nods to B-Movie 80’s flicks IS what made this show work. And, we LOVED IT! Camp is camp. Always. You posit “the show many of us wanted it to be: a smart, critical take on the 1980s visual culture that it merely winds up cloning”. Please! Clearly, you missed the boat. The only person taking this show seriously IS YOU. Go outside and breathe some fresh air. Have some fun. Then come back and watch the show and HAVE SOME FUN!

    • LiquidKaos

      I’m an “GenX’er” … and this review was much more spot on (in my opinion) than your comment about the review. Was Stranger Things marketed as a “campy” fun-filled whatever? Not really. It was marketed as a supernatural horror-type. Maybe the show could have had more of an original, organic (not to mention emotional) tone if the direct ripoffs (and most of these ripoffs were not really “B-movies” at the time, were they?) were left out and more of a personal, specific overall “flavor” established? Like “Wet Hot American Summer” – kinda thing … or “The Get Down”? Being more original might make for a “deeper” tale too, which I thought ST was very much lacking – the story itself isn’t very compelling. (i loved the young actors though!)

      I guess … basically … what it boils down to, is that … the show (or the base premise OF the show … the “meat”) should be able to stand on its own WITHOUT the direct-from-other-movie-ripoffs. Those should be sparkles … not the entire show. Have you read anything about how ST itself was written/made? It’s no wonder a lot of people don’t think there is much substance there … it’s because, according to the creators themselves – there isn’t. Why not a fresh take on something, but still SET in the 80s? You’d still get your much-needed nostalgia then, right? 🙂 Oh, and you’re right … the 80s weren’t just about spandex and poofy hair. There was also acid-washed jeans and really really bad music. 🙂

      • Arrive-without-traveling

        Agreed the 80’s had some really, really bad music BUT….the 80’s also had some F’ing AWESOME music too! And at least they were still making music then. Can you call today’s music, MUSIC? I can’t. Asking for more “meat” (Where’s the beef?) from a story that is spawned from D & D is silly. Did Goonies have meat? Did Ghostbusters have meat? Very little, indeed. I never said ST was perfect. Far from it. I merely point out that if you show up to a movie like ST, expecting some serious beef. You’re going to be disappointed. My advice. Lighten up and drink a beer. If you really are a Gen Xer, perhaps you can appreciate that someone actually tried.

        • LiquidKaos

          I appreciate the reply.

          I definitely like some music from the 80s. 🙂 But your followup about today’s music … is pretty much exactly what I am getting at in regards to ST.

          Anyways … “the story spawned from DnD” (implying they wrote the screenplay based on a DnD campaign they played)? Like a DnD session? A real one? No, it didn’t. (DnD can create some nice meaty stories … wait for “DragonLance” … maybe I’ll make it someday.) The ST story was created piecemeal … scene-by-scene, taken from previously released things. It was originally created as a 80s pastiche “supercut” … a ton of 80s films/references … then presented to Netflix, which is when this “supercut” was broken down to “fit” into the proper “trigger” (data) points that the Netflix algorithm tells them will get the most eyeballs.

          Goonies, Ghostbusters, Monster Squad, Gremlins … no, they weren’t the “meatiest” of all cinema, but they were their own stories, right? Goonies was not created to appeal to an algorithm … neither were any of the others.

          Basically, ST is eminently forgettable. Maybe because we’ve already seen it. It’s fine for what it is … but like I said in my original post – is that a show should be able to stand on its own – not strictly be there as a boiled-down, carbon-copy of memorable scenes from previously released works. If an author did that (pasted together favorite/well-known scenes of other authors’ work and released it for profit) – they would either never get their book published (because the publishing house wouldn’t want the lawsuits) – or the author would be sued after. Not to mention derided …

          If the nostalgia-feel is what was being hunted … why (as per my original post) couldn’t a fresh story be merely SET in the 80s? (instead of the easy-route-algorithm-pleasing-ripoffs?)

          Or – MAYBE EVEN BETTER – a show set in todays time … but with the same values/adventure feel as we remember those movies having? Isn’t THAT the point?

          I don’t appreciate that “they tried”. In my view … they sort’ve DIDN’T try. They copied what already worked and combined that with what the algorithm told them to include.

          Ersatz ice cream … fake gold … cover bands … none likely as fulfilling as the real thing. Cheap is cheap.

          • Arrive-without-traveling

            Here are the points where we differ.

            Story.
            I feel there was a compelling enough story. Plenty of meat here to keep me interested. I’ve seen lots worse! The Up-side Down. The Demo-gorgon. The nerdy science teacher. The mystery behind Mathew Modine’s character. Etc. Etc. It wasn’t all a rehash of 80’s cliches. Sure they borrowed lots but they also paid respectful homage. In my opinion.

            Acting.
            Fantastic performances from Wynona Ryder. Millie Bobbie Brown (Eleven) and the three boys. Very believable and fun. Will was forgettable.

            So much about this reminds me of Twin Peaks.

            Season one was enough to wet the appetite. If they bomb in Season two, I would then lean closer to your assessment. If Season two opens up their world, ties everything together and produces another captivating story with strong performances, I will stick with my original opinion.

  • ThenLetMeGetToKnowYou

    A really interesting take here.

    I came looking for a “willful attempt at flying in the face of the zeitgeist”, but you have some good points here that I haven’t seen represented at places like the A.V. Club, which is cool. I agree with a lot of your points, most of which I hadn’t previously considered.

    I think your conclusion is right, and that nostalgia in particular for the 80s will become an increasingly powerful force. It’s Trump’s slogan!
    It would appear South Park are interested in that theme from the looks of their season 20 premiere; it features smiling berries that just reminisce about the 80s.

  • RWA

    The author overlooks the fact that many if not most of the Eighties movies the show lionizes were themselves nostalgia pieces. All of Joe Dante’s films, for instance, pay homage to classic horror and science fiction films from the Thirties through the early Sixties.

  • jon

    Yes I completely agree. This lack of originality is even more apparent in the second season. And yep, I’m a gen Xer.

  • Dan Challis

    It’s all reference/homage and doesn’t have a leg to stand on by itself. It might be fine for people who have never read these books or seen these films, or for those that have but can somehow be entertained for hours on end by watching references to them. All the references are a little too busy and muddy the (already weak) story. Stephen King has done something similar more than once, tried to create a story by throwing elements of several books together to make one crappy story. The first example I can think of was Dreamcatcher, which wasn’t a very good book and a worse film. The other is the recent book he wrote with his son Owen, Sleeping Beauties. When King does this people rightfully call him out on his laziness and the book is panned, but when somebody else rips off his canon then it’s a “genius” homage. People don’t know what originality is anymore, nor do they want to, because they don’t have it. They want to believe that doing some collage work makes you an artistic genius, because then they can be a genius too.

Author

Carly Severn

Carly Severn writes about the arts, odd places, not-so-popular culture and everything in between. She is also co-host of KQED’s The Cooler podcast.

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