The familiarity of <i>Stranger Things</i>

The familiarity of Stranger Things

The show's massive popularity is due, in large part, to the existential dread of our childhoods.

I recall the wild, teeming joy of using the handbrake to turn lurching circles in a snowy midnight megachurch parking lot; I am only too proud to tell any who would inquire that the last gaming console I owned was the mighty ColecoVision, upon which I loved to play Cosmic Avenger above all other games; I contributed, via the application of posters to the insides of lockers, to the fame of Alyssa Milano; I owned a pair of Air Jordan I sneakers in the classic black and red colorway, and I wore them to tatters playing ball in a friend’s driveway.

The above is not to establish the fact of my carefree youth in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, or not only to do so, but to suggest some reason for my apparent defenselessness to the charms of Stranger Things – arguably 2017’s most popular, most discussed, and most iconic show. I got pulled quickly in, and if you’re reading this, chances are you did too. But what I’ve decided, in the wake of multiple viewings, is that I don’t love it for the reason that I thought I loved it.

The same way my parents chortled over the neon-rich and letterman-jacket-festooned ambience of Happy Days, I was initially drawn to Stranger Things primarily for its period-piece-like attention to the look and feel of my youth. The Spielberg-King-Carpenter triumvirate of ’80s pop culture looms large over the Duffer Brothers’ beautiful little monster. A woefully incomplete list of their callbacks, both stylistic and thematic, would include E.T., Firestarter, Poltergeist, The Monster Squad, The Goonies, The Lost Boys, Stand By Me, War Games, Alien, and The Thing. Clearly, the show’s creators have done their homework, loading Stranger Things’ first two seasons with such reliable ’80s entertainment tropes as missing children, widespread moral panic, kids running the streets unimpeded by helicopter parenting, Dungeons and Dragons, rabbit-eared TVs, annoyed/annoying older sisters, bike rides, and Radio Shack products, all draped in period-appropriate decor and wardrobe, the fidelity of which we’ve seen in shows such as Mad Men (which recreated the early 1960s with enough authenticity and verve to influence contemporary fashion), and Netflix’s Mindhunter (which does 1977 so faithfully that I can smell my father’s favored blend of pipe tobacco). We’re all prone to “things ain’t like they used to be” thinking, and Stranger Things provides apparent proof that things were pretty great back then. Atop all that, the show’s self-aware casting is – let’s face it – fun, even if a bit cloying. In bringing back such familiar faces as Winona Ryder, Matthew Modine, Paul Reiser, and Sean Astin, the show’s creators are trading on our fondness for those actors and the roles they’ve played, as well as leaning ever so slightly on those earlier roles to suggest the Stranger Things characters’ back stories.

But undergirding all that comfortable familiarity is, I think, the show’s secret weapon: an intense longing for the specific strain of existential dread particular to many of our childhoods, and the suggestion that it’s directly relatable to what we’re experiencing in this moment.

The first season of the show takes place in 1983, the second a year later. Consider, then, the cultural backdrop: there was an entertainer in the White House; there was great nuclear tension with an overseas adversary; there was a health crisis which represented a new way to die. All of which, I don’t have to tell you, feels pretty on the nose. In 1983, the specifics were Reagan, the USSR, and the AIDS epidemic and the attendant panic caused thereby. In 2017 they’re Trump, North Korea, and the opioid crisis.

Granted, Ronald Reagan had actual governing experience, having run California for eight years, but he was never that far removed from his showbiz roots, and was prone to quips and zingers, some of which might possibly have put real American lives in real danger. It seems unlikely, though, even if there had been a Twitter in 1983, that Reagan would have used the platform to harangue the Soviets over the invasion and continued occupation of Afghanistan, or to badger Congress to refuse to ratify the second round of Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, thereby marching the world closer to the ultimate precipice. He was enough of a strategist, and was imbued with enough of a sense of old-fashioned political decorum, to recognize the dangers of that. The current Commander-in-Chief, by contrast, rides his whims to play chicken with other, perhaps equally mercurial world leaders via social media while lying in bed.

We are, in short, frightened, in a way which feels in some ways familiar, and yet which is in other ways significantly more dire. Or perhaps it is precisely the same fear, but it feels different because we’re now adults. Regardless, I’m suggesting that the comfort of Stranger Things banks on both the show’s retro feel and the unmistakable analogs between 1983-4 and our own age. When we cheer Eleven, Will, Mike, Lucas, Dustin, and the others, we are buoyed by their ability to stare down a world-swallowing monster while still encountering the world with ecstatic wonder and a sense of discovery, and we are also lifted by the knowledge that, somehow, we survived their time – the last time the world looked something like it does right now.

 

Undergirding all that comfortable familiarity is an intense longing for the strain of existential dread particular to many of our childhoods, and the suggestion that it’s directly relatable to what we’re experiencing in this moment.

 

In the Upside-Down, wading through wispy particles in Brownian motion, suspended there in some sort of netherworldly amniotic goo, the claustrophobic fear resembles the very bunker mentality which leads to Netflix binges – something awful likely lurks around the corner, but it still beats tomorrow’s real-world headlines.

Maybe you had some variety of wild place – your own Hawkins, Indiana, the wild places bordering your neighborhood which encouraged those wild places within you, before you came to any awareness about energy policy, or rendition, or black sites; before you understood that the worst of the world’s problems came not from without human agency, but from deep within it. I certainly did. The joy of Stranger Things springs in great measure from its ability to reconnect us with those places. It’s a meditation on power – the loss of it, the restoration of it – which never for a moment feels didactic or in any way concerned with message, but rather like a parable from within the temporal borders of our own lives. The precarity of modern life has led to a sense of unease and fragility. In Hawkins, Indiana, as in the places of our youth, before the age of smartphones, help could be very far away indeed, but we got by, in some cases with some help from benevolent authority figures, like Chief Hopper, but more often with the help of the freaks and outsiders we called our peers. The ability to navigate danger depended not on how reliable your 4G signal was, but how reliable your friends.

There is a rift through which pours an evil. The question of whether our actions have created the former or the latter is, for the moment, immaterial. Stranger Things revives the hope that when the badness comes for us we might stand a chance of defeating it; at the very least the show reminds us that our chances are best when we face it together. Is it any wonder that a show with an implicit message such as that should find some purchase in 2017?

header image: "stranger things logo," lowtrucks / wikimedia commons

 

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