ANDI’m sure there’s no need to talk about the nostalgic appeal of stranger things. For a series that deals with all kinds of supernatural occurrences (telekinetic teenagers, alternate dimensions, demonic possession), this is first and foremost a series about the 1980s. Or rather, it’s a series about what we all imagined the 1980s to be. Netflix sci-fi devotees have drawn the obvious comparisons to old Stephen King stories, John Carpenter movies, and Steven Spielberg. The final season is based heavily on the 1984 horror classic. A Nightmare on Elm Street. But stranger things he has always lacked the depth of his ancestors, as well as a complete interest in the realities of the times. It is, as the young people say, “no thoughts, just vibes”.
The series, which returned for the first “volume” of its fourth season on Friday, is one of many recent movies and TV shows that have tapped into this specific reservoir of nostalgia. Without even leaving Netflix, there are projects like russian-doll, Glow Y BlackMirror, the highly talked about episode ‘San Junipero’; elsewhere, everything from The Americansuntil The Deuce Y Super 8, have taken viewers back to the 1980s. The teenage protagonists of the adaptation of Item of King of 2017 seemed to breathe the same air as the children of stranger things: Yes Item was not already in full development when it debuted stranger thingsI’d swear to God a studio exec must have turned on Netflix one night and said, “I want that.”
The appeal of the 1980s should be pretty obvious. It is based not only on nostalgia for the past, but also for a lived past. Much of the core demographic of viewers of stranger things grew up in the 1980s, or lived through it in some way. Even if you weren’t born back then, chances are you grew up in the glare of the era: the movies, the music, the fashion (another crucial factor in the appeal of the 1980s: it was the last decade of history before the popularization of the internet and mobile phones).
Of course, cinema and television have always been fascinated by the past decades. In the 1970s and 1980s, there were big hits like Back to the Future either Happy Days, which were based on just the same sense of lived nostalgia. To his credit, the approach of stranger things of the 1980s mostly avoids overt sentimentality about the glory days. As with much supernatural fiction from the 1980s, the series actually uses its horror-inflected premise to explore the unseen evils beneath the surface of American suburban life. The problem arises when we wonder why, exactly, creators Matt and Ross Duffer chose to set the show in this time period. Is there a better reason than simple convenience? A useful plot device? What does it really mean about the time?
The best period TV dramas of recent years: Mad MenTheDeuce, Halt and Catch FireThey understand their time period not just as an aesthetic, a set of circumstances and events, but as a fluid part of the larger continuum of human history. The 1980s is not a “vibe”, but rather a highly complex matrix of conflicting socio-economic movements, interpersonal histories and ideologies. When you see stranger things either Item, the eighties aesthetic feels like just a fad. When you see The Deuceor, to use a British example, the brilliant This is England ’86 and ’88 from Shane Meadows, it can hardly seem more real.
I am, of course, not the first person to politely suggest that stranger things it is more style than substance. In 2017, Robbie Collin of The Telegraph, described the series as “complacent and empty, the television equivalent of those social media accounts that post things like ‘Retweet if you loved watching Airwolf.'” But it’s a point worth reiterating, especially as we seem to be on the cusp of a new wave of retrospective series set during the 1990s. The decade, long considered too flashy and obnoxious to romanticize, has served as a showcase for a number of recent projects, aimed at young, aging millennials. Among them: yellowjackets, Fear Street: 1994 from netflix, That ’90s Show Pam & Tommy Y Young Sheldon. The nostalgia boom will not end with stranger things.
The past, as they say, is a foreign country, and who does not like vacations abroad? stranger things it has been undeniably useful in articulating our collective longing for a not too distant past, for a way of life that is already alien to us. But after four seasons, his reductive vision of the 1980s remains little more than a backdrop.