Stranger Things is a monster that walks on three legs.
The body of this Netflix series is the suburbs of Hawkins, Indiana, in 1983. Each of its three legs is formed by a film genre that drew narrative power from a specific age group. The kids are Spielberg kids. The teens are slasher film teens. The adults are David Lynch adults.
The kids in Stranger Things (four boys and one girl) are in a zone that is toned and colored by E.T. With the teenagers (two males and two females—one of whom is dead), it’s Friday the 13th. With the adults (a man and a woman), it’s Twin Peaks (with shades of Blue Velvet to keep things ’80s). And how well does this monster walk? Very well indeed. Each limb is in sync with the others. Not one of Stranger Things’ eight episodes fails. (Only the very last minute of the series is bad.)
Strange things start happening in a sleepy suburb. People vanish. Lights flicker on and off for no reason. Evil glows and grows in the depths of a forest. A creature without a face has been seen by some at night. Does the government’s Department of Energy, which has a secret lab near the suburb, have anything to do with this?
The main adults of the show are a mother, Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder), who is going nuts because her son is missing, and a police chief, Jim Hopper (David Harbour), who, when not drowning his sorrows in beer, is trying to figure things out with his limited and often booze-fogged intelligence (he is no Sherlock Holmes). The teens are ruled by the sexual passions of their young bodies. The kids are three boys who, while looking for their missing friend in the woods, find a girl.
What makes Stranger Things interesting is not its plot.
Indeed, by the fifth episode, you can pretty much see how it’s all going to end. With this work, the pleasures of mystery solving are nothing compared to the pleasures of bathing in the ambience of 1980s cinema. In fact, you spend more time trying to catch the references than the clues. And the references also include pop music. In one scene, the police chief enters his car and begins to furiously think about the missing boy and his mother, who claims things are walking out of her walls. What should he do? What is going on? As he sits in the car, we hear Joy Division’s “Atmosphere.” Now, it is hard to believe that a middle-aged policeman in an Indiana suburb would have been familiar with the music of the British post-punk band Joy Division in 1983 (maybe “Blue Monday” by New Order, which was released that year), but that inconsistency does not matter. Nor does the reference to the Smiths’ “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” three years before it existed. It’s the recognition of the oeuvre that counts. And the use of “Atmosphere” isn’t empty or decorative, either; it tells us the cop is in a very dark place, like the singer of the tune, Ian Curtis, who hanged himself in a kitchen on May 18, 1980.
The show is mining a specific area of our cultural memory shale—a time when the letters ADD stood only for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Several geological layers below Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, The Lord of the Rings, and the Marvel Universe, there was E.T., A Nightmare on Elm Street (a slasher film about a monster that devours the dreams of teens), Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Explorers, Poltergeist, The Goonies, Stand by Me, choose your own adventure novels, and on down. An excellent way to think about this mining operation can be found in one of the greatest videos ever made, the Roots’ 1996 “Concerto of the Desperado.” Shot in black and white (and directed by the man who gave the world the immortal Budweiser “Whassup?” commercial, Charles Stone III), the video depicts b-boys in a parched quarry digging for and unearthing with their bare hands old turntables and others pieces of DJ equipment that are buried in hiphop’s history. This is what the Duffer brothers, the creators of Stanger Things, are doing with our collective minds.
But the nostalgia that fuels the show is very new. This is a nostalgia for the suburbs. We have heard of nostalgia for the mud (nostalgie de la boue—country living) and for the ghetto (the pre-gentrification world of, say, Sidney Lumet’s Serpico). But we have never seen a show colored by nostalgia for a period in time when the suburban mode of American life was a nearly universal aspiration or achievement of the middle classes. The suburbs aren’t dead. Yes, most Americans still live in them. But they have been found out, debunked. Young people are fleeing them for the city, while urban poor rush to replace them.
Stranger Things looks back on a time when no one could imagine the decline of this way of life, which was no paradise—there are lots of drunks, a huge car graveyard, and plenty of grit in Hawkins, Indiana (though Ryder’s character manages to support herself and two kids and a house on a retail clerk’s pay). What the creators are trying to capture and make us feel is that distant time and place just before the sun began setting on the suburbs and the moonlight began to reveal the real horror of Ronald Reagan’s America.