By now, your one nerdy friend who always tries to talk you into watching dumb scifi stuff has probably told you that you must get your eyeballs on a show called Stranger Things.
If not: Hello, I am that friend and you need to get your eyeballs on a show called Stranger Things. Like, posthaste. It’s only eight episodes. You can watch it all tonight if you stay up late.
Briefly: In a small Indiana town, a young man goes missing. His mother becomes convinced that he’s trying to communicate with her, which of course looks to everyone like she’s lost her damn mind. At the same time, the boy’s friends (a group of adorably geeky misfits), find a girl in the forest who seems to be either homeless or have supernatural powers or both. They realize that she has escaped from the scary men-in-black type facility on the edge of town and that she can somehow see into a dimension adjacent to their own. Together with the frazzled mom, the town sheriff, a couple of older siblings, and one very confused science teacher, they figure out that their friend is alive and trapped in the other dimension, the “Upside Down,” and they set out to retrieve him. Much elaborate planning, running from shady corporate and/or government goons, and fighting of monsters ensues.
Now, that would all be awesome enough on its own, but this is a period piece set in the early 1980s. And it’s gorgeous. The makers of this show have pulled off quite a trick here. It could have easily devolved into nostalgia porn, like 200 Cigarettes or Detroit Rock City. Those are both terrible movies, but I enjoyed them. Even better films have fallen into this trap in different ways, less explicit ways – Super 8, Donnie Darko, American Psycho, The Wolf of Wall Street (although, being based on a memoir, maybe that one gets a pass). The 80s may indeed be integral to the plot, but they needn’t shove it down our throats. American Graffiti and Dazed & Confused are probably the best examples of nostalgia porn (putting aside the 80s for the sake of making a point). Which isn’t to say they’re bad movies, obviously, but subtle about their intentions they are not. Stranger Things comes across instead as a loving homage to all things 80s. The score, sound effects, wardrobe, even the font and old-VHS-tape look of the intro sequence feel authentic. Far too often people think of the neon spandex and hair metal 80s, and forget about the horrible brown corduroy/shag carpet/synth music 80s. Which is a shame, really. I think more of us, particularly if we were blessed with a lot of hand-me-downs, had a more leftover 70s kind of childhood. With our giant plastic-framed glasses and our puffy sleeves and our feathered hair. It was not all Olivia Newton John and cocaine for us whippersnappers, let me tell you.
Further, the scifi/horror lineage of this show is glaringly obvious – Stand By Me, It, E.T., with heavy doses of The Goonies and something like the diet version of Nightmare on Elm Street for spice. Which makes sense, I suppose, as the 80s was an era of movies populated largely with motley gangs of unsupervised children running amok. This show wouldn’t work if it were set now. There are far fewer shenanigans since the advent of cell phones. Which isn’t commentary on “kids today are so lazy, blah blah blah” (we’ll get to that in a minute), but when capers are afoot the narrative is helped along by someone running into trouble on the way to deliver an imperitive piece of information on a tight timeline. That just doesn’t happen anymore. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Buffy wouldn’t have lasted seven seasons if they’d started out with text messages and Google. So, the 80s are good for plot devices, the lack of certain plot devices being itself a plot device, I guess.
Which brings me back to the kiddos. I talked about this a bit in my last post, how a film about a group of modern children would be different, given that kids no longer seem to get the satisfaction from roving around like feral dogs that past generations did. And perhaps this is an unhealthy or unfair overgeneralization, but all the teens or tweens I know are either at home playing video games or in some sort of structured summertime activity imposed upon them. They’re not out riding their bikes and exploring the world and smoking weed like good red-blooded Americans. I live in a neighborhood full of families and I haven’t seen kids out and about all summer. Now that could very well be because it’s a million goddamn degrees outside, or it could be an illustration of the sad state of our youth. I don’t fucking know. And I don’t really care one way or the other, it’s just an observation I have made while drinking many beers on my porch.
However, as a storytelling medium, stories about groups of kids are extremely rich. Kids are ballsy as hell, they’re stubborn and they don’t listen, and they have a weirdly attuned sense of loyalty and teamwork. Couple that with completely batshit logic, and kids are bound to get more accomplished than groups of most grownups. At least within the confines of linear plot. Add to that that in Stranger Things, this band of tiny oddballs are D&D players. As such, they are primed for adventure and heroism and saving the day. Say whatever Satanic panic crap you want about the game, but by god it does give young nerds a healthy case of delusions of grandeur. So useful, when they’re young, so long as it doesn’t turn into a superiority complex or intellectual snobbery. The mindset of the kids juxtaposed with that of the adults in this story would be interesting even if there were no supernatural elements. If, say, this were your garden variety child disappearance or abduction, I’d still be fascinated by how the kids versus the grownups reacted to it.
So, yeah. If you love a good getting-stuff-done-to-tinkly-Casio-drumbeats montage and some crazy evil conspiracy stuff plus monsters, you should definitely check out Stranger Things. Also, bonus, Winona Ryder is back at the top of her game. She’s awesome, especially when she’s freaking the fuck out. Except now I feel like I need to go watch Heathers again. So that’s the only downside.