Stranger Things takes a big, wet, deicing-salt-saturated bath in 1980s nostalgia and comes out…well, covered in slime, but squeaky-clean. SPOILERS.


The New York Times wroteStranger Things doesn’t wear its influences on its sleeve so much as knit an entire suit of them.” No argument here, but at least the show is smart enough to confess to what it’s doing. Of the many “meta,” self-reflexive moments, I particularly enjoyed the graffiti on the movie marquee, not because of the bullying, misogynistic words themselves, but for the deeper symbolism: here’s a show awkwardly, crudely “writing” itself into a certain 1980s movie canon, even though it can never quite be what was already there. (And then, with Steve’s help, the writing is erased…or is it?)

Another fine meta-moment comes during the epilogue when one of our four central kids complains about the shortness of their Dungeons and Dragons adventure and Will admonishes him, “Dude, it’s been ten hours!” Putting aside the too-crazy through-the-looking-glass theory that the entire show was simply a scenario that Will was Dungeon-Mastering for the boys, it’s a clever line that references the audience experience of watching the show. Casey McCormick has a terrific essay in our new book about how the best Netflix shows, like House of Cards, artfully weave themes of binging into their narratives. And yes, Stranger Things is less than ten hours long, though with bathroom breaks and such, a typical Netflix viewer will either take at least ten hours to watch it, or alternatively, when Will says that line, feel a slight unconscious relief that it didn’t take that long. (The Clash’s endlessly repeated “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” isn’t just about whether he should get out of the Upside-Down; it’s about whether we should.)

If the show is crowing that it didn’t drag its story out for the usual ten episodes, let me say: message received and effort appreciated. After slogs like The Leftovers and The 100, I was thrilled at how quickly the plot turns arrived in Stranger Things. They’ve found Will’s body. They’re having a funeral. Hopper just broke into the lab. Rarely did I think, as I often do on horror-ish shows, “why don’t they just go after them right now?!” Great pacing, show.

Terrible title. Just want to get that out of the way. After Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides made a billion dollars, and now Stranger Things has eaten up serious summer attention, there’s a risk that Hollywood will start to think that “Stranger” is a good word for titles. No, not unless we’re adapting Camus or Orson Welles, because the word is too amorphous. At that point you may as well call this show “Vaguer Things.” What would have been better? “Up to Eleven.” “Demogorgon.” “Friends Don’t Lie.” “Hawkins.” “Promise.” Any of the episode titles. Or “Have You Seen?” Or “Byers.” I could do this all day. Anything but “Stranger Things.”


Is it fun to read Vulture’s breakdown of all the show’s references? You’re damn right it is. Was it, like, totally awesome of the show to weave together Steven Spielberg, Stephen King (that font!!), and John Carpenter into a usable feast? Sure. With extra credit for pitch-perfect synthesizer. For a video version, try this.

I turned 12 in 1983, the year the show is set, and speaking as one member of what’s clearly the target demographic, I will say that I really didn’t need the show to so slavishly follow the 14g-10b rule. (Yes, our main kids are slightly over 10, but their baseball caps, hooptie bikes, haircuts, and pre-teen angst clearly stand in contrast to Nancy’s experiences.) 8mm, J.J. Abrams’ similar ode, also adhered to the 14g-10b rule. But the thing is: Spielberg films didn’t, not really. Before corporations cast films, Spielberg had the power to keep teenage female sex symbols out of his films, and in the 1980s he did, except for The Goonies. That’s what Abrams and the Duffer Brothers forget. Someday we’ll have new shows and movies featuring people between the ages of 15 and 10 that don’t spotlight a young teenage girl and her pre-teen brother, but not today.

I loved the idea of the house full of strewn Christmas lights along with the wall-sized Ouija board; I also loved that the show made spare use of both. I loved the small-town setting, which felt as lived-in and loved as an old ripped Flashdance T-shirt. I wish the show had never told us that Hawkins was in Indiana (the license plates were conspicuous), and simply left the story, Simpsons-style, in Anytown, U.S.A. (The show was filmed in Georgia.) A few internet commenters complained that Michael Jackson went unnoted during his annus mirabilis, which seemed an odd gripe: if that’s a problem, then what about missing sports signs and Halloween decorations? Splash of reality: back in 1983, none of that stuff, including MJ, was as ubiquitous as we now consider it. John Landis, director of the “Thriller” video and American Werewolf in London and part of the 1980s Twilight Zone movie (along with Spielberg), gets more than enough comic-horror shout-outs from Stranger Things.

Today I scoured the internet for a sort of “Who Wore 1983 Best?” production-design smackdown article of Stranger Things versus The Americans. Nope. (Does anyone besides me and Emmy voters watch The Americans?) Were I paid to write for buzzfeed or the like, I’d write the smackdown piece myself. Nonetheless, it feels like Stranger Things got a lot of things right that we haven’t really seen on The Americans, including that sportsy folder of Nancy’s, Steve’s Marty McFly Nikes, Uzis, and assorted odds and ends.

This is no shade on The Americans, but I like that when Eleven turns on the TV, we only barely see Ronald Reagan, from the side. While the cast of The Americans must (and do) directly face Reagan (uh, on TV), the 40th President is at best a spectral presence in the lives of people in a town like Hawkins, or, you might say, a sideways figurehead. That whole scene is clever, because just when you think Eleven is going to go the full E.T. and learn English from TV, a Coke commercial (not seen but heard by us) drops her into a flashback that may have inspired the need for New Coke.


I suppose it goes without saying (certainly, I don’t see who’s said it) that a significant part of the appeal of centralizing helmet-less 1980s kids on bikes is that it serves to rebuke or at least nose-tweak the helicopter parents that those kids grew into, parents who would never dream of allowing their kids to ride helmet-less OR at night OR on rusty bikes that probably cost less than $50. (While his peers were making films about truck convoys and CB radios, Spielberg was more concerned with a new world for children, who have since repaid him a thousand times over.) What were kids doing before parents over-scheduled their days with sports and music and language classes et cetera? Well, I guess some of them were reading comics and playing D&D, with enough free time to search for their missing friend without arousing suspicion. The many reviews are right to say that Stranger Things relies upon nostalgia, but that’s only half an observation. The fuller truth is that Stranger Things relies upon a nostalgia for the freedom and liberty we all enjoyed pre-overscheduling. (The parents are also freer; in Hopper and Joyce’s case, free to drink, smoke, and be miserable.) And at the same time the slime-horror aspects, silly as they often are, give some serious goth to that Norman Rockwell painting and keep the show from implying that things were always better back then.

Probably the best thing about the show are the conversations between Mike, Dustin, and Lucas, sometimes including El, which are rather brilliantly performed in an almost-shouty, declarative register that we don’t really see from today’s televised 12-year-olds. The wardrobe cues us: these children are nerds, they’re not expecting their every word and image to wind up on social media, and they’re both wiser and dumber than their years. Today’s 12-year-olds, at least on TV, are almost too cool for school, and I’m not saying Hollywood is getting that essence wrong. Stranger Things takes me to a world before the severe achievement gap between boys and girls, and shows me boys who were raised to think learning was cool, who had their science teacher’s home phone number. As a parent of little boys right now, you’ll excuse me if I have something in my eye.

All the performers are strong. Matthew Modine does some weird thing with his voice; he’s imitating someone, but right now I don’t know who. The teens are chillingly realistic to the period. One final meta moment I loved was watching Winona Ryder standing at a cash register counter basically demanding free stuff. Ryder as Joyce vibrates her head, folds her arms, shudders her shoulders, goggles her eyes, and tells this old white man (I’m paraphrasing): I need this stuff so get over it. Perhaps I’m over-reading, but for me, she was staring down every loser who ever called her a shoplifter. Get over it, and let’s get on with the next phase of the Ryder career. We’re ready.

What I don’t love about horror/science-fiction stories is that the rules can change at any time. Okay, now Eleven can flip a van. The gate is in the center, oh now it’s in a tree. It’s hard for me to remain utterly invested when a sensory-deprivation-tank message from El to Will might produce the 1983 equivalent of an emoji, or a text, or an email, or a bridge, or a rescue reunion? That said, I enjoyed myself, and I’ll be queueing up for whatever the Duffer Brothers do next. It doesn’t really change my experience of the show, but I love knowing that the show’s creators are twin brothers born in 1984, a year after the year that the show so successfully recaptures. If the show represents nostalgia for the Duffers, it’s not the normal kind, but instead more like nostalgia for an origin story of something fetal, covered in amniotic fluid. I’m ready to see more of that spawn.