Some shows I just watch. The Netflix show Stranger Things, a supernatural/horror/sci-fi series set in the 1980's, has stayed on my mind since I finished the 8-episode season. It's like if E.T. and Stephen King's "It" had a love child, and I fell in love with it.
Stranger Things hits so many high points: it's beautifully filmed (as discussed in this video), the synth soundtrack is both evocative of the times and ethereal in its own right, and the acting - particularly the performance of the children - is unbelievably good. What's more, it calls forth 80's imagery and filmmaking so well that it scratches a nostalgic itch for anyone who was young in the decade - particularly a certain D&D-playing social set who were nerds long before it was considered cool. Hell, it even has a requisite product placement, evoking that moment when we saw E.T. gobble Reese's Pieces and wondered, with naïveté that seems now both refreshing and depressing, if the film makers actually got money to put that in the movie.
Stranger Things can seem so familiar, and employ so many of the hallmark plot devices of the time, that you can at times predict where it's going next, but I seldom cared. The show is a paean to how old stories are reinvented and made new again. The first couple episodes are jammed with moments that are so, so 80's: kids run around on their bikes out at night, with little parental supervision. People don't form commas around cell phones during every moment of inaction. The school is open and unsecured against any threat. In general, it feels like the kids live in a world in which the very concept of safety is almost unrecognizably different, an alien set of rules as surprising as anything from a speculative fiction novel.
Herein lies the one aspect where I couldn't help but feel the show fell short. The dichotomy between what frightened us in the 80s and what scares us now is like a great vein of gold beneath the characters' feet, and I kept expecting someone to stick a shovel into the earth and start digging.
It's OK to set a series in the past, to evoke and honor the techniques and narratives that formed your own aesthetic sense. Stranger Things succeeds in part because its characters live in a time that's at once both familiar and impossibly strange, a lost world. It's an exceptional show; this and Mr. Robot are the best TV I've seen in years.
But once I got through all 8 hours or so, I began to think about it as a supernatural/horror film. Horror is often an evocation of what scares us as a culture, a reflection of our collective anxiety - death, loss of control, the seemingly mindless actions of people we don't like or understand.
There is a monster in Stranger Things, but some of the tension in the series is carried by the fact that the kids are on their own, trying to deal with a frightening presence that is far beyond their ability to control. If you were alive during this time, maybe you experienced that feeling yourself while watching The Day After, Threads, or the news, and wondering if you would be among those unlucky to die in the coming nuclear war, or unlucky enough to be one of the survivors.
Now, that fear has been replaced by post-911 anxiety and an amplified concern over being victimized by the unsavory among us. The freedom the kids in the show enjoy, biking at night out of reach of cell phones, would be terrifying to many parents now. This is true even though crime is significantly lower now than in earlier decades, and the omnipresence of cell phones means no one is very far from emergency services.
Fears change with the times. We are taught what to fear, through some sort of emergent property of our culture. Someone out there will succeed or fail, profit or lose, based on what you makes you feel helpless and afraid. That's a very strange thing, and I would love to see the capable producers of Stranger Things go spelunking down that darkand murky cave in Season Two.