When the Netflix drama Stranger Things, now in its third season, debuted in 2016, it was clear from the opening seconds that the show was set not so much in the 1980s as inside a version of the ’80s made up from that decade’s own visual media. It looked – and continues to look – like an amalgam of fantasy and sci-fi films, cartoons and video games from that time: E.T., Ghostbusters, Space Invaders, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe etcetera. But the purpose (and the pleasure) of this referentiality is not whether you can recall these things from the first time around; it’s whether you can recognise and assimilate them, now, into your present-day viewing experience. In other words, Stranger Things relies on the collective knowledge and the practically infinite archive of the internet to properly reveal its geekiness. And the internet has obliged: the bulk of online commentary about Stranger Things consists of lists of all the other stuff the show makes reference to.
The wielding of arcane cultural capital is, of course, the geek’s first and often only line of defence in a world that favours bluster and beauty. I know exactly the kind of men (and they are men) who created Stranger Things, for they were once the sort of weird Trekkie boys who spoke Vulcan to each other at school, and took comfort in their weirdness. And yes, I also spent an ’80s childhood playing elaborate fantasy games with walkie-talkies, just like the suburban kids who are the central characters in Stranger Things. I watched Astro Boy every day! I had a Rainbow Brite schoolbag! By god, I should adore Stranger Things: it’s like my memories filtered back to me through someone else’s memories of all the TV that we absorbed. But actually, the show isn’t half as interesting as that, and I think its nostalgia is pernicious. In order to explain why, I gotta make like a VHS cassette, and rewind.
The narrative of Stranger Things began in 1983, with a pre-teen boy, Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), going missing from the fictional American town of Hawkins, Indiana. As with any small-town crime, Will’s disappearance forged unlikely local allegiances and prompted acres of conspiracy theories – only, in this case, the conspiracists were right. Will’s mother, Joyce (Winona Ryder), initially dismissed as grief-mad, came to understand that her child was trapped inside a sunless wasteland called the Upside Down, which, as per its name, reflected, though darkly, the topography above. Joining Joyce in her quest to rescue Will from the Upside Down was Will’s motley gang of fellow Dungeons and Dragons enthusiasts, Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Mike (Finn Wolfhard). Assisting them were the town’s dogged cop, Hopper (David Harbour); Will’s shy and lonely older brother, Jonathan (Charlie Heaton); kind-hearted but sleuthing high-school junior Nancy (Natalia Dyer); and, most dramatically, a young girl named Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown). As the story began, Eleven – known as El – had just escaped from the Hawkins National Laboratory, an off-limits research facility where all sorts of experiments were being conducted, including attempts to reach the Upside Down. El has telekinetic powers, and was raised in the Hawkins lab as a human weapon.
Stranger Things’ first season studiously echoed anxieties of the ’80s: child abduction, suburban estrangement, the possibility of nuclear annihilation. (The Upside Down, where an ashen sleet falls continuously, suggests the Earth after a nuclear war.) But by virtue of being a contemporary creation, Stranger Things also intimated that a certain wrongness had persisted into the present, like a stain. Its villains were shadowy in both senses, covert and indeterminate, which left open the question of why they were intent on breaking through to the Upside Down – using El and her powers as a means – and what they hoped to unleash by doing so. There was an indifferent cruelty to the Hawkins lab, as if social destruction didn’t matter very much so long as it was wreaked in pursuit of greater power. After all, as a certain Margaret Thatcher once said, there is no such thing as society. In this way, Stranger Things also echoed something lastingly real about the after-effects of the ’80s: namely, that we’re still living with the consequences of the neoliberal and neoconservative ideologues who took power at this time.
I think fixation on the ’80s, of the kind that Stranger Things exhibits, tends to reveal a desire (sometimes an unconscious one) to go back and reckon with that history. And a show that was willing to face the lingering trauma of that decade, as the first season of Stranger Things hinted at, might yet suggest new ways through that time, or out of it. But the longer Stranger Things has gone on, the less unsettling – in a productive sense – and the more conservative its nostalgia is revealed to be. To which one might counter: but isn’t nostalgia always conservative? I don’t think so, no. It’s not inherently conservative or reactionary to acknowledge that our conditions – environmental, economic, social – have materially worsened over the past 30 to 40 years, and to wish for redress. But from whom to seek it? Who’s the enemy?
And this is where Stranger Things’ conservatism really comes to the fore. After a second season that went all around the houses – including an unintentionally comic episode where El met up with some fellow telekinetic runaways in a punk squat that was probably meant to recall the urban dystopia of The Warriors but was about as edgy as “Nozin’ Aroun’”, the parody “young adult” show-within-a-show on The Young Ones – we’re back in Hawkins for season three, where the calendar says 1985, and the enemy is… Russians.
Yep. According to the möbius-strip logic of this season’s script, the Soviet Union was to blame for the shopping malls that corporatised the landscape and diminished the economies of small-town America in ’80s. And why? Because, it transpires, those dastardly commies were plotting all along to build malls big enough that their experimental weapons labs could be concealed beneath them, and in those labs they were attempting, in turn, to open gateways to the Upside Down, which would have unleashed monsters terrible enough to destroy capitalism. Can you imagine? No more shopping malls!
I kept waiting for a moment – any moment – that might ironise or complicate this Reagan Doctrine bellicosity from the perspective of today, but it never came. The conflict over an alternative dimension turns out to be just another proxy war between the superpowers. Stranger Things has sealed itself inside its own method, where nothing in the show can be anything other than a copy of American mass culture of the ’80s, which means xeroxing that culture’s ideologies, too. And a xerox – as those of you old enough to have spent quality time with photocopiers will recall – tends to be missing any subtleties that characterised the original.
Season three of Stranger Things revolves around the newly built Starcourt Mall, which, although it is proving ruinous to the town (including Joyce’s workplace, the Hawkins general store), is nevertheless presented as a neon Shangri-La of leisure and consumption. El, the deprived lab child, gets to realise herself through shopping, like one of those Eastern Bloc orphans adopted into the bounty and goodness of the West. Ham radio uber-nerd Dustin spends his time chasing Russians through the mall’s air duct system, in league with other tween and teen patriots, while Hopper periodically guns down the foe like Rambo. Kill ’em all, let God sort ’em out.
As the season reaches its denouement, with Hawkins’ self-styled Special Forces battling for control of the retail zone (a neat means of dropping in about a hundred different product placements, by the way, so congrats to the executive producers for that brainwave), I found myself reflecting further on the purpose of Stranger Things’ relentless appetite for the past. Much is made in this season of 1985’s popular cinema hit Back to the Future, which the kids watch, naturally, at the multiplex inside the mall. In that film, Michael J. Fox’s teen character, Marty McFly, gets accidentally sent back from 1985 to 1955, where things seem pretty square and dull: no rock ’n’ roll at the school dance, no Pepsi Free. By comparison, surely the present is preferable, even the best one can expect? Not so fast. At the film’s end, Marty and his mad scientist companion, Doc (Christopher Lloyd), are getting ready to teleport their time-machine-slash-car 30 years into the future, where, Doc tells Marty – and through him, us – “we don’t need roads”.
Alas that this aeronaut dream of 2015 and beyond never came to exist. Instead, we’re still stuck inside a world that the ’80s more or less instantiated, consuming popular culture like Stranger Things that can’t offer any orientation to the past – or consequently, the present or future – other than that this reality, the one we’re living, is the only one that could or should have been.
No one wants to dwell in the Upside Down, and fair enough. But for Stranger Things to suggest the possibility of other worlds and then close them off, leaving only shopping malls? That’s not imaginative, and certainly not in the way that the cultural artefacts the show imitates once managed to suggest. Instead, with its passive and uncritical relationship to the history of popular culture, its in-show product placements and its numerous, real-world brand tie-ins, the only dimension that Stranger Things exists in is that of advertising. What it sells is more of what we’ve already got: Pepsi Freedom™.
When the Netflix drama Stranger Things, now in its third season, debuted in 2016, it was clear from the opening seconds that the show was set not so much in the 1980s as inside a version of the ’80s made up from that decade’s own visual media. It looked – and continues to look – like an amalgam of fantasy and sci-fi films, cartoons and video games from that time: E.T., Ghostbusters, Space Invaders, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe etcetera. But the purpose (and the pleasure) of this referentiality is not whether you can recall these things from the first time around; it’s whether you can recognise and assimilate them, now, into your present-day viewing experience. In other words, Stranger Things relies on the collective knowledge and the practically infinite archive of the internet to properly reveal its geekiness....