Remember the Eighties? He-Man, Rubik’s Cubes, Trapper Keepers, MTV playing music videos, and Toto’s “Africa”—“I bless the rains down in Africa”—were totally rad in the Eighties, and they can be found in Stranger Things. Do you also remember those Staples commercials where someone presses the “Easy” button? That’s what Stranger Things does when it evokes Eighties nostalgia. Stranger Things is baseline good; it’s not great.
Warning: there may be spoilers ahead.
Stranger Things is difficult to review. It is good and received overwhelmingly positive reviews. One reviewer even likened it to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. I started the series with high expectations, but Stranger Things is definitely not Twin Peaks.
It’s as if the Duffer Brothers (Matt and Ross Duffer) took several beloved Eighties properties, cut them up, and pasted them back together in different ways to form Stranger Things. The young girl with powers is ripped out of Firestarter—right down to her narrative arc. The beast/antagonist is a Sci-Fi version of the spirit in Poltergeist—right down to it keeping its victims in an alternate plane of existence. The group of boys borrows traits from the group of boys in Goonies and Stand by Me; there’s even a scene that’s close to a one-for-one recreation of a Stand by Me scene. And that’s before you include scenes that would’ve been at home in any Brat Pack movie, Back to the Future, or ET.
Stranger Things hits its easy nostalgia button so often that there may not be much in terms of character or plot development besides “remember the Eighties?” cropping up every five or ten minutes through most of its first season. When one of the characters isn’t a cardboard version of an Eighties property, they’re purchased from Costco’s stock movie character aisle. Winona Ryder’s mother is a generic, single mother worried about her son. Then there’s the social outcast teen, the popular kids, and just about every other stock Eighties character you could want. Sure, they’re Eighties characters, but they’re still stock characters.
Okay. I could go on about how Stranger Things’ plotlines are thin and how it pads its story with Eighties nostalgia, but I’m done ranting. Besides, there might be something more going on with these characters beneath the show’s layers of Eighties references, but mimicking Stand by Me and the like should at least make you wonder if Stranger Things spent enough time developing these characters, or if Stand by Me (and the rest) developed their kids, and Stranger Things is hitching a ride on the Stand by Me Express.
Regardless, Stranger Things is a well-executed show. It does a good job of pacing, the special effects are top-notch, and viewers can find a character they can relate to in the show and root for them.
During season one’s final ten minutes, Stranger Things fast-forwarded time a month—something you’ve heard me say that I don’t like in the past—but I think the skip worked here. We’re left with some interesting choices made by a couple of characters, namely the ingénue and the Judd Nelson replicon, that could be expanded on in a second season. These choices run counter to how you’d think an Eighties movie/TV show would take its characters.
Stranger Things does a great job of recreating the Eighties. Heck. They painstakingly recreated the Eighties. If you search Google for “80s references,” Stranger Things will dominate the first ten search pages. I’ll admit that I smiled when I caught an Eighties reference in Stranger Things, but I wanted the show to do more than ape the Eighties.
If you love Eighties nostalgia, you’ll love Stranger Things. If you like Eighties nostalgia but want something that will push narrative and characterization boundaries, you may be disappointed.