Before I sat down to watch the new Netflix-exclusive series Stranger Things, I asked my friend—who was already a few episodes in—what the show was about.
He answered my question with a question. “What do you think makes a good nostalgia piece?” he asked.
I had to stop and think. The first thing to come to mind was not well-done nostalgia, but its opposite. I thought of the 2011 novel Ready Player One, or as I think of it, “Hey, Remember That?: The Book.”
Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is set in 2044, and follows the exploits of characters completely immersed in a virtual reality world à la Second Life. The creator of this virtual world was obsessed with the decade of his youth, the 1980s, and injected his geeky obsessions into his world. He creates a Dungeons & Dragons-style quest for the denizens of his virtual world to complete, and this quest requires an encyclopedic knowledge of all the bits of nostalgia he himself adored. And so, the teen protagonists of the novel think, speak, and breathe John Hughes and Atari references.
As a kid, I remember struggling away at the Atari game Adventure and teaming up with my brother and cousins to beat Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on the SNES. I jammed out to 80s synth pop and laughed at Monty Python until my sides hurt. Ready Player One seemed tailor-made for me. So why didn’t I love it?
Because, frankly, it made me feel like Terry Jones in this famous Monty Python sketch:
As an audience member, I hate being winked at. It’s a cheap, quick way for the author or director to attempt to forge a connection with his or her audience. To me, it always feels lazy, and it never feels earned. So even when Cline inserts a reference to Oingo Boingo, one of my all-time favorite bands, it’s not enough to get me on board. Yes, I got the reference. Annnnd….?
So, what makes a good nostalgia piece?
“It’s… subtle,” I finally said. “It’s more than broad references to pop culture. It’s in the details in the background—the patterns on the couch, the color of the walls.”
At this, my friend silently leveled a finger at me. Bingo.
Stranger Things, the brainchild of twin brothers Matt and Ross Duffer, is the epitome of nostalgia done right. The show begins in the small town of Hawkins, Indiana in 1983 and with a group of boys, maybe ten or twelve years old, immersed in a game of Dungeons & Dragons. The campaign ends and the boys all return home—all except one. Will, the smallest and most sensitive of the group, has a run-in with a mysterious horror on the road and vanishes into the night. As Will’s friends, his family, and the town’s police chief dig deeper into his disappearance, they uncover a government conspiracy, a strange girl with stranger powers, and a threat from beyond their plane of existence.
As the supernatural horror tale unfolds, its influences become clear. E.T. The Goonies. Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Firestarter. Aliens. Shades of each of these pieces inform the sensibilities of the show, but never overshadow the show’s unique flavor.
Matt Duffer sums it up simply in an interview: “It was like, ‘We love Stephen King and we love Spielberg and John Carpenter and we love Silent Hill’ and so we were trying to infuse [Stranger Things] with all the things that we love.”
“Infuse” is the key word here. The Duffer brothers’ love of these pieces of media is clear, and they’re right to draw inspiration from the things they love. But instead of just referencing a litany of movies or musicians from the 80s, they infuse these things into the world to flesh it out and make it feel lived-in and real.
Yes, I had many moments of gleeful geekery when I caught references sprinkled throughout the show. At one point, Corey Hart’s “Sunglasses at Night” softly emanates from a character’s car radio. And at another, the iconic movie poster for The Thing leans against a basement wall. But that’s the thing—these little nuggets are in the background. They don’t comprise the meat of the show, but rather exist to enhance it.
And that subtlety I mentioned earlier? It’s there in spades. One look at any of the characters’ living rooms, and you’re instantly transported to this suburban neighborhood circa 1983. The patterns, the color schemes are all on-point. And all this detail, inexorably tied to time and place, heightens the story’s authenticity. Cold War paranoia pervades the small Indiana town where everyone knows everyone. Kids communicate via walkie-talkies. Teens sneak over to their friend’s house and shotgun cans of Schlitz when their parents aren’t home.
The strength of Stranger Things is in its tight storytelling, its fascinating world, and its complex, charming characters. The Duffer brothers understand that reference without substance, without synthesis into something new, is as empty and unsatisfying as [insert 80s reference here].