Scene from Stranger Things
If you’re anyone who spends time around social media, you’ll know how big of a deal Netflix’s latest series Stranger Things was. The eight episode series dropped last Friday and has quickly gathered a string of great reviews, and endorsements from the Master of Horror: Stephen King. The show is a nice departure from the lengthier Netflix series, which helps it benefit as one of the few shows worthy of binge watching, which each episode providing a supernatural twist. However, there is one side of the coin that may be a bit disconcerting: nostalgia. For many, part of the show’s appeal is that there’s countless references to King, John Carpenter, various Amblin films, and other 80’s horror mainstays. While it enriches the world, is it possible that nostalgia is a crutch of sorts? While Stranger Things isn’t the worst offender, one could argue: is making something nostalgic a good thing?
The truth is that nostalgia is great. At certain points in our lives, we’ve had a fondness to revisit another period of our lives, looking back on it fondly as when life was great, or effectively different. While sometimes it’s just a result of clouded judgment piecing together memories that aren’t entirely accurate, there is something comforting about looking back on those times. For most people, that’s through cinema. People rewatch films like Star Wars because it connects them to a childhood naivety. Same could go for any facet of life, including those who have a longing to revisit a decade long passed. After all, it is why time travel stories remain so prescient. Still, there is plenty to be intrigued about by exploring the past.
In the case of Stranger Things, one could easily look at the 80’s as a decade that is almost defiantly unique. If someone asked you to define something that’s “So 80’s,” you’d likely pull out Ronald Reagan, Madonna, Flashdance, neon clothing, and big hair. It is a time that seems strangely held in both reverence and ridicule depending on how you like your cheese. This isn’t to say that this is all that the decade had. That would be like saying that the 60’s was nothing but The Beatles when in fact they only came midway through the decade. Still, to say someone is nostalgic for an era is often to talk about the specifics, such as inferior technology or beliefs that have faded into the “You can’t do that today.” mindset that seems to make certain pop culture touchstones fascinating. To some, it’s an isolating artifact that cannot be fully appreciated unless you were there.
In recent years, the 80’s have had a particular resurgence in favoritism. While it has always been there, such as in The Wedding Singer, one can look at shows like The Goldbergs or even the latest Richard Linklater movie Everybody Wants Some!!, and see something thrilling about the period. Even last week’s release of Ghostbusters is inevitably tied to the original film from the 80’s. To say the least, Stranger Things is in good company, and it thankfully shows a side to the cliche 80’s culture that isn’t overblown or frankly embarrassing. It’s the horror side, which was still blending practical effects with sometimes mediocre CG. They were focused on kids getting into peril in ways that felt earnest. One could easily watch the first episode of the Netflix series and think of Steven Spielberg’s foray either as director or producer during this time. The kids have a familiar cadence that people who have seen E.T. will recognize.
This is all well and good, but there’s another side to nostalgia that seems a little crass. As much as era can be used to emphasize what made it great, there’s also the lazy sensibility that calls attention to itself. This is best summarized in Back to the Future where “Chuck Berry’s brother” calls Chuck to tell him about this awesome sound. It is time traveler Marty McFly playing Berry’s most iconic song “Johnny B Goode.” It’s a sly nod that alters history, but also sets a precedent for on the nose references. For classic rock fans, Berry is a mainstay voice of 50’s music. This is nothing more than a pandering joke meant to emphasize the era that the film takes place. We understand it because we know who Berry is. The joke is that we have hindsight where the film doesn’t.
Back to the Future is a successful enough film that this joke actually works. However, there’s been lesser films that have attempted to use it as a wink to the audience. As great as fourth wall breaking story telling can be, it sometimes comes as pointless meandering. This isn’t just in creating regular people into a Nostradamus, but also in laying in references in thick. If you’re going to make 80’s pop culture references, you hit the obvious ones whether they fit or not. It is why you come across on the nose set designs for hip or nerdy teens who also wear certain hip or nerdy shirts. As much as it plays into the era, it takes specific detail and interest to keep it from being more than your stock parody.
So, how can nostalgia be used for good? Stranger Things straddles the lines, as it makes its cinematic references fairly easy for die hard fans of the decade. There’s even some that hang in the background or are used as brief references. You’ll know the ones don’t land because they are jarringly inauthentic. Thankfully, it is balanced enough that it doesn’t matter. However, it’s still hard to pitch this show without calling it retro or throwback. You can call it good, but trying to separate it as an original work and not something nostalgic becomes difficult. Sure, the story is technically original, but one who pieces things together can recognize certain plot devices stolen from King or Spielberg, and the music cues sometimes borrowed from Carpenter. This isn’t bad. The best of cinema borrows from each other. The real question is if the reference is being served as something that logically progresses story, or merely reminds us of the period that we’re in.
For the sake of reference, I will turn to another relatively “nostalgic” show: Mad Men. Over seven seasons, the show chronicled Don Draper’s job at an advertising agency throughout the entire 60’s. It makes sense then that the music cues are era appropriate. The sets have to look a certain way, and even creator Matthew Weiner famously got upset when the ice cubes were the wrong shape. The show is very much a 60’s show in tone and atmosphere, and features your array of big moment stories. There’s whole episodes dedicated to the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.. There’s the Beatles invasion. There’s the admiration for films like Rope and the comedy of Bob Newhart. These are all staples that are references to the time. While this is only the surface of a denser reading of the show, it adds to what makes the show more than a retro journey into the past.
That in particular is that the story at hand was on an implicit and later explicit level about the shifting tide of politics and gender roles that came with the time. It had several themes worthy of mention, but it felt 60’s because it was about people who felt like they lived then. You could imagine them in those homes driving those cars and getting drunk at random Los Angeles parties. The various opinions held all feel specific to the time, but also provide depth as to how characters actually feel. Draper rejects The Beatles because they lack his conservative views on a symphonic level. It’s more than an easy reference of how Draper is out of touch. It’s about the danger of the culture around him, threatening to replace him with liberal freedom.
How does this apply to Stranger Things? The truth is that it’s a tad hard to accurately compare the two, as they’re both different genres and running lengths. Mad Men in its first season alone had way more episodes to cover than Stranger Things. However, the core advice is that these type of shows that rely on periods needs to be about the people first and the culture second. We need to feel like the kids in the Netflix series are fans of J.R.R. Tolkien and not just saying they are because the mythical “Tolkien’s brother” character said they would. Thankfully, it does make sense, and a lot of the references are merely there to sugarcoat a solid mystery.
Is nostalgia bad? Not necessarily. It makes you feel good and it does embrace a bygone culture. However, it does get treated as a crutch way too often, serving as its own form of trivia for viewers. It’s why certain films have failed, no matter how passionate the filmmaker claims to be of the era. Few take the time like Mad Men to embrace the time while also being about something more. It isn’t important to know what these characters like, but what they do. In 2016, most people reading this are fans of something that likely would make for a good piece to their life story. It could be a band or movie. It’s important to help create a singular character, but it cannot be the defining feature. It’s only then that nostalgia goes from pretty good to straight up pandering.