Pop culture has an unquenchable thirst for nostalgia. Rebooted films dominate the big screen (It), throwback candy and juice are stocked on every store shelf (or forever sold out, like Ecto Cooler), and 80’s purists still abide by the “Be Kind, Rewind” mantra on Instagram. Nostalgia is not only omnipresent, but it’s dictating the way studios are producing content, which is why 2016 is the perfect year for a show like Stranger Things to enter the zeitgeist.
Stranger Things, Netflix’s latest buzzworthy original series, is set in 1980s Indiana. A young boy named Will vanishes mysteriously after a run-in with a lanky monster. His mom (Winona Ryder) tries desperately to find him, even amid devastating evidence. His fellow neighborhood-friends-on-bikes start their own search with the help of Eleven, a telekinetic girl with a shaved head and serious lack of social skills. And that’s when things start to go bump in the night, and get, well, strange. If it feels like you’ve seen this all before, that’s because you have.
But before we go there, the show admittedly does a lot of things right. It feels like one of the best depictions of the 80s that we’ve seen lately, and this really helps set the stage for what’s to come. It’s effective because its creators, The Duffer Brothers, don’t use the awesomely-bad decade in a hokey way—there’s no satire or camp here. It’s a straight down the middle representation of what it was like to be a kid in the 80’s, and this alone had me feeling all sorts of wistful. And that’s without even mentioning the music.
The theme for the show was done by Austin’s S U R V I V E, and it’s a crazy cool electronic instrumental track that makes the opening credits eerie af. It sounds like something that could easily be found in a John Carpenter or Dario Argento film…or hell, even Tron. It’s an incredibly powerful piece that accentuates the vision and color schemes that The Duffer Brothers worked so hard to create.
While the show builds mystery and tension well, and keeps a very steady pace across its eight episode run, my major qualm was its lack of originality. Each and every turn it took reminded me of something I’ve already seen: a Stephen King adaptation, The Goonies, The X-Files, every Steven Spielberg film ever made. The monster and “upside down” world even reminded me of Pan’s Labyrinth. There’s even a bit of Poltergeist in there, too. All of these callbacks and references and borrowed elements began to distract me from the story of Stranger Things – this “new” show that I was diving into.
Stranger Things proved that there is such a thing as too much nostalgia. When the homage elements overthrow and outshine the show’s own centralized mythology, it reveals its true lack of innovation. I was waiting for the show to start mapping out its own rules and universe. I wanted it to take sharp turns and pull the rug out from under us at least once. I can’t say that it accomplished that in any major way (though the setup for next season could go in multiple different directions, so there’s that).
I won’t pretend that I didn’t enjoy Stranger Things. In addition to the music and atmosphere, the acting is excellent—the child actors especially, led by the toothless, scene-stealing Dustin (Gaten Matazzaro) and the supernatural child-turned-lab-rat Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown). The direction and execution were also spot on. But when we peel away the layers of compounded nostalgia, we’re left with a quilt of all borrowed elements from the depths of geek and genre culture, all stitched together. I just wish these Things were comprised of more newness than novelty. Grade: B