Netflix’s Stranger Things Is a Perfect Example of How to Use Nostalgia Well

It’s been a long time since I’ve watched something that hits so many of my favorite tropes and narrative ideas.
Stranger Things Poster

Note: The following contains potential spoilers.

Usually I try to hold off on writing a review or recap until I’ve had some time to think about whatever it is I’m reviewing and let it sink in. Not so with Netflix’s Stranger Things; I had to start writing something within 30 minutes of finishing the series. Not since Donnie Darko have I felt so strongly that some filmmakers had tapped directly into my subconscious with the express purpose of hitting all of my favorite tropes and narrative ideas (e.g., shadowy government experiments, role-playing games, scientists meddling where they shouldn’t be meddling, otherworldly monsters, coming-of-age stories, ’80s pop culture). Or, as my friend Jeremy put it, “It’s like the Duffer Brothers are us!”

To be clear, Stranger Things is a shameless and unabashed throwback to ’80s cult and genre pop culture, including the films of Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter (and even John Hughes), the novels of Stephen King, and the music of Joy Division and The Clash. Much like Panos Cosmatos’ Beyond the Black Rainbow, Stranger Things is clearly a love letter to everything that Matt and Ross Duffer — who wrote, directed, and produced the Netflix series — loved about the ’80s (though Stranger Things is far less stylized than Cosmatos’ movie).

As a result, every shot and scene practically drips with nostalgia, from the wardrobe and hairstyles to the stuff that characters watch on TV (Knight Rider for the win) to the tupperware sitting on a dining room table. Which, given my own predilection for yesteryear and my status as a child of the ’80s, is certainly a huge part of why I enjoyed the show as much as I did.

But the Duffers also realize that nostalgia will only get you so far; even with all of the familiar tropes and whatnot, you still need to have an engaging story with mystery and suspense, and you still need to have characters that viewers care about. Thankfully, Stranger Things has these in spades.

The show’s heart revolves around a trio of middle school-aged boys named Mike, Dustin, and Lucas who are determined to find their friend Will when he goes missing after a Dungeons & Dragons session. The boys aren’t super-competent — they’re as prone to start bickering with each other as anything, they always seem to get tripped up by trivial details, and they get in plenty of snafus of their own making — but that’s what makes them so endearing. They’re believable kids, as opposed to the usual sort of precocious and ultra-capable children that pop up in movies and television. And their nerdiness, such as resorting to Dungeons & Dragons references to make sense of their situation, certainly adds to the charm.

In the course of searching for their lost friend, the boys encounter a mysterious girl named Eleven who is somehow linked to Will’s disappearance (and to the secret government facility located on the outskirts of town). While some of her arc may be predictable, such as a burgeoning (and sweetly portrayed) romance with Mike, Eleven is arguably the show’s most intriguing character. As Eleven, Millie Bobby Brown gives the show’s standout performance, perfectly communicating Eleven’s fear and vulnerability, her tentative humanization as a result of Mike’s friendship, and her terrifying powers. (Wisely, the Duffers choose to slowly reveal the extent of Eleven’s power, which lets them use it for one of the series’ funniest scenes without diminishing the terrible danger that it poses.)

To the series’ great credit, even ancillary characters are imbued with refreshing complexity and given moments to shine. The local sheriff, Jim Hopper, starts off as a drunken lout, and though he never loses his gruff demeanor, he becomes one of the series’ most heroic and tragic characters. There’s a genuine sweetness in the relationship that develops between Will’s older brother Jonathan and Mike’s older sister Nancy as they’re drawn together by the search for Will. In addition, they form an interesting triangle with Nancy’s boyfriend Steve, a stereotypically rich snot who eventually reveals a few more layers to his personality.

I’d have to say that my favorite single character scene in the series involves the boy’s science teacher, Mr. Clarke. As boys are bombarding him with questions concerning parallel universes (it all makes sense in the end), they throw out an obscure Dungeons & Dragons reference and he knows exactly what they’re talking about. It’s little moments like this one where Stranger Things feels authentic — where the nerdy references and pop culture homages become more than the sum of their parts because of the delightful, sympathetic characters making them.

There’s still so much more to write about: the show’s fantastic soundtrack, which mixes ominous, John Carpenter-ish synthesizer compositions (courtesy of members of S U R V I V E) with songs from Joy Division, The Clash, Peter Gabriel, and Echo & The Bunnymen; the masterful way that the Duffers evoke tension and atmosphere through simple camera work and editing; the subtle way that Stranger Things incorporates Cold War-era paranoia; and so on.

There are some minor flaws. The show’s biggest names, Winona Ryder and Matthew Modine — who play Will’s increasingly frantic mother and an aloof government scientist, respectively — are completely outdone by the rest of the cast. Ryder’s performance verges on over-the-top at times with her wide-eyed hysteria while Modine’s character is surprisingly shallow and one-note compared to everyone else (though, to be fair, the script doesn’t give him much to work with).

But what isn’t a flaw is the ambiguity swirling around the show’s ending. Yes, the Duffers are clearly setting up a second season — which I really hope happens, because I want to see more of Mike, Hopper, and the rest of Hawkins, Indiana — but the loose ends also drive home the show’s bigger themes and keep its world mysterious, dangerous, and of course, strange.

Ultimately, I completely agree with Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff when he writes: “Stranger Things might be a hodgepodge of lots of other things, but there’s a sincerity to it that’s hard to fake. And in its appropriations of those other things, it somehow becomes something new that rises above its collage-like origins.”

At the risk of sounding sappy, I am so thankful that the Duffers made Stranger Things, if only because watching it feels like somebody understands you, and knows exactly what you want to see in a production. This is not to say that the Duffers are pandering or peddling in any way. However, they do understand the power of nostalgia — and more importantly, they understand how to rework classic stories and tell them in ways that feel both warmly familiar and full of new life.

Related: Alan Sepinwall asks eight questions about Stranger Things (and the answer to his first question is “So great!”). Scott Wampler calls it “the best Netflix original series in a long time.” And, not surprisingly, both Stephen King and Guillermo del Toro are fans of the show.

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