Here's a question that often popped into my head while watching Stranger Things, the new Netflix series written and directed by the Duffer Brothers, Matt and Ross: was the 1980s the last period when the West had any pop culture? The show is set in 1983. It obviously evokes Stephen King, specifically his 1986 novel It—a group of bullied childhood friends band together to defeat a supernatural menace—and Firestarter (1980)—a young girl with dangerous powers is held captive by sinister government forces. King is name-checked, then, and the Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game, Lord of the Rings (1954), Star Wars (1977), and John Carpenter's remake of The Thing (1982) all get mentions. The other key source is Spielberg's E.T. (1982), to which several extended visual references are made, along with visual nods to sources such as The Goonies (1985), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Stand by Me (1986), and Alien (1979).
What seems curious to me about Stranger Things is what it says about the strange way nostalgia has taken centre-stage in twenty-first-century Western culture. It is, after all, striking that a major drama series should be set in a period so recent as the 1980s. The BBC's Ashes to Ashes (2008-2010), also set in the 1980s, and its predecessor Life on Mars (2006-2007), set in the 1970s, are part of this same obsession: a feeling that we must go back because we can no longer create a vibrant pop culture of our own, and that we must go back to just before we lost that ability. All three series (plus other nostalgia-fests such as Alan Moore and Dennis O'Neil's comic book The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1999-present), or the work of Mark Gatiss, or that of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg) share a lack of interest in the history or politics of their chosen period settings; instead they are concerned entirely with the films, literature, music, games, and toys of the period, and resemble our cultural memories of those decades rather than the history. According to this cultural logic, the toy Milennium Falcon seen in the show at one point—which every kid raised on Star Wars recognises—is more evocative as a signifier of the decade than an image of Reagan or Thatcher would have been.
Also symptomatic of this is the twenty-first century's unprecedented amount of revivals of the pop culture hits of TV and film from decades or even centuries past. These run the gamut from the almost entirely pre-twenty-first century—and rarely more recent than the 1960s—characters that are currently taking up Marvel and DC's film release schedules for years to come, to the BBC's Sherlock (2010-present) and Doctor Who (1963-present), to this year's Star Trek and Tarzan films. The 1980s—still capable of producing modern myths like The Terminator (1984), RoboCop (1987), and Ghostbusters (1984), hot on the heels of Mad Max (1979) and Star Wars—seems to be the last decade before pop culture settled for reboots, sequels, and remakes from decades past. We can see that The Terminator owes debts to Harlan Ellison and Westworld (1973), and that Mad Max 2 (1981) draws on Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Westerns; but in their imagery and ambience they added something genuinely innovative. Likewise, though Umberto Eco observed of Spielberg and Lucas in his 1984 essay "Casablanca: cult movies and intertextual collage" that it was "semiotically uninteresting" to study their work because they were already semioticians, playing with earlier sources and indulging their audience's recollection of those sources, and Pauline Kael once lamented in "Whipped," a 1981 piece for The New Yorker, (2) that they needed to let go of "the crap of [their] childhood," Lucas and Spielberg's visual imaginations were rich enough to compensate for their derivativeness.
Those days are gone now. Currently ongoing TV and film series even reach back to moments of their own past: SPECTRE (2015) brought back Blofeld, Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013) brought back Khan, Doctor Who has brought back adversaries from the 1960s or 1970s in every season since its revival in 2005, and the last four Batman films (Batman Begins (2005); The Dark Knight (2008); The Dark Knight Rises (2013); Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)) all evoked at least one of three 1980s Batman comic books: Frank Miller's Year One (1987) and The Dark Knight Returns (1986), and Alan Moore's The Killing Joke (1988). We have stopped creating action heroes at the same point studios have never been more hungry and better-equipped for them. The closest thing we have to a mythic character created in the 1990s—Harry Potter—is himself strongly retro, evoking Diana Wynne-Jones, Ursula Le Guin, Tolkien, Star Wars, and too many others to mention.
As for horror, the only contemporary film franchise to have as long a life as those of Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, and Jason Voorhees has been the numerous sequels to Saw (2004)—but there's always the sense, as with other films in the abhorrent torture porn sub-genre, that this doesn't stimulate the imagination in the way that tales of monsters do. ("One guy with a knife—makes it all seem so much more real," as Nightmare on Elm Street director Wes Craven sadly put it when he had his characters discuss the slasher film's succession by torture porn in his 2011 film Scream 4.) Something similar is true of Final Destination (2000) and its four sequels, in which the gruesome deaths happen purely because of fate itself: no monsters, no killers, no iconography; instead it becomes just a matter of waiting for the next number on the body count. Just where is the West’s post-1980s pop culture? We can see what the Duffer Brothers were raised on, but what might their children be raised on, other than new versions of those same things?
Stranger Things tells the story of young Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), who is returning home on the same night something escapes from a mysterious government laboratory in the town of Hawkins. He is attacked by this creature and disappears. His distraught mother Joyce (Winona Ryder, the biggest guest star here, who doesn't have the most exciting part but throws herself into it with aplomb) starts to receive messages from Will, and realises he has escaped into a parallel dimension. Meanwhile, the murderous people behind the laboratory are determined to recapture their other escapee, a telekinetic little girl who can identify herself only as Eleven (a truly great performance from Millie Bobby Brown, conveying so much through an intense stare and little dialogue), whose only help are Will's friends. They deduce that Will is trapped in an "upside-down" dimension at the mercy of a monster they call the demogorgon after Dungeons and Dragons.
Despite all the cliché, the show has tremendous emotional pull. This is partly down to excellent casting, and partly due to attentive scripting of the character's relationships with each other. Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Eleven are a hugely successful portrayal of group dynamics: their friendship, bickering, genuine intellectual curiosity, and constant pooling of resource and weighing up of how to handle each crisis, are believably and entertainingly rendered. They represent the best of geek culture: their immersion in science fiction, fantasy, and role-playing games hasn't made them insular, but has made them scientifically curious, alert to the world around them, resourceful, and courageous. Their always-on-call science teacher, Mr. Clarke, is not a figure of mockery, but a source of wisdom. These kids are as interested in how to make a sensory deprivation tank using a paddling pool and canteen salt as in fighting monsters. At some point in these eight episodes each one contributes to saving the day—Mike makes contact with Eleven, Dustin has a neat brainwave involving compasses, and Lucas tips off the others that the people from the laboratory have tracked them down and are coming for them—and just when it looks like the bickering will wear down the group, they emerge stronger: Lucas and Eleven's exchange of apologies is a great moment.
A scene in the first episode provides a good example of why this series works. A man who runs a diner catches Eleven stealing chips. He's irate, but softens upon realising she is a frightened girl with a shaven head. He feeds her, and attempts to find out what has traumatised her and who she's running from. In a refreshing touch, he is sensible enough to do everything right: he talks to the child, infers that she may well have been abused, and calls the social services. A woman apparently from the social services arrives but then fires a silenced pistol, and this instantly believable and likeable character is dead: we know that we're not watching an average show. David Harbour as Hopper similarly turns out to have more to him than we initially thought: at first we think he is going to be the standard slow-witted sheriff, refusing to believe any evidence of something more mysterious going on, but then he turns out to be rather more dynamic and resourceful, dissecting the fake Will's corpse, trading blows with bad guys, and forcing his way into the laboratory.
A slightly less successful attempt to do something similar occurs in Steve's arc. Steve's romantic scenes with Mike's older sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) are rather tedious to watch, his bullying of Will's older brother Jonathan is unpleasant, and the incident in which a jealous Steve and his friend appear to have daubed obscene graffiti about Nancy on a cinema placard is disgraceful. I assumed at first he was meant to be the Wrong Guy we should be rooting for Nancy to get rid of so she could get with Jonathan instead, but then the script changes tack and insists that the graffiti was down to the other bullies, not him, and that he genuinely cares about Nancy. He finally stands up to the bullies and breaks his friendship with them, helps remove the graffiti, tries to make peace with Steve, shows courage in fighting the demogorgon, and at the end even helps replace Steve's camera (broken during the bullying). Part of the problem is that Joe Keery’s portrayal of the character is the only weak bit of casting on the show, lacking the screen presence of Dyer and Heaton and never quite selling the idea that Steve is less of a write-off than he appears. Nancy's friend Barbara (Shannon Purser) is the other cliché the show fails to subvert, but here the problem is in the scripting. Barbara, like Steve, is a visual trope, clearly intended to evoke Martha Plimpton in movies like The Goonies: not only is she excluded from romantic interest, left alone by the swimming pool while Nancy has sex; she suffers a nasty fate while her cute friend survives. There are ways the show could have challenged this: it could have let Barbara live or given her the opportunity to fight the demogorgon; but instead she's increasingly forgotten about, her death ultimately somewhat vague, and we're reminded that 2016 TV culture still prefers female characters to look conventionally feminine and not wear glasses.
Nevertheless, Nancy and Jonathan are all the more watchable because they are not romantically involved, but desperate to find Jonathan's brother and Nancy's friend. This adds urgency to their scenes, and makes their lying in Nancy's bedroom together following an encounter with the demogorgon—in which neither wants to leave the other purely because they are too scared to be alone—more charged and poignant. They are still less interesting than the children, though, and their story seems to be moving towards a conventional love triangle, with both Jonathan and Steve fighting over Nancy, which may become tedious in the next season. Another caveat is that, once again, spying on and taking pictures of women undressing—as Jonathan does to Nancy—is seen as a sign of sadness and sensitivity rather than creepiness.
The Duffer brothers' direction, however, is astonishing. It obeys the cardinal rule, so important to Alien, that we never see too much of the monster. There's a terrific scene in which Nancy and Jonathan find a mortally wounded deer, which is then snatched by the creature into its world. The two search the woods, and Nancy spots a portal in a tree, and enters it only to find herself in the "upside-down" world's equivalent of the woods. She is stalked by something we only catch glimpses of: something which seems to have four limbs, but which seems to crawl, and yet at other times rises to full height and moves with deadly speed. The woods are like the woods on the other side of the portal, yet . . . not quite. There is a white dust everywhere that is not quite snow, and an effect that is not quite winter. The same is true of the hints of rusting, long abandoned metal in the upside-down version of the swimming pool in which Nancy finds herself trapped, and the pathetic remains of Castle Byers, the upside-down version of a childhood fort Will used to play in and in which he desperately hides from the demogorgon as he clings to life.
Also genuinely eerie is the scene in which Joyce and the blurred outline of Will try to communicate with each other through a fleshy membrane that has formed in Joyce's wall. As with last year's essential Netflix show Jessica Jones, much of the success here comes from taking a very simple fantastic idea—in this case a character occupying the same geographical point as everyone else but in a different dimension—and sticking to it, observing the effects of its consequences upon the characters. There's a real sense of the fantastic invading your living room. Even the obvious homages never swamp the scenes, meaning they do not prevent each moment from having its own distinctive visual identity. The scenes of Eleven escaping on bikes with Mike, Lucas, and Dustin may strongly evoke E.T., but the moment when Eleven sends a pursuing van hurling through the air makes the scene wholly its own. The shots of Lucas preparing to counterattack against the bad guys might evoke Commando (1985) and First Blood (1982), and Mike showing Eleven his action figures is yet another nod to E.T.—but the drama regarding Lucas's devotion to the group, Lucas's personality, and the chemistry between Mike and Eleven are strong enough to make these respective scenes more than mere references. The climactic scenes of Hopper and Joyce, clad in protective suits, searching the "upside-down" for Will, and then finding him cocooned, feels influenced by Alien, but the pace and visual tempo the Duffer brothers achieve, with some devastating use of flashbacks, is original: that parasite Joyce and Hopper pull from Will's throat is no mere throwback but something genuinely horrible.
There is, however, another reason why the Duffer Brothers have to achieve their effect by not showing us too much of the monster. Another aspect of the decline in Western pop culture following the 1980s is the dearth of design in both cinematic and televisual SF. H. R. Giger's titular creature from Alien, the eponymous figure in RoboCop, Stan Winston's Terminator skeleton, the T1000 from Terminator 2 (1991), the Cenobites from Hellraiser (1987), the Stay Puft Marshmallow man from Ghostbusters, the Daleks from Doctor Who (1963-present), Freddy Krueger from A Nightmare on Elm Street: all are brilliant pieces of design both visually and conceptually. Yet post-1980s SF struggles to come up with anything to rival them. This is why we remember what Krypton looked like in Richard Donner's 1978 Superman more vividly than in 2013's Man of Steel, why we can picture the 1987 RoboCop suit but have forgotten what the one in the 2014 remake looked like already, and why the modern Doctor Who is forced to bring the Daleks back every season. The only real creator of iconography in modern screen SF is Guillermo Del Toro, whose masterpiece Pan's Labyrinth (2006) is evoked by Stranger Things's demogorgon; but we don't see a specific, brilliant piece of design like the creature at the dining table with eyes in its hands which appears in Del Toro's film. What keeps us going is the brief shot of a maw, the slither of slimy flesh, an inhuman snarl: all photographed and edited well enough to maintain the sense of something horrific and unknowable, and our faith in the integrity of the story, even if what we're actually looking at is nothing new.
Regardless, the series' marvellous final episode climaxes in scenes which left this viewer distinctly moist around the eyes. Mike, who's been teased a few times about his feelings for Eleven, suggests to her that his family could adopt her. Eleven asks if that means they will be like brother and sister, but Mike is adamant they won't. Eleven asks why. Mike tries to explain that boys and girls who are not brother and sister can go to the school dance together. Eleven finally smiles, and the two exchange the briefest of kisses before something more urgent interrupts. This should be mushy as hell, yet it's sold so well by the actors, and the scripts have allowed us to invest so completely in the characters, that it feels sincere: a genuine moment between two people, which makes Eleven's final goodbye to Mike before sacrificing herself to defeat the demogorgon quite devastating. We can easily forgive the fact that Eleven's vocabulary—"What is 'friend'?"—seems a little inconsistent at times.
Then there's the scene in which Hopper and Joyce find Will, which is contrasted with excruciating flashbacks of Hopper losing his daughter Sarah to cancer. Like all good fantasy, it works by using the fantastic to make the real all the more vivid and affecting: the juxtaposition with the supernatural situation involving Will makes the glimpse into Sarah's illness and death unbearably real, as well as getting us all the more desperate that Hopper and Joyce at least manage to revive Will. Like Stephen King at his best, the series has used the mechanisms of schlock to reach the intensity of genuine drama.
Despite all this, there's a slight note of confusion at the end. The loss of Eleven should surely affect the kids as much as losing Will did, but we never see them distraught, and when reunited with Will they happily describe their new friend Eleven to him in the present tense, as if they're confident of running into her again. This is all genuinely moving, but a few scenes establishing why they are hopeful for her return may have helped. On the other hand, Hopper has a mysterious meeting with some people in a black car, and is seen leaving some Eggo waffles—which Eleven particularly likes—in the woods. An actress as compelling as Millie Bobby Brown is clearly too good to waste. But where can all this go? Will the show allow the characters to go in their own directions, or will it become weighed down by further references? Or will its next lot of references be surprising enough to keep things fresh?
For example, will the show’s second season make references to films, novels, and TV shows not written or directed by white males? Will it put together storylines and concepts that are entirely original? If the show can't move beyond nostalgia, then in order to remain a rewarding show it will have to rely on the emotional power of its character dynamics; but as Heroes—a show that struggled after an effective first season—demonstrated, these can wobble if the plot becomes more convoluted and less evocative. As for its supernatural component, if something genuinely original is not unveiled then the show will have to rely on shrouding the activities at the laboratory in mystery, in the same way it shrouds the glimpses of the demogorgon, and that may start to wear thin. (Matthew Modine, as the scientist in charge at Hawkins Laboratory, has been splendidly menacing so far, but will need some characterisation soon—just as the demogorgon will start to require more than Dungeons and Dragons references to remain a powerful presence.) If the show remains at the same benchmark it has set, then as a viewer I won't be complaining, but the question still stands: is wallowing in nostalgia for “mainstream” Western culture the best we can expect from TV? This is the conundrum posed by Stranger Things, and perhaps by the Netflix age in general: it is highly rewarding to watch, but has little to say about the outside world. For now, Stranger Things is one of the most compelling shows on TV, but what it tells us about the state of Western pop culture is the strangest thing of all.