The very first moments of Stranger Things are presented with 1980s cinematic pitch precision: some nameless scientist in some flickering underground lab is consumed by some horrible, unseen, vicious being. Then, we smash cut to suburbia: a November night in 1983 in a town in Indiana, with sprinklers flitting freely across a lawn and a group of the most precious, nerdy children you’ve ever seen playing a game of Dungeons and Dragons in a dim basement.
When the sweetest, gentlest, and smallest of the group, Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), goes missing on his misty bike ride home that same night, a supernatural mystery spins out, replete with a deadbeat cop, a frazzled and desperate single mother, a government conspiracy, and an extraterrestrial-seeming girl. It’s downright Spielbergian.
The first season of Stranger Things feels like a daydreamy and crisp fall evening, an almost childlike fantasizing of what it would mean to be entrenched in the cultural zeitgeist of the 1980s. What would it mean to be a kid who spends his November careening around on his bike with his buddies, hanging up a poster of The Thing to decorate your basement, constantly referencing Star Wars, and then actually having one of those impossible cinematic adventures happen to you?
The 1980s referential points run on a spectrum of success and originality. Some are delightful — like the telekinetic Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), who is like if E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (“All she lacks is a glowing fingertip and a distended ribcage,” a Guardian review points out, tongue-in-cheek) was in the body of a sweet little girl with a penchant for murder when necessary, or the way the season’s monster entraps its victims with a sticky face covering that is the visual equivalent of Alien’s Facehugger. Other “references” are essentially rip-offs — a moment in which Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard) shows his toys to Eleven in almost the exact way that Elliott does with E.T. is not so much an homage as it is just straight up stealing a moment.
These referential tropes appear on a larger scale, too, in how Stranger Things is essentially a collection of world-divides that hint at where we may be headed, where our story may go based on what we know from the many similar stories that precede it. There are common conflicts like government versus us normal folk, the big kids versus the little ones, the monsters that are right under our noses versus our comfortable, head-in-the-sand delusions of safety.
Stranger Things isn’t interested in a gritty sort of retelling of an era. In fact, especially in its presentations of hysterical mothers and lovestruck teenagers, it can border on the melodramatic, and can be almost gimmicky in its referential nature. But in its first season, this practice comes across as quite sweet — a sincere attempt at capturing an era of film in which the adventurous and the earnest were cinematic tactics that were valued and embraced culturally.
While the first season is far from perfect, there is something about the balance it struck between something fresh in concept and familiar in cinematic reminiscing that felt almost soothing on first release. Season 1 of Stranger Things feels less about the capturing of the 1980s as they truly were, and more about the capturing of the sensation of 1980s mainstream film. It’s nostalgic in the way it presents the signals, symbols, and tropes that defined an era of mainstream cinema.
Stranger Things’s striking utilization of earnestness is frequently touched upon in early positive reviews of the series. Style Weekly posits that while other 1980s nostalgia-type film and television had been attempted at prior to Stranger Things, the series is perhaps one of the first examples to allow for the 1980s, Spielbergian flavor of intense sincerity to exist in “an almost irony-free vacuum.”
The show’s most effective tool is one that was employed frequently in the 1980s — some insufferably cute kids. Will’s band of nerdy friends, ringleader Mike Wheeler, the sweet and silly Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo), and the logical, calculated Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin), are the only ones who can actually figure out where Will is (a dark, freaky alternate dimension that they nickname “The Upside Down”) because their childlike wonder allows them to have open, earnest, and imaginative enough spirits to even consider this as a possibility.
While the world around the kids is entrenched in a blind trust in institutions, in dreams of fulfilling imagined norms of nuclear families and good motherhood, and in general Reagan-era conservatism, the kids’ morals are based in a basic sense of community and what is right — uncomplicated and direct.
Many of their values are revealed in Mike’s fumbling explanations of social codes to the unsocialized, traumatized, and secret-lab-raised Eleven. Concepts like privacy, friendship, promises, and lying, are foreign to her, but they are the key tenets to young adolescent life, the basic foundations of autonomy and community: the idea that you are entitled to a life and a body not interfered with by outside forces, the idea that you deserve people who love you and who you also love, the idea that you must be vulnerable and honest with those you trust (though lying is certainly acceptable to protect those you love in turn), the idea that we have agreements we must upkeep in our interpersonal relationships to love and care for each other.
While the boys occasionally parrot what they hear from their parents — stuff like being scared of the potentially incoming “commies” — the first season of Stranger Things encourages the idea that we cannot necessarily trust the institutions in place. In fact, only Mike’s out-of-touch, Reaganite father believes that to be true, and our only “good” person working within the institution, police chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour), is by all accounts a pretty shitty cop, only getting things done when he’s in plainclothes and kicking asses. Stranger Things season 1, intentionally or not, seems to suggest that the more community-oriented, less systemically acceptable way the kids (younger and older) work things out and save the day seems to be a more viable way of life than buying into the system of law-and-order as it currently functions.
Essentially everything the kids do is motivated solely by the basic, deeply sincere adolescent process of trying to figure out how to exist as a human in the world. The friend group bickers constantly, learning and relearning conflict and conflict resolution in their middle school ways, and while they aren’t very good at defending each other in moments of crisis ranging from bullies to evil forces, they’re extremely good at making each other feel better.
Here, Stranger Things taps into one of the most basic, easy ways of eliciting an earnest ache — a general feeling of pity. There’s nothing more filled with heartache to me than watching a nerdy little kid get even lightly bullied, and watching his friends work so hard to make him feel better, or at least less embarrassed, in the aftermath. It’s a cheap shot, but it’s an earnest one, and it works. Stranger Things is best when it uses this basic interpersonal minutia to explore sincere feelings.
But this earnestness, this open-hearted and open-minded consideration the kids have for each other, is only so tangible because it is consistently backdropped by the risk of loss, pain, and grief. The films and thematic launching points that Stranger Things mine from are the ones where loss is often the structural centerpiece — loss of the nuclear family, loss of life, and loss of childhood innocence.
Season 1 actually allows for this cycle of earnest love and loss to exist. As Elliot tearfully says goodbye to E.T. when the alien successfully returns to the mothership, Eleven and Mike must also say goodbye, seemingly permanently. Just as some teens have to die before we can kill the monster or killer in an 80s horror, Nancy’s friend Barbara (Shannon Purser) does not survive the attacks of the Demogorgon. And Will can only be saved at the last moment with previous knowledge Hopper has from his futile attempts of saving his own small daughter.
There is no life and love without loss — it is important to impart these lessons, to not pull punches, when we are talking about childhood wonder, when we are talking about maintaining earnestness. Life is best when we experience grief and try to hold onto wonder in spite of it, when we keep ourselves open. Season 1 of Stranger Things allows for its sincerity and earnestness to come to that natural conclusion.
In an early New Yorker review for the show, Emily Nussbaum writes:
“The show has a bifocal demographic appeal: it’s designed to charm both nostalgic Gen X-ers and younger viewers who are drawn to a prelapsarian world of walkie-talkies, landlines, and suburban kids left free to roam wherever they want on their bicycles.”
This attempt to please all — to paint a picture of Reagan’s conservative and suburban 1980s that is both nostalgic and accessible to those who don’t remember it, or didn’t even exist for it — is perhaps sustainable for this one season with a slight suspension of disbelief, but is ultimately Stranger Things’ demise in its following seasons.
So much of what works about Stranger Things in its first season is what has now been lost from it.
Tonally, while being a show about kids, and by all means fairly light fare, season 1 of Stranger Things didn’t necessarily feel like a show for children, much like the earnest adventures of Back to the Future, Stand by Me, or Jurassic Park function — fun movies for everyone, but not “children’s films”.
This sensation is helped greatly by season 1’s archetypal older kids — the studious but existentially antsy Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer), the quiet, introspective brother of Will, Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton), and the preppy jock Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) play the same roles their predecessors did in the stories of Stephen King or films of Spielberg — they both brush off the younger kids and ultimately put themselves in harm’s way to protect them when the time comes. These older kids are interested in partying, having sex, and even partaking in the frankly unethical (bullying, fighting, and, in the most repulsive case, Jonathan’s taking photos of an undressing Nancy without her knowledge), which allows the show to feel like it actually vaguely exists within a realm of adult content — something that will quickly be sucked out of the show to presumably aim at a younger audience in future seasons.
In terms of messaging, where Stranger Things at first seemed invested in touching on that balance between earnestness and loss, it eventually opted out to pander to fan preferences, to refuse to lose any main character regardless of whether it would make for a more compelling or emotional plot, and to utilize homage and reference in such heavy-handed doses that it feels like the equivalent of referential, meta-textual junk food.
Perhaps most obnoxiously, the way that political messaging at first seemed informed mainly by the idea of community and an intuitive sense of what is right (even if it is presented through a childlike lens), is eventually swapped out for “red scare” ridiculousness and American jingoism that pretends to exist in a 1980s vacuum, with no awareness of current political climates.
I watched the first season of Stranger Things in my freshman college dorm, at the very beginning of my cinema studies degree. It became a comfort watch, something that was soothing and sweet, that reminded me of the stuff I watched as a kid that made me like movies in the first place. It wasn’t life changing, but it had a simple draw to it — it felt fresh enough, and almost endearing.
Now, four seasons in with one to go, Stranger Things is one of the main series assisting in keeping Netflix subscriptions afloat, and has opted for multiple, Marvel-length feature episode specials instead of its original tight, 45-minute, eight-episode season.
The series has continually deteriorated in quality, and as a personal marker of passing time and growth, I now have my degree and work in a field where I can confidently critique what has become of a series I originally liked so much. Season 1 of Stranger Things, and the early wave of nostalgic or rebooted series that it came with in the mid-2010s, seems now more like a harbinger of doom for what was to come than a fun little trend. Now, deep into an era of endless shoveling of trite nostalgia and meaningless revivals, Stranger Things season 1 is harder to enjoy.
But I rewatched the first season this week and really sat with it, tried to think about it as a singular being instead of where it eventually went. To be frank, it was enjoyable. It’s sweet and comfy and emotional and a little silly, it plays at being scary when it’s actually mostly just about feeling exciting, and it holds many of the qualities of my favorite films from the era it pumps its inspiration from. It felt like it was at least trying to be original in its playing with an era and a sense of nostalgia. It felt cozy, it felt like six years ago. Dare I say it was even enjoyable.