Netflix’s Stranger Things furthers contemporary pop culture’s ongoing efforts to mine the entertainment of the 1980s and ’90s for the comforting tropes of yesteryear, divorcing them from their original political and domestic resonances. The series takes seemingly everything to which Steven Spielberg and Stephen King have signed their respective names, particularly E.T., Poltergeist, The Goonies, Firestarter, The Talisman, It, and The Langoliers, throws them in a blender with portions of Alien and A Nightmare on Elm Street, then hits puree. Stranger Things is competently crafted, but exists as little more than the pointless sum of its spare parts.
Of course, there’s an irony: The now beloved pop of the ’80s and ’90s was also criticized for derivativeness, and for the fealty it often exuded toward the genre films and TV shows of the ’50s. There was a time in which Spielberg and King were considered disreputable artists, mentioned by critics with the air of contempt that’s now reserved for, say, Michael Bay. But, in these decades, even Spielberg and King’s most mediocre art contained a kernel of personal obsessiveness and an understanding of true nuclear-familial tension. Their work often reflected directly or indirectly a country that was moving out of the moral disaster of the Vietnam War into the uncomfortably patriotic Reagan years, which, as many conservatives have now clearly forgotten, left people feeling adrift and lost, pressured to feel an economic inclusion that was beyond their reality. E.T. or Cujo’s domestic scenes, for example, aren’t cute or cloying, but vividly revealing of families on the brink of collapse.
By contrast, the families of Stranger Things have been superficially weighed down with problems that suggest not so much an understanding of suburban quotidian as an intense love for more convincing portrayals of the same in more vital pop culture. Most of the characters have been given pat, reassuringly generalized arcs, have been named after famous characters in prior movies, and are played by actors who’ve been cast for their resemblances to performers like Heather Langenkamp, William Zabka, David Keith, Sean Astin, and Wil Wheaton. The sets are steroidal wax-museum recreations of middle-class ’80s-era homes, riddled with posters of Jaws, The Evil Dead, and The Thing, in case we can’t discern the show’s aesthetic intention. Stranger Things abounds in that ineffable fakeness that mars most period film and TV, because one senses the fevered self-consciousness of the conception. Here, there’s none of the masterful casualness that informs Richard Linklater’s superb period piece Everybody Wants Some!!
There’s also far too much plot. Spielberg beautifully established E.T.’s stakes in about 10 minutes; it takes roughly five episodes for Stranger Things to reveal how all of its in-jokes and diversions cohere into a singular story. (Short answer: mostly The Talisman by way of Poltergeist.) And that’s a problem for a series entirely driven by narrative. This isn’t the kind of television that can get by entirely on mood because said mood is shopworn, though the atmosphere is occasionally diverting for those, like this critic, who’re hopeless suckers even for secondhand approximations of Technicolor cinematography, synth scores, and iconic autumnal neighborhoods.
A few actors do transcend their roles, contributing to a surprisingly moving conclusion. As a haunted cop pulled into investigating the supernatural disappearance of a young boy, David Harbour hits commandingly understated notes of grief and anger; as a mad scientist with stylish white hair reminiscent of David Cronenberg, Matthew Modine reminds the audience of his gift for playing charlatans who believe their own hype; and, most excitingly, there’s Millie Bobby Brown, who plays the requisite special girl with a startling sense of alien agency that shames much of the gimmicky overacting of the other child performers. If Stranger Things is to be remembered as anything other than as a semi-amusing stroll down memory lane, it’s as a prolonged introduction to a potentially significant new performer.