Judging from user ratings and critics alike, I’m in the minority of those who think the new original Netflix series Stranger Things is just okay instead of the Coolest Thing Ever. Look at any review and you’ll find a handful of references to ’80s movies such as E.T., Firestarter, The Goonies, and Poltergeist. The problem is, the show doesn’t add up to much more than an homage to such films, a loving pastiche, but a copy nonetheless. It’s like a cover song of an ’80s tune rather than a new song that uses ’80s sounds to make unique music. In our reboot culture, it’s somehow closer in tone and story to those films than an actual reboot with the same characters, despite the fact that the show’s story is original (in the most basic sense). Everything from the score and pop songs to the neon red title, promotional images, casting, and story elements is an ode to ’80s pop culture.
Is there something wrong with that? Not necessarily and not, apparently, for most viewers. But I need something more than nostalgia. There’s no real subtext to the story; it’s really just an SF horror show. Again, maybe that’s enough for others; it’s not for me. I was a kid in the ’80s, consuming plenty of pop culture. I loved it the first time around. If we’re going to do it again, give me something new, give me a reason to care. Stranger Things doesn’t try or pretend to say anything about suburbia, the Cold War, or families in the ’80s. It’s not critiquing or commenting on ’80s movies. The plot is predictable and the characters familiar.
Don’t get me wrong; I didn’t hate the show. I was sometimes wowed or freaked out, and I watched until the end. The child actors and their chemistry was a highlight and great source of humor, with the front-toothless Dustin the MVP. But I kept thinking eight episodes was too much; the story may have worked better as a movie, or even an episode of the X-Files, with its shady G-men. And as much as I’ve loved Winona Ryder in the past, she spends the majority of her scenes shrieking. I’ve never been a Matthew Modine fan, but, like Ryder, his casting seems to have been done for nostalgia.
Since the production’s such a nostalgia fest, I wish they would have used legit ’80s special effects, as in the clip from The Thing the science teacher watches with his date. The shiny digital effects took me out of the story–and didn’t gross me out like good old fashioned latex would have. In that respect, the show isn’t ’80s enough.
I wonder how growing up when I did affected my experience of Stranger Things. Were those born later able to see the show as more fresh or fun? Regardless, I doubt I’ll watch future seasons.
Instead, I’m happy to wait painfully for new episodes of my current obsession, The Night Of, the millionth crime drama in the world that is somehow one of the best and freshest I’ve seen.