Stranger Things is really wonderful. The chatter is all about how charmingly nostalgic it is, but I’m actually going to tell you not to pay any heed to that. The word “nostalgia” is only headlining due to the coincidence of timing and population that means the people who still dominate American cultural criticism right now (mostly guys, mid- to late-30s), are the exact group who grew up loving the ’80s movies that were the first of Stranger Thing’s kind — gently scary suburbia sci-fi, where kids on bikes tangle with aliens and shady officials among the trees and cul-de-sacs. But I think for this subset of viewers, memories of their own childhoods have swamped a very cool fact: this 2016 TV show has lifted a whole genre out of the confines of a past decade. And unlike nostalgia, genres are for everybody.
Or to put it another way: I wanted to hug this show to my heart for 100% of the runtime, and my heart had no pre-existing rooms built for any of the things Stranger Things is so affectionately referencing. E.T. spooked me the heck out as a little kid — I remember bits and pieces of the one time I saw it, but my strongest memory is of noping on out of there. I have never seen Stand By Me. I have only seen about half of The Goonies, and that wasn’t until I was in college. I haven’t even seen that other recent retro Spielberg, Super 8. But it’s fine, it’s so fine. Because Stranger Things is a member of a film family, not an advanced course with pre-reqs. If the series were making a commentary on those older entries, subverting that framework or those themes in some way, that would be a different situation, but it’s not doing that at all. It just purely is this. Stranger Things can be the first of its type you see, and it would be so happy to be that for you.
A couple inspirations for this show that I have seen though, and which I suspect Stranger Things owes as much to as any, are The X-Files and Twin Peaks. The X-Files for the creepy conspiracies, obviously, and Twin Peaks for the good investigator. Good as in good at figuring things out, but also good as in good-hearted, good as in good gut-instincts. Because for all that Chief Hopper first shambles onscreen like Orange Is the New Black’s Luschek run through a Bitter Cop filter, we soon find out that he’s built from the same character DNA that gave us the Bookhouse Boys. Hopper may not share much of Agent Cooper’s bright-eyed joy or Sheriff Truman’s dyed-in-the-wool moral fiber, but what he has in spades is that same openness to weird possibilities, and an urge not just to protect, but to believe.
That’s actually something of a trend in Stranger Things — characters who seem like a certain archetype when you first meet them, but reveal themselves to be someone more interesting. The children are their goofy, brave selves right off the bat, and they work beautifully in tandem, because watching the older characters individualize over the season feels sort of like growing up, and beginning to understand that adults were curious kids once, too. The best of the character arcs almost function like their own gentle plot twists, and it’s a delight. This whole show is a delight. There are so many fun and well-crafted details about it that I could talk about, but I’ll resist, because I want everyone to experience them in their full glow, lighting up along the series with the sure, impossible magic of Joyce’s colored lights.