Watching Stranger Things on Netflix makes me worry I could be charged with receiving stolen property. Historian Eric Hobsbawm coined the term ‘long nineteenth century’ to cover the period from the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 to the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Stranger Things draws its inspiration from the horror and sci-fi of what could be described as the long 1980s, that is, the period from the mid to late seventies to the early to mid-nineties. Homage is not a strong enough word to describe its relationship to this source material, nor is derivative. A Blitzkrieg of plagiarism is probably closer to the mark. Stephen King, Stephen Spielberg, John Carpenter (all of whom are referenced in either posters or conversation in different scenes) and a hundred others are probably checking their post on a daily basis, certain there must be a royalty cheque for the show on the way. That’s not to say I am not enjoying it, but I am painfully aware I am the target audience.
I was born in 1980, the brother was born in 1983, the year Stranger Things is set. For us a large part of the nineties involved watching shows like the X Files and American Gothic and late night showings or videos of the genre defining horror and sci-fi of the previous couple of decades. When the brother and I discussed Stranger Things last weekend I had watched one episode and he had seen none. When I outlined my misgivings, I did say I would probably keep watching it. However, he was peeved earlier this week, when he found out I was on episode three, as he had taken my warnings to heart and decided it wasn’t worthwhile viewing. If you caught me eating a Mars bar, and asked if I was enjoying it, I would have to admit I was. If you asked me if I would recommend it; I would have to give a qualified answer and explain the synthesised ingredients, low food quality, unscrupulous intentions of the manufacturer and the long term health hazards before allowing you to make your own decision. However, if you sat me down with a bag of fun sized Mars bars I would devour the fuckers.
Netflix know what people watch. They have algorithms working away every time you press play or stop and when they make a show they generally commission something based on current viewing trends rather than anything bold and innovative. It doesn’t mean the result is always bad. When they commissioned Bojack Horseman, they would have known from Archer’s viewing figures that animations containing adult themes and foul-mothed sociopaths as protagonists were likely to be popular. However, the writing in Bojack Horseman is spectacular. It is funny and insightful and has some of the most developed characters of any animated series.
The stock of characters in Stranger Things could have been pilfered from any number of movies or TV shows. There is a bunch of young nerds intent on solving a mystery, the obligatory school bullies, the cop battling his (metaphorical) demons who rises to the challenge of battling (literal) demons, the single mother who does her best with her kids but has to work long shifts to make ends meet, the grade A student, the braindead jock, the sullen outsider and the sterile suburbanites whose blandness masks, well, more blandness. If these characters were to stop to question their prescribed roles and the paths laid out for them it would surely lead to existential crises. The show is set in a generic American town called Hawkins, with a generic high school and generic police department. The only strange thing about Hawkins is the large government run laboratory on the edge of town. Its head is Dr Brenner, a man with amazing hair who looks equal parts David Byrne and David Lynch. I can’t emphasise enough how great his hair is. It is the hair Donald Trump wishes he had. Without giving away too much, Brenner and the lab are significant to the plot. But as soon as you see the chain link fence covered in warning signs in episode one, you say to yourself, ‘that is obviously a large government run lab with connections to the military-industrial complex which will be significant to the plot.’ The lack of local knowledge about the goings on in the lab is striking. Usually questionable activities in a small community are justified on the basis of creating jobs or being good for the local economy. However, all of the staff at the Hawkins lab must commute from elsewhere as it seems extremely disconnected from what is otherwise a tight knit community.
If the inhabitants of Hawkins were familiar with Tommyknockers, It, Friday 13th, Halloween, Twin Peaks or any number of cultural touchstones they would have anticipated trouble. Or perhaps they may have anticipated something more light-hearted like ET or Stand by Me, both of which have been stripped of parts for the show. So too has Alien, but as it is not set in a nondescript American town the connection isn’t immediately obvious. You could list one hundred other influences it draws on and tell me I have missed them, but that only reinforces my point. The nerds and the sullen outsider are familiar with horror movies, and Dungeons and Dragons, and this knowledge, combined with the Police Chief’s detective work, ensures the series is wrapped up in eight episodes rather than ten or twelve. However, the characters in Stranger Things are blissfully unaware they are following preordained paths and the heroes of the show, while endearing themselves to us, are sadly predictable. The most clichéd character of the show is Steve the braindead jock. Those of us familiar with the genre will be aware from early on that there are three possibilities for Steve. He dies, he messes things up or he redeems himself. Possibly a combination of two or more of these. Steve is ignorant of all that is going on around him. His concerns involve getting laid, getting drunk and not getting caught by his well-to-do parents. In this, by not attempting to effect the course of events in the show Steve has most fully embraced his preordained fate. He has through his inaction then exceeded the other characters in fulfilling his destiny. He is a true American hero. He has focussed on himself, not questioned the military-industrial complex, only challenged authority when it is for his own benefit and through puerile ‘rebellion’ left the status quo unchallenged. America doesn’t really want heroes. If they did Bernie Sanders would be their next President, not Hillary Clinton. The viewer will be aware that if Steve makes it out of the show alive, with his family wealth and connections, and tendency not to rock the boat, he will go far. He is a lot like the character of Biff in Back to the Future who, ironically, Donald Trump is based on.
One must wonder what purpose Stranger Things serves. Traditionally science fiction or horror movies have been said to reflect the broader anxieties of their time, the threat of Soviet Russia, a nuclear holocaust or rampant consumerism. What anxieties does Stranger Things reflect? Is the threat external or is it one that lurks inside the community? Is the concern terrorism, the rise of the right, unaccountable corporations or government? Is it a show for those worried about Donald Trump or about Islamic State? Is it merely replicating the anxieties of an earlier age or is it using the format to question the times we live in now? Or, is it so derivative that it is simply a blanket of nostalgia for 30 and 40 somethings to wrap themselves in. The horror and sci-fi of the 1980s was inspired by nostalgia for the 1950s. People always want to hark back to simpler times. However, times were never simpler we were just more naïve. The generation that grew up in the 1980s are a generation without job security, burdened by debt, who have borne the brunt of an economic crisis but who, like Steve the braindead jock, embraced their fate apolitically and made little real effort to alter the course of events. They own multiple devices but will probably never own a house and would rather take to the internet to ridicule Donald Trump than investigate political alternatives. Perhaps Stranger Things is not about embracing our anxieites but, like the characters in the show, fatalistically accepting our lot. Or, maybe we just watch it because we don’t go out any more and an algorithm knew we would press play.