Magazine | November 13, 2017, Issue

The Surprising Joy of Stranger Things

A good, non-angry, non-political TV show is hard to find

‘“Government,”’ as Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank once declared, “is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together.” This statement is obviously preposterous, particularly when one considers confiscatory taxes, arbitrary regulations, foreign-policy fiascos, eminent-domain abuse, or half-baked top-secret mid-century CIA programs involving unwitting loners and copious doses of LSD.

I’ll have more on those half-baked top-secret mid-century CIA programs in a bit, but for now, let’s focus on something millions of wildly enthusiastic Americans actually will be doing together this fall: binge-watching the long-awaited second season of Netflix’s hit show Stranger Things.

If you haven’t experienced the spooky yet lovable television magic that is Stranger Things, you’re missing out on a sizeable pop-culture phenomenon. Developed by a previously little-known duo of thirtysomething twin brothers — Matt and Ross Duffer — and passed over by at least 15 networks before Netflix finally scooped it up, Stranger Things earned an obsessive fan base almost immediately on its debut last July. In a time of national political rancor, the show was, as one writer recently put it in Time magazine, “the only thing everyone seemed able to agree on during the contentious summer of 2016.”

Set in the fictional town of Hawkins, Ind., in the early 1980s, the show unspools an addictive and twisting tale of missing children, a dark and hidden alternative dimension called the Upside Down, a nightmarish man-eating monster, a powerful telekinetic girl, and a terrifying government experiment gone awry. Most important, along with unearthing longtime slightly-under-the-radar names like Winona Ryder and David Harbour, it stars a ragtag group of wildly endearing oddball kids.

These kids — toothless Dustin, skeptical Lucas, sensitive Will, self-conscious Mike, and Eleven, the girl on the lam who can flip full-sized vans with her mind — are the shining leads of Stranger Things. But as the show’s creators told Rolling Stone, the idea of kids as lead actors was a mind-blowing proposition to numerous network executives, who declared that the brothers should either center the concept on adults or make it a children’s program. “Then we lose everything interesting about the show,” Matt replied. Indeed.

When critics talk about Stranger Things — and when they try to explain how such a weird little show came to bewitch such a large audience — they tend to talk about nostalgia. Certainly, the show delivers plenty of it. The opening shots of the second-season trailer drift in toward a Reagan-Bush ’84 lawn sign; later, we see the Stranger Things kids throttling joysticks at an old-school video arcade. Stranger Things is lavishly decorated with flotsam from the 1980s, featuring stocky televisions with foil-wrapped rabbit ears, poorly lit basement rec rooms lined with halfhearted orange carpet, unwieldy cars shaped like rolling cereal boxes, and cheerfully goofy brown corduroy pants.

I’m not the first to notice that today’s 1980s nostalgia echoes the 1950s nostalgia that reigned when I was a kid. (Yes, in the 1980s.) But the nostalgia of Stranger Things isn’t just for an era, really: It’s for a feeling. That feeling is intimately connected, weirdly enough, with bicycles — and, by extension, the reckless sort of freedom rarely found in childhood today.

The show features “a prelapsarian world of walkie-talkies, landlines, and suburban kids left free to roam wherever they want on their bicycles,” wrote Emily Nussbaum in The New Yorker last year. Or, as Ross Duffer told Rolling Stone: “We were the last generation to have the experience of going out with our friends to the woods or the train tracks and the only way our parents could connect with us was to say, ‘It’s time for dinner.’”

That world is largely gone, and with it, many childhood adventures. The image of a freewheeling kid on a bicycle, so integral to iconic films such as E.T. — Matt and Ross Duffer make no secret of drawing inspiration from classic ’80s blockbusters — is also integral to Stranger Things. Tooling around town or in the local woods on a bike is almost diametrically opposed to most widely approved childhood activities today, which tend to involve hyper-organized and ludicrously time-consuming team sports that seem purposely designed to torture kids and parents alike.

But given free rein on their bikes in and around the town of Hawkins, the kids of Stranger Things can meet up, explore, barrel through the forest, investigate baffling occurrences, and evade a posse of bad guys from a sinister government agency gone awry. That would be the Hawkins National Laboratory, a hulking structure nestled deep in the midwestern woods, packed to the gills with mysteries. According to the Duffer brothers, it was inspired mostly by “bizarre experiments we had read about taking place in the Cold War.”

They’re referring largely to MKUltra, the infamous CIA mind-control project conducted during the 1950s and ’60s. In the 1985 case of CIA v. Sims, the U.S. Supreme Court noted that MKUltra dealt with “the research and development of chemical, biological, and radiological materials capable of employment in clandestine operations to control human behavior.” Frequently, this “research” relied on unsuspecting participants such as cancer patients, drug addicts, or prisoners. Truth, we are reminded, is often stranger than fiction.

But when it comes to battling the forces of evil, Stranger Things is never dark, angry, or bitter. Refreshingly, it plays things straight, with heart — and whether it’s dealing with a heated Dungeons and Dragons face-off or tracking the slimy beast known as the Demogorgon, it also carries more than a hint of joy. “It’s not nasty or mean or condescending or ironic or any of those things,” Matt Duffer told Time, “which a lot of content can be right now.”

He’s right: These days, a good, non-angry, non-political TV show is hard to find. Let’s hope Stranger Things can keep it up: Rumor has it that the show is booked for at least two more seasons. “It’s definitely daunting,” the show’s director, Shawn Levy, told Entertainment Weekly. “The love for this show is so rabid.”

But when it comes to the show’s popularity, perhaps the formula is actually quite simple. Take 2017, add a sense of mystery, toss in a hint of nostalgia, and subtract a boatload of hand-wringing and angst. Take Dustin’s seemingly out-of-nowhere Saturday-night call to his bewildered science teacher, Mr. Clarke, in the middle of the show’s first season: “Do you know anything about sensory-deprivation tanks?”

“Sensory deprivation?” Mr. Clarke asks. “Wh-what is this for?” It’s a long story, really: The kids want to build a tank to transport Eleven, the telekinetic girl, to a hidden dimension to find the Demogorgon. But never mind that.

“Fun,” Dustin answers. Fun. Voilà.

– Heather Wilhelm is a National Review Online columnist.

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