I recently read Chuck Klosterman’s What if We’re Wrong (I know this is a Stranger Things review bear with me), and in that work Klosterman discusses what makes something enduring, something that will be talked about two-hundred-plus years from now. In the course of discussing this, he draws attention to the fact that one of the things many writers and content creators are afraid to do is “date” their work, even if decades down the road these dated aspects might prove to be the most interesting aspects of said work. There’s just a certain appeal to having that time capsule-like feeling, and in many ways saying your character is watching He-Man while marveling at their new Walkman might actually be part of what makes something last, not fade away.
Consider this in relation to Netflix’s new original series Stranger Things. As a contemporary creature feature that takes place in the eighties, certainly one of the most intriguing elements of the eight episode movie is its setting. But it’s not just the haircuts, the denim, or the tube televisions that make this choice of time so fascinating. Rather than feeling like one is looking from the outside in at a kind of kitschy and nostalgic eighties bio dome, Stranger Things gives us the pleasure of looking from the inside out. It uses modern filmmaking to strip away any veneer between us and the characters, and manages to be a shining example of just how important tone is to the construction of television, or a work in any medium.
Take the various characters and their plots for example. All of them seem to add up to three (or more) different but standard arcs drawn from the canon of eighties movie history. There’s the love triangle involving Nancy, a cocky jerk kind of character, and a sullen weirdo; Hopper’s fraught investigation of the Hawkin’s powerplant is classic conspiracy thriller, and Mike and his friends meeting and hiding of Eleven is E.T.. In another show, these standard plots might seem cliché or trite. But in Stranger Things, they somehow feel fresh and reinvigorated, like your watching them for the first time, or at least like you’re watching them with a sudden appreciation for why people in the 80s would have cared about these stories so much.
It also has one of the most respectful treatments of “the monster” in most any television show I’ve watched. The creature and where it comes from are slowly teased out, building up a both genuinely haunting and unique atmosphere from the back lines. There are no cheap tricks here: Stranger Things doesn’t shy away from showing you the monster, but the creators know to keep these appearances just short enough to send your mind on a satisfying run. There’s also no great reliance on soundtrack as an emotional crutch, always a welcome choice in anything with modern horror elements. It’s yet another testament to tone: the fact that this twilight zone-esque monster story is mixed with these different elements of conventional drama in a respectful way, in a way that doesn’t constantly scream “look at me, look how eighties I am” is such a feat to me.
It doesn’t simply offer you a time-capsule, it puts you in this seat of emotion, puts you next to Winona Ryder as she struggles to move a chair to a spot where she can keep the phone in her lap to desperately wait for her son to call while her lights flash and things come out of the walls. It doesn’t just show you an eighties monster flick: for an all too brief and terrifying time it lets you live in one.