Bike to the Future: Stranger Things and reviving a genre

E.T. had heart and charming kids on bikes. Jaws had innovative cinematography and mastered the art of building terror while barely showing its source. Poltergeist used TV and the unknown as a vehicle for criticism of white suburbia. Each installment of Indiana Jones brought a sense of gutsy mystery and adventure. Netflix’s newest thriller, Stranger Things, has a bit of all of the above.

While Stranger Things, the new Netflix series helmed by the Duffer Brothers, draws inspiration from and easily hearkens back to the heyday of Spielberg, this show isn’t exactly like any of its predecessors. Stranger Things borrows material and aesthetics, it endlessly references the era it’s set in, yet something exciting about it is drawing audiences in droves to the eight-episode series. 

The easy explanation is that it’s a really fun show to watch. It’s beautifully filmed and scored, and the sets are decorated to full ‘80s campy perfection with great attention to accuracy. The cast is immensely talented, especially its child actors. Millie Bobbie Brown as supernaturally-powered science experiment Eleven brings a convincing intensity to her role, reminiscent of a young Natalie Portman in Leon the Professional or Drew Barrymore in Firestarter, based on the Stephen King novel. King’s apparent influence on the show is also intentional. Each episode is titled like the chapter of a book, written in a serifed font which recalls the horror paperbacks that filled every backpack and adorned most bedside tables in the ‘80s. Furthermore, the majority of King’s novels have been adapted into classic films like Stand By Me or Carrie. These classics certainly influenced Stranger Things and bring back memories of drive-ins and sleepover movie nights. This nostalgia contributes to what makes Stranger Things even more entertaining—we remember the light-wash jeans and big glasses; the Bowie anthems and wood-paneled interiors. 

What makes Stranger Things so good isn’t simply its aesthetics or casting, nor simple nostalgia. What makes the show so remarkable is that it’s essentially rebooting a genre—what I call the “family thriller.” These aren’t family films per se, but they’re PG-13 horror that you’d feel comfortable watching with Mom and Dad. Steven Spielberg hasn’t made a notable movie of this type since Jurassic Park (although there is an argument to be made for AI or Super 8), and while Stephen King continues to write novels at an unmatched rate, he hasn’t released a distinct classic that was adapted into a film since 1996’s The Green Mile. Other landmarks of this genre like Tales from the Crypt, or The X-Files haven’t been on air since the late ‘90s (if we choose to ignore the failed, short-lived X Files reboots).That the show also stars Winona Ryder in a comeback solidifies this rebirth—she hasn’t been active since the ‘90s and is an ‘80s teen drama icon. Indeed, what makes Stranger Things such a refreshing and fun series is that it’s brought life back to the beloved movies and TV shows that ‘80s and ‘90s kids grew up watching. It’s supernatural horror, a monster movie, a teen drama, and a children’s adventure story all in one. 

No show can rely on nostalgia alone. Many period pieces fall victim to this—they’re elaborate love letters to a time period with nothing important to say. Stranger Things manages to escape the nostalgia trap by not only referencing how wonderful the music and movies of the 80s were, but actually recreating what made them great and adding its own improvements. Most notably, it introduces an original cast who both embody tropes and bring new life to them. Nancy Byers is not just the “meddling older sister”—she’s a conflicted young woman who has to battle society’s perceptions of female sexuality while singlehandedly taking on a monster. Sheriff Hopper isn’t just the “jaded detective”—he’s a man who has to come to terms with his dark past and subvert the system he’s supposed to enforce in order to save a life.

Stranger Things is far from a perfect show. It leaves numerous loose ends and opens plot holes that a second series will be unlikely to fill. It suffers from basic inconsistencies in its plot and loses steam as it goes on. However, it has loveable and interesting characters, a compelling central storyline, and a beautifully designed retro aesthetic that distracts from the most glaring errors in the series. It embraces nostalgia without relying on it as a substitute for story. And ultimately, what makes Stranger Things such a genuine pleasure to watch is the genre it loves enough to revive. In a year like 2016, when the world feels unstable and unfamiliar, it’s almost cathartic to be able to re-experience a piece of our collective past.