When a friend asked me to pitch Stranger Things a couple days ago, the first thing that came out of my mouth was, “It’s awesome,” but since I hadn’t sat down to think about the why behind that sentiment beforehand, I couldn’t offer anything more compelling. I will try to be a little more articulate now…
So, Stranger Things season 1 is awesome (and the first episode and a half of season two have basically followed suit). It reminds me of several very different pieces of entertainment/art without being exactly like anything else I’ve ever seen.
First, it reminds me of Community at its best. My favorite Community episodes are heavy on the sci-fi and fantasy allusions (or are explicitly riffing off stories and movies I love). It also works at a metafictional level that ST pulls off to wonderful effect. For example, there’s a moment when Will’s mom (played wonderfully by Winona Ryder) suggests they go see a scary movie together, so long as it won’t give him nightmares. He says he doesn’t get scared like that anymore, and she asks him, “Not even of clowns?” Now, this seems like an explicit reference to Stephen King’s It, which only makes sense at a metafictional level because the first season of ST is set in 1983-4 and It wasn’t published until 1986. To take it a step further, ST’s Mike Wheeler is played by Finn Wolfhard who also plays a starring role in . . . you guessed it, the 2017 remake of It.
Speaking of It, one of the things the 2017 movie did exceptionally well was reinterpret King’s classic and transpose the kids’ scenes from the late 50’s to the late 80’s. The portrait of the 80’s offered in the film reminds me of ST’s delightful and nostalgic setting. The film’s focus on a group of outcast kids who love, support, encourage, fight with, and are willing to sacrifice for each other also hearkens back to King’s narrative, emphasizing the hardships of growing up and its simple pleasures.
This same focus on outcast kids who have taken on a dangerous task to save what they love also points back to the 1985 classic, The Goonies. The echoes seem to be intentional, with ST’s Barb bearing a more than passing resemblance to Stef and Sean Astin (who played Mikey) entering the ST cast for season 2.
The final film ST reminds me of is a little indie-film from 2009 called Ink. It’s not the plot or the setting that is reminiscent, it’s the upside-down. The visuals and cinematography in the upside-down, with their bluish tint, heavy darkness, and eerie contrasts are familiar and more than a little disturbing.
If all that wasn’t enough to make me love this show, this next point does the trick all on its own.
One of the unifying plot elements throughout season one (and it doesn’t let up in season 2) is the frame of Dungeons and Dragons that helps the kids make sense of what is going on around them. The first episode begins with their D&D game, the last episode ends with one – heck, one of the episode titles from season 2 references the Mind Flayer of AD&D fame! All this takes me back to the early 90’s when I encountered D&D and the related novels (without which I certainly would not have done a PhD!), which included the Dragonlance Chronicles – first published in 1984 and 85 (I might just do a little happy dance if season 2 refers to the first in this series). Had these kids been around at my schools growing up, there’s a good chance we would have hung out.
I could go on, but I won’t. If any of these film references grab your interest or if you remember D&D with fondness, then I wager you’ll love this show – in much the same way that those who grew up playing arcade games are likely to love Wreck-It Ralph. It is nostalgic, intriguing, and full of sci-fi goodness apart from the features I mentioned above, and I can’t wait to see where they go from here.