Hey gang! I’m back with another overlong examination of a pop-cultural touchstone. This time it’s Netflix’s much-ballyhooed (and beloved) limited series Stranger Things.
1: Exploding cliché and the allure of the 1980s
There’s a moment near the end of Netflix’s new series Stranger Things that called to mind one of Joss Whedon’s unspoken edicts: explode cliche at all costs.
(Needless to say, if you haven’t watched the new series, a canny throwback shocker that combines equal parts Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, John Carpenter, and H.P. Lovecraft, go home and watch it now. It’s binge-worthy television par excellence. Oh, and beaucoup SPOILERS await you in this review.)
The Whedonian edict against cliche requires constant vigilance. Sometimes you have to specifically invite a cliche in order to explode it, and sometimes that cliche isn’t a stock phrase or expression, but rather an expected image or moment, the expectation for which springs from the very fabric of the story itself.
In Stranger Things, this moment comes as the series’ four child leads—maybe the best bunch of child actors assembled since season four of The Wire—ride their bikes, racing to escape a cadre of government stooges straight out of the second half of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. The stooges have the kids surrounded—as they race away from one van, they encounter another van bearing straight down on them. At this moment, we were all expecting the kids to take off and fly over the oncoming van, a la Elliot and his gang in E.T.—but they don’t. Instead, aided by a telekinetic girl, they watch in astonishment as the oncoming van does a backflip over their heads.
It’s fitting that a show that uses nostalgia so well would conjure an image from our youths and subvert it so expertly. Think of how often Joss Whedon sets up—and sends up—stale moments and tropes from storytelling. Some of his favorite targets include the earnestly delivered heroic line, or the tossed-off action-movie bon mot. Basically, if the moment in question sounds (or looks) like it might make it into the trailer, Whedon tries to take the piss out of it.
Stranger Things showrunners Matt and Ross Duffer follow the same impulse by flipping that van. In doing so, they acknowledge the heady role pop-culture plays in their eight-episode thriller. It’s funny how nostalgia works. When I was a little kid in the 80s, I thought my mom was goofy for loving the movie Peggy Sue Got Married so much. I didn’t understand the appeal of a time three decades distant, yet now, here I am, heaping praise onto a show that resides as far in the past for me as the 50s did for my mom. (Side note: happily, my mom and I found common cause to love on the 50s when we saw Back to the Future.)
Stranger Things is undeniably the product of two children of the 80s—but not to a fault, and that’s where much of its triumph lies. Twin brothers Matt and Ross Duffer, whose previous credits include the shows Hidden and Wayward Pines, were born in 1984. That makes ‘em a few years too young to fully be children of the 80s, but as they told Vulture, the decade’s pop-culture exerted a tremendous pull on them.
“Oh, this is great because this allows us to also pay homage to the films we grew up on. So many of our greatest moviegoing experiences were actually experienced in our house, on VHS. These were the films that were on our shelves, that we would watch. When you’re a kid, you don’t watch a movie one time. You watch it 10, 20 times. These were the movies we grew up on. It became a part of us.”
I can relate. I’m several years older than the Duffers—I was born in 1977—and while I can probably remember more of the 80s than they can, I still consider myself more a child of the 90s. The 90s were when I was in high school, when I went to college, when I truly came of age. But like the Duffers, I also watched my favorite movies on VHS until the tapes broke. I also remember the early works of Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter fondly. I also remember the exact font used on the cover of classic Stephen King novels—and I remember a few of his novels, as well, though I didn’t start reading King until the 90s. (My first King novel was Eyes of the Dragon, which I read in 1991.)
In any event, I bring this up to underline a point: the 80s has tremendous pop-cultural allure, even if you don’t remember it firsthand.
2: Recruiting heroes and villains from varying pulp traditions
This fixation on a wide swath of early 80s cinema animates Stranger Things, which combines a number of potent ingredients into an especially delicious narrative jambalaya. The backdrop is classic King—a one-stoplight town in Anywhere USA that’s brimming with young love, old rivalries, and lots of bullies. The heroes also bubble up from some of King’s most-visited wells: a single mom, the town sheriff, a bunch of nerdy kids—a loser’s club, if you will. (Don’t worry—I’ll talk about IT in a moment.)
But only the heroes belong to King. When we pivot to the villains, we discover a rogues gallery drawn from early Spielberg. Matthew Modine’s government stooge is like the evil twin to Peter Coyote’s benevolent scientist from E.T. The rest of the baddies also register like dark counterparts from early Spielberg. If you went to Star Trek’s Mirror universe and brought back the evil analogues of the friendly, ghostbusting scientists from Poltergeist, you’d get Modine’s henchmen.
Needless to say, I just invoked Trek’s Mirror universe for a reason. Stranger Things’ underlying threat is a parallel reality that’s bleeding into our own. This notion hails most notably from the work of H.P. Lovecraft, who described rifts in reality that led to bizarre, mind-bending spaces built from “non-Euclidean” geometry and populated by a menagerie of unholy titans, the very sight of which would often drive his protagonists insane. At this point, I’m also basically required by law to mention the classic board game Arkham Horror, which takes place in Lovecraft’s universe and indirectly contributes to the tone and structure of Stranger Things. In Arkham Horror, players frantically search the streets of Lovecraft’s invented Massachusetts burg for spectral gates that lead to strange parallel realities, all while trying to collect magical items and preserve their own sanity.
Sound familiar? In Stranger Things, gates burst open all over the humble hamlet of Hawkins, Ind., leading to the aforementioned Upside-Down, and it’s up to our heroes to find and explore them. Side note: I am, of course, kidding. I doubt Arkham Horror was on the showrunners’ radar, but Lovecraft certainly was. Any exploration of an evil parallel reality—from Twin Peaks to Fringe to the video game Silent Hill—is invariably going to import some of Lovecraft’s themes and imagery. Hell, even the memorable dream sequences in The Sopranos seem to occupy their own self-consistent universe, up to and including the extended “Kevin Finnerty” coma-dream in season six. (I’d also further content that The Sopranos occupies a moral universe presided over by some kind of deity, but that’s another discussion.)
So let’s talk about the parallel reality introduced in Stranger Things, the wonderfully named Upside-Down. In the museum of fictional parallel worlds, I’d put the Upside-Down in the same hall as the various hell-dimensions depicted in Silent Hill—it basically resembles our world, but drained of life, shrouded in shadow, swarming with pestilence, and overgrown with the stunted brambles of the damned. A perpetual rain of poisoned snowflakes falls like ash from a subterranean fire.
Here I must give voice to one of few complaints about the show: the Upside-Down’s a great invention, but it lacked scope, as it seemed to only have one inhabitant. (I’ll talk about that inhabitant shortly.) Don’t get me wrong—I admired the heck out of the realm, and it made me yearn to see the film version of a legendary unmade script for Ghostbusters III that sent the team to a dark, alternate version of New York City. But if there’s one place where Stranger Things’ no-doubt modest budget is laid bare, it’s in the Upside-Down.
But that’s a small quibble. The Upside-Down’s sole resident is an admirably Lovecraftian creation, a creepy cross between a Venus fly trap, Predator, and any number of creatures from the Silent Hill franchise. (Maybe the weeping bat from Silent Hill: Downpour? You tell me, geeks.) This creature terrorizes the citizens of the small town, feeding on wildlife and children with equal gusto, squirreling them away into a dank lair straight out of Alien, where it entombed his victims in wall-mounted web-coffins spun from mucous and viscera. The trypophobe in me trembled at the site.
3: But what is it about?
So far in this article, I’ve mentioned E.T. and Alien, two early-80s masterpieces of extra-terrestrial storytelling, as inspirations for Stranger Things. You might be asking, “Wait a minute, Bob—how the hell could two such tonally disparate works both be inspirations for the same show?”
It’s a good question, and it deserves a good answer. Let me put it this way: Stranger Things works in both major and minor keys. It a gee-whiz Spielbergian fable about kids discovering the magic and mayhem that lurks in their hometown, but it’s also a B-movie about men in black, monsters that hide in your closet (or in this case, literally the walls), and government conspiracies. It’s like the Goonies wandered into Haddonfield. It’s like the Loser’s Club wandered into Twin Peaks.
It’s like a lot of things, but happily, it isn’t beholden to any of those things. Unlike some other throwback properties—which I’ll talk about—Stranger Things tells an original story that uses pop culture merely to add to its texture and setting, not as a load-bearing member.
The series’ story-engine—a young boy vanishes into a nearby parallel world, keying off a citywide search that slowly uncovers the nefarious plans of a covert government agency—also works as a powerful delivery mechanism for a variety of themes and metaphors. Chief among them:
• Denying reality as a means to process grief. (Or as they say in Wonderfalls, “You know what happens when you repress something, right?” “It goes away?”)
• If you’re poor, you’re gonna die. Or in more academic language, “Class as determinant for mortality.”
• I’d also submit that Stranger Things works well as a metaphorical representation of a variety of neuro-atypical mental configurations, including autism, as well as a canny portrayal of what it’s like to recover from childhood abuse. (It echoes the mission statement of Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, which I’ll discuss in a moment.)
Let’s address those bullet points one by one:
Theme the First: Denying reality as a means to process grief
I can’t speak to what it’s like to live in denial of the loss of a loved one. Although I’ve experienced some death in my time, I’ve yet to respond to it with denial—mostly just bewilderment and sorrow. But this storyline still clicked with me because of how it depicted magical thinking, an informally codified malady I’ve most certainly experienced in my life.
As she searches for her lost son, Winona Ryder’s Joyce character starts to hear him all around her—in the walls, in the stereo system, emanating from the ceiling. In this show’s cosmology, she’s right, of course, but it only takes a small imaginative leap to picture her in real-reality, in our world, where such things as monsters and portals to parallel realities don’t exist. The reaction to Ryder’s performance has—as far as I can tell—been largely positive, and I’d add my voice to that chorus. She delivers, and it’s great to see her push herself. I’d liken her performance to Natalie Portman’s in Black Swan—she’s one frantic, gibbering, exposed nerve. Her tachometer’s perpetually in the red. It must’ve been exhausting.
(Part of me thinks there’s a version of this show whose final twist reveals that it all happened inside Winona Ryder’s head.)
I also applaud Netflix for backing so many wonderful new original projects, not the least of which is my friend Karl Mueller’s new movie Rebirth, which dropped the same day as Stranger Things. We live in an era when Steven Spielberg almost couldn’t get funding to make Lincoln with Daniel Day-Lewis, and happily, television (in all its forms) has taken up some of the slack, providing homes for filmmakers big and small—from Steven Soderbergh (The Knick, Behind the Candelabra) to the Duffers (and Karl).
We also live in an era in which women are only offered a limited range of roles. (And by “an era,” I mean, all of filmmaking history, ever—from Edison and the Lumiere brothers to the RED camera and beyond.) When women are in their early twenties, they’re offered ingenues, and when they enter their fifties, they’re offered mothers, secretaries, teachers, and old crones. In between is a vast wasteland where they’re too old to play this and too young to play that. And actually, the threshold when they start being offered “older” roles keeps getting younger and younger. And actually, it’s mostly a wasteland.
It occurs to me that I’m about to praise the Duffers for giving Ryder a mom to play after complaining about mom roles, but her role in Stranger Things is a strong one. Four major storylines interweave across the show’s tight eight-episode run, and Ryder heads up one of them—and that’s worth praising. (Lest we forget that a “strong” female character isn’t one who’s physically strong—though they can be—but rather a character who drives the story.)
Theme the Second: If you’re poor, you’re gonna die.
It’s no mistake that the show’s two main victims—Will and poor Barb—both hail from the poor side of town. Stranger Things has received a lot of praise for how its design team captured the look and feel of an early-80s Amblin movie, but in addition to their fine period work, they also drew sharp—but not overstated—contrasts between the rich kids and the poor kids, and man, did it bring me back. Growing up, I came from a fairly well off family, but I can remember visiting the homes of friends who were more well off, and I noticed it; things like more modern appliances, nicer fixtures, walls that weren’t wood paneling. (Though let’s be real—wood paneling rocks.) In any event, Will and Barb were poor, and as such, were cannon fodder for Dr. Brenner’s dark experiments.
Theme the Third: What it’s like to be neuro-atypical.
Here’s where I’m probably going to give Stranger Things a little more credit than it deserves. The show’s portrayal of Eleven—in all of her taciturn bewilderment—reminded me of Shane Carruth’s portrayal of the damaged leads in his sophomore effort, Upstream Color.
Upstream Color’s one of those polarizing movies—a head-scratcher that offers virtually no narrative in the traditional sense, instead opting to depict a tone poem about love between two deeply wounded people. The plot, such as it is, involves two people who fall victim to a nameless scientist (of sorts) who experiments on them by somehow neurologically linking their minds directly to nature—in this case, giant pigs. (I’m not making this up.) This link is made possible by the use of the nectar from a rare flower.
That may not sound much like Stranger Things’ pulpy storyline of monsters, D&D, and parallel universes, but there’s a connection. Both movies use the trappings of science-fiction and body horror to simulate the experience of being neuro-atypical for the average audience member. Both projects use an ethically dubious scientific experiment to unmoor its lead characters from reality, in effect transforming the “normal” world into a foreign and hostile place.
No one’s ever going to mistake me for an expert on the spectrum of autism or other neurologically atypical modes of experiencing the world, but based on what little I know—as well as my own personal experience with anxiety and introversion—both projects do a great job depicting these conditions.
To wit, here’s a demonstrative scene from Upstream Color. This happens right after the female lead (Amy Seimetz, in a fractured and luminous performance) returns home the night after sinister agents have experimented on her. Check it out:
And here’s a fan-favorite scene from Stranger Things, in which Eleven ventures into a supermarket and makes off with a boatload of Eggos:
Note the counter-intuitive way the directors—Carruth for Upstream and showrunners the Duffer Brothers for Stranger—frame these interior spaces. These are both normal, pedestrian places (a suburban home and a supermarket), and yet they’re shot in such a way to communicate hostility, menace, dread.
Seimetz lurks in her own doorway like her house is haunted. After staring into its dark depths for a moment, she dashes in and snatches her phone, and you get the sense she’s holding her breath the whole time, like her home’s been flooded with neurotoxin.
By comparison, the filmmakers invest Eleven’s perspective with the values of someone investigating an alien landscape. Note how the camera moves across the products and people of the supermarket. Typically, you’d expect the someone’s POV to light on certain products or make eye-contact with certain people. Maybe the subject’s gaze would fall on a sign, read it, and move on. But not Eleven’s, because she essentially doesn’t understand what she’s looking at. In Eleven’s case, the filmmakers literalize the alien nature of the supermarket by cutting back to the laboratory where she endured her own experiments.
For Eleven, a normal space is triggering, confusing, upsetting. That’s a powerful metaphor—and it’s one that dovetails with another of Stranger Things’s chief influences, the Stephen King novel IT. (I’m about to launch into an aria here, so bear with me.) Much hoopla has been made about Stranger Things’ myriad influences, which include Explorers, E.T., Poltergeist, The Goonies, as well as another Stephen King piece, the novella The Body, which was so memorably adapted into the movie Stand by Me.
King’s IT has also popped up on these lists, though usually only for (what I think are fairly) superficial reasons. IT follows another band of misfit kids around a small town as they do battle with a spectral menace and travel to parallel realities. (If you’ve only ever seen the surprisingly okay 1989 television adaptation, then you missed out on the “parallel realities” stuff, which occupies the final acts of the novel.) Anyway, one of IT’s greatest virtues comes in its own depiction of what being triggered feels like. To wit:
The scene depicts a classic horror-movie trope—the ghost only you can see—but its power lay in how well it captures the feeling of being triggered. It’s played for ghoulish laughs, but take note of how fractured Harry Anderson’s focus is, how he has to bend forward and squint to concentrate on the librarian’s words. Notice, too, how the filmmakers show how Pennywise’s antics have no effect on anyone else. I’m happy to say that my personal history of being triggered is pretty limited, but when it’s happened, it’s felt a lot like this: in the space of a few moments, a normal space transforms into a threatening one; I’m trapped in public, unable to escape.
So endeth my aria about feeling triggered, but let me put a bow on this thread while ushering us into another. To recap, three of Stranger Things’ primary thematic fixations include the depiction of grief, the struggles of the lower class, and the challenges facing neuro-atypical. The show explores all three theme with skill and empathy, all while presenting a satusfyingly twisty array of narratives that intertwine over the season’s eight-episode run.
4: Expertly interweaving storylines
In fact, let’s pause to heap some praise on Stranger Things’ interweaving storylines. I’m moved to remember a storytelling edict from one of my favorite media critics, Film Crit Hulk, he of the epic-length essays over at Birth Movies Death. In his book Screenwriting 101, FCH argues that the best stories involve multiple plotlines that interweave and influence one another, each storyline driven by a character (or characters) who have specific, actionable goals. Sounds easy, right? Well, as a writer, I can say it’s easier said than done—but Stranger Things does it masterfully. Let’s review the major threads:
• Winona Ryder’s Joyce Byers searches for her son, Will, who vanished from the storyline with…
• The four main kids, who encounter (and take in) Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven, a little girl-turned-lab rat who boasts an array of Professor X-like superpowers and is the living key to another mystery involving…
• Town Sheriff Jim Hopper (David Harbour), who’s also searching for the missing Will, and who in the course of his search uncovers a series of bizarre experiments being conducted by…
• Matthew Modine’s Dr. Martin Brenner, a mildly mad scientist who’s accidentally cracked open a passageway into a shadowy parallel reality, unleashing a monster (played by Mr. Jones’ Mark Steger), which menaces…
• The local teenagers (primarily Charlie Heaton and Natalia Dyer, with help from Joe Keery), who search the town for this creature after one of them (fan favorite Barb, played by newcomer Shannon Purser).
What’s great about the structure of Stranger Things is how all of these storylines intersect with and inform one another. There are dozens of examples I could give, but damn if my favorite example isn’t also one of this show’s most powerful throughlines. Let me explain:
Eleven falls in with the kids’ storyline, but she originates with the sheriff’s storyline. This has a lot of superficial effects—the sheriff ventures out to the government lab where Brenner had been experimenting on her, in turn giving us longer (and deeper) looks into her past, all while her storyline unfolds and enriches the kids’ adventures. (Eleven proves a useful ally against the town bullies—a pair of bruisers shitheaded enough to make Victor Criss proud—plus, she’s a walking, sometimes-talking metaphor for their impending change into teenagers.)
But the deeper—and more deeply satisfying—byproduct of Eleven’s presence is how she makes you want to predict the future. Early on, we learn that the sheriff lost a daughter under suspicious circumstances. Naturally, as geeks, our minds quickly leap to the conclusion that Eleven is his long-lost daughter. But as soon as we’re sure we’re right, the story sows doubt. During a series of harrowing flashbacks to Eleven’s past, we watch Dr. Brenner conduct one awful experiment after another on her, all while she addresses him as “papa.” Furthermore, even if we believe that Eleven isn’t the sheriff’s daughter, there’s still ample evidence to suggest that Hopper’s actual daughter got caught in Brenner’s net; one scene shows the sheriff interrogating a local flunky about the disappearance of especially intelligent kids from the area. Surely poor Sheriff Hopper’s daughter is among those brilliant missing children?
Here’s the beauty of Stranger Things: the answer is none of the above. Turns out that Dr. Brenner actually is Eleven’s father, while Sheriff Hopper lost his daughter to childhood cancer. It’s hard for me to overstate how hard this twist hit me. I found it simultaneously moving and satisfying. So often in these kinds of genre stories, there’s an unspoken need for everything to be connected, down to the last person and plot point. (I’m looking at you, The Force Awakens.) But the showrrunners of Stranger Things understand that not every thread can be neatly woven into the final tapestry. Sometimes everything isn’t connected, even if the big, scary government lab happens to be located right outside your hometown.
But as much as I love this show, it ain’t perfect, and its imperfections are worth talking about. We live in an era of nostalgia overdrive. In every form of media, the 80s and 90s are bubbling back up, from the “retrowave” movement in music—heard in Stranger Things’ excellent soundtrack—to the steady stream of movies (Super 8, The Force Awakens) and TV shows (Stranger Things, The X-Files, and the upcoming revival of Twin Peaks) that mine 80s and 90s pop-culture, all in an effort to …
5: But what is it really about? Really?
Really, what is a show like Stranger Things trying to do? Is there any good reason why it’s set in the early 80s, other than as an excuse for retro product placement and references? Is its setting only good for pinging the dopamine-centers of our nostalgic brains?
Maybe. One critic (whose name I can’t recall) noted that while Stranger Things does a better job of capturing the period vibe of an early Amblin Entertainment movie than, say, Super 8, there’s still a problem: early Amblin Entertainment movies weren’t themselves period pieces. Spielberg, the master of the form, was simply making movies about their own time and place, so why do today’s filmmakers, when trying to recapture the magic of those movies, feel like they have to recreate everything about them, right down to the period and setting?
That’s a fair point, but a friend of mine made the counter-argument that even though Spielberg’s early hits weren’t period pieces, they were still pastiches of the highest order, drawing on the traditions of old monster movies and serials.
But still—the question nags at me: what is Stranger Things trying to do, really? Over at Birth Movies Death, Film Crit Hulk grappled with this very same question in his examination of the show, where he argues that its chief problem is simple:
It’s just not about anything, or to put it more in Hulk’s words, the show “doesn’t really make sense on a dramatic level,” and (now more in my words), scenes unspool with no discernible logic, all of it based on a set of storytelling rules that are constantly in flux depending on the needs of the moment. Here’s a larger excerpt from Hulk’s excellent essay (converted to sentence case to make it easier on the eyes):
“It means well. It likes all the same things you like. But this show is a constantly confused story that always seems to vaguely know what it is aiming for and has no idea how to really get there or what to do with it. And if there is one word hulk would use to describe the story of stranger things it’s this: Haphazard.”
Later, Hulk argues:
“Characters constantly make dramatic deductions that make no sense at that point in the story. It’s always the same: they display an inconsistent behavior and then explain why they have that behavior with a justification that is often also inconsistent (and worse, these momentary changes are not remembered later in the show).”
That’s really well said. I made a similar complaint about LOST, another genre show that developed a rich mythology and commanded a large and rabid fanbase. LOST ran for so long—past its expiration date, some would argue—and the longer it ran, the more story it ran out of its spool. In fact, there was so much story that its characters were forced to make baffling changes in motivation all the time, pausing to explain themselves at every turn. It’s not that a show can’t sustain the occasional explanation, it’s that LOST came to rely on it at the expense of clear character motives.
Pivoting back to Stranger Things, let’s talk about its murky ruleset. I never understood the rules of the Upside Down, and more to the point, I never quite grokked what exactly Eleven’s powers actually were. In fact, let’s turn back to Film Crit Hulk for some anaylsis:
“For instance, hulk liked her and all, but hulk never had a sense of ‘The rules’ of eleven or even what she was really doing or wanted outside of general safety. Hulk never knew what she could or could not understand, or what characters understood about her. You could argue “That’s the point! She was this supergirl who didn’t understand the world and just plopped into our lives!” but that would only make sense if those questions of mystery were heightened and a part of the dramatic story. In reality, these were basic failings of audience communication, exacerbated by the show’s foolhardy aim of ‘Mysteriousness.’”
As I argued earlier, I think FCH is missing the boat slightly with regards to Eleven and her portrayal of neuro-atypical mental configurations, but he’s got a point about who she was or what she wanted. Probably the most bewildering part of her story was that dang tank. Listen, I don’t need to have everything spoon-fed to me, but man, it didn’t seem to add up. Here’s a look:
As near as I can figure, here’s what happens: Eleven has the ability to project herself into a kind of subspace realm where she can astrally project her essence to any point on earth. But there’s a danger—this subspace realm lies right on the filmy border between our universe and the Upside Down … which she also has access to, given that she’s later able to visit poor Will’s hideout in the Upside Down. On that note, why did the Upside Down include an exact copy of Will’s hideout? Did it include exact copies of the entire world? If so, why didn’t it include copies of all of its inhabitants? (Going from the fan hypothesis that the creature was Eleven’s “Upside Down” counterpart.)
6: The mettle of your pasture
These are niggling questions, to be sure, because there’s one aspect of Stranger Things that’s undeniable—it works. For some reason it works, despite its sometimes-muddy storytelling, murky rules, and fungible character motivations. Why is that?
I can only speak for myself, but I’ll offer this: Stranger Things spoke to the kid I was and the adult I am. That’s a special bit of magic to pull off, matched only by works that tell stories from multiple perspectives—To Kill a Mockingbird springs to mind, as does King’s The Body, both of which recount childhood adventures with the wisdom of adulthood. I don’t mean to put Stephen King in the same league as Harper Lee, but his best works can bear the comparison. More than anything else, King is a chronicler of plain folks: teachers and sheriffs and layabouts—the typical denizens of small towns. Lee’s seminal novel tracks similar types—a small-town lawyer, a sheriff, a family of shut-ins—and both Lee and King tell the stories of plain folks with great wisdom and empathy. They believe in the simple goodness and bravery of plain folks, no matter what age they are. Some critics complained about the splintered focus of Stranger Things, arguing that by following the adults, teens, and children, the show wound up doing a disservice to all three storylines. That’s a fair point, but I’d argue that the multiple storylines—and age-perspectives—lent Stranger Things a special kind of wisdom; the wisdom that says we can always learn from our friends and family, no matter if they’re older—or younger—than we are.
There are a lot of good-hearted, plain folks in Hawkins, Ind., and they fight for each other. They listen to each other. They love each other. Stranger Things ain’t perfect, but it got that part right.