A couple months ago I declared “Death to Nostalgia TV,” in response to Netflix’s Fuller House and, okay, looking back it might be a tad over-dramatic to militantly call for the immediate demise of a television family that includes John Stamos and the Olsen Twins. That’s fair. But the idea of Fuller House? The notion that just because a show existed, and some people remember it existing, that it makes sense to gather whatever members of the cast are willing/still alive (sorry, Comet) for a poorly attended funeral disguised as a nostalgia trip? That had to go. No matter how many times Bob Saget broke the fourth wall to stare pleadingly into my soul begging me to laugh, clap, or just oh god do something, the idea of subbing in ‘stalgia for story and calling it a series had to end.
Aaaaaaaand then, with a lucky roll of a 20-sided-dice, came Netflix’s Stranger Things.
By now, you’ve probably heard Stranger Things described as a “throwback”, or “homage” or, most often, a “love-letter.” And it is—the eight-part first installment lives and breathes inside a 1980s summer, when dudes named Steve were directing films and writing books that both horrified and amazed; when your MARVEL 3D Experience was the blue-and-red specs in the back of your X-Men #134 and “streaming” meant skipping rocks. Nostalgia TV? Stranger Things is a Nostalgia Atom Bomb strapped to the bike from E.T. and flown to the fucking moon and it…works. It works so well.
But why? The latest season of The X-Files, at times, just made me sad. The fourth season of Arrested Development, sadder. Fuller House filled me with the type of existential dread usually reserved for any time Mick Jagger ventures too close to the end of the stage on Rolling Stones reunion tours. And yet Stranger Things, a show you’d expect to come cut from the same cloth, made me happy like no recent TV series has made me happy.
The difference, the key difference here is story: Stranger Things is about a group of ragtag pre-teens—dorks and Dungeon masters, all—on the trail of their missing friend Will, who just so happens to be swept up in a larger, shadowy government conspiracy involving face-sucking monsters, telepathic children and, most horrifyingly, Matthew Modine. It’s a classic small-town-with-BIG-mysteries story (think Twin Peaks meets Aliens meets Monster Squad), one that most impressively works with its reverence to 1980s blockbusters and not because of it.
Take, for example, Will’s mother, Joyce, played wonderfully stressed-the-fuck-out by Winona Ryder. In the series best visual set-piece, Joyce covers her entire home with layer after layer of Christmas lights, which spark up sporadically as Will tries to communicate from an alternate dimension. (It’s, uh, called The Upside Down. This show packs a lot in.) It’s a bit that visually and emotionally pulls you toward the familiar—Poltergeist, the final scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind—but at the same time is so distinctly its own thing. It doesn’t just remind you of the epoch they are associated with, but the quality of the films themselves.
And that’s the thing: While the series is set in the 80s, and full to the damn brim of pop culture references from the time period, it’s also such a story of the here and now—sci-fi, monsters, government conspiracies—that it becomes oddly comforting in its setting. It reminded me of another piece, long after I called for the death of nostalgia itself, in which we looked at the point of pop culture in a world that, plainly, seems to have gone batshit insane. Stranger Things is that world in a microcosm; it’s a small, quiet town that had nothing to worry about other than high school crushes and the occasional owl attack, thrown into chaos by the arrival of monsters, death and uncertainty. We basically live in the Upside Down. Tell me you don’t feel that. Tell me you don’t wake up most mornings exactly like this:
But as a saying contributed to roughly 50 different sources on Tumblr goes, “Sometimes you have to look back to go forward.” It’s right there in the title. Isn’t it reassuring to realize that no matter how comfortable OR terrified you are, there are always going to be stranger things? Always have been. Friends to find. Monsters to fight. But there are people–the dedicated mother, the kids who get picked on in high school hallways, the redeemed bully, the town outcast–who will fight with you.
Yes, this show lives in the past, but it isn’t stuck there. Where, say, Fuller House or The X-Files ask if you remember your old life, Stranger Things reminds you of what it’s like to be alive right now.