Stranger Things: TV for a Lost Reality

When I was young and given a pencil with which to draw, I would draw cruder versions of whatever it was my brother had drawn before me.

When I was young and given a pencil with which to draw, I would draw cruder versions of whatever it was my brother had drawn before me. Like many younger siblings, my brother was a purveyor of taste for me, the conduit through which I discovered childhood favourites like Street Sharks, Biker Mice from Mars, and The Mighty Ducks. I might have been partaking in what Walter Benjamin described as the basic start of all artists, making replicas “in practice of their craft,” but I eventually realised that my brother wasn’t a master and my block-headed pastiches of his style certainly didn’t make me a pupil or an artist, so I put down the pencil. Sometimes I think to myself that the existence of Stranger Things is a result of the same realisation never dawning on the Duffer Brothers.

Stranger Things, as we all know by now, is a show that borrows too heavily from the cultural lexicon of the 1980s: Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, David Lynch, George Lucas, synthpop, John Carpenter, The Goonies – they’re all in there. It’s an okay show. It’s entertaining in the way that my cartoons were, as a quick homage to which you give a limp smile in recognition and then you move on with your life. Except that’s not what happened with Stranger Things: the show’s first season is the third most watched season of original Netflix content, seventy per cent of viewers who watched the pilot finished the entire series and it was critically acclaimed, with a 96% approval rating from sixty-eight reviews and a weighted average rating of 8.04/10 on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. David Wiegand of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote that the show “reminds us of a time marked by a kind of no-strings escapism. And as it does so, we find ourselves yearning for it.”

It is no coincidence that that the films Stranger Things invokes are all from either immediately preceding or during the Ronald Reagan era, an era in which “all of the thinking [in films]… is baked into the dough of references,” according to Jonathon Sturgeon. Pointing to the Marxist film critic Andrew Britton’s tracing of Raiders of the Lost Ark to the Republican serial of the ‘40s (amongst other examples), Sturgeon says that “there’s nothing left to do but gorge.” Stranger Things is already packed with the referential dough of the films of the ‘80s and it becomes some sort of televisual brownie baked into a cookie when paired with the binge-encouraging platform of Netflix. Here, what Britton, in his essay “Blissing Out: The Politics of Reaganite Entertainment”, called the “delirious self-celebrating self-reference” reaches its zenith.

The first season of Stranger Things came in July 2016 as the hellish locomotive toward November’s presidential election raged on. Britton had spoken of the ability of these kinds of works to supply the kind of escapism to which Wiegand referred by constantly referring inward and thus avoiding looking outward. It seemed as if three decades of this kind of entertainment had contributed to a fundamental misunderstanding of life and how storylines developed outside of a television or laptop screen. That summer, definitive proof came that the people much-maligned for their incessant need to relate everything to Harry Potter actually do believe that life mirrors the formulaic plotlines of their favourite pop culture vehicles. They assumed that Donald Trump would go the way of the Demogorgon, defeated as a lesson to us all about the importance of the status quo. Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Will (Noah Schnapp), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) were playing Dungeons & Dragons by the end of the season; a Clinton would soon be in the White House. The alien powers of Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) had been harnessed for victory over darkness, just as the Democrats attempted to do with the popular appeal of Bernie Sanders. Ultimately, the avatars of both would be discarded and the real victors would be the victors of before. People would forget the near miss of 2016 and the disappearance of Will Byers; life would go on, as it should have in the first place. The hope is that the Trump presidency which came to be that November can shake people from the delusional stupor that late capitalism can ever be fought with centrist pragmatism, and what makes the second season of Stranger Things so intriguing before viewing is that people now know that the Demogorgon can win.

Coming into season two, the forecast in terms of Stranger Things taking cues from the outside world was not positive. A tone-deaf trailer featuring the voice of none other than Ronald Reagan, featuring the man whose presidency foreshadowed Trump’s more than anyone else’s rousing the nation in a time of peril, was released and the first three episodes of the new season get off to a similarly oblivious start. The Duffer Brothers attempt to compensate for there being little to no action, or writing of substance, with as many 80s cultural touchstones as possible: the angry black cop, TV dinners, a new and infuriatingly tedious metalhead character, arcades, Sean Astin, and the four boys dressing as the Ghostbusters for Halloween. Storylines are recycled; this time it is Mike’s turn to be uncomfortable with the addition of a girl to the core group of four friends. Longing for Eleven and the resumption of their borderline creepy and unnecessary love story, Mike rebuffs approaches from Max (Sadie Sink), or Mad Max – because, of course – to join the party. Allowing for the always-spectacular acting of Millie Bobby Brown, one of the few notable scenes from the early season comes with Nancy Wheeler’s (Natalia Dyer) drunken eye-wandering rant where she curses everything in Hawkins, Indiana as “bullshit” and, just as season one, shows herself to be one of the few characters to see past the veneer of small town life. Coupled with Jonathan Byers’ (Charlie Heaton) realisation that “maybe things can’t go back to the way they were,” it would appear that the reason that Nancy and Jonathan have been paired together for two seasons is that they might be the only characters with an ability to acknowledge a bigger picture. When the kind of characters that Britton referred to as “highly ritualised” manage to acknowledge something, it feels like a breakthrough, even if that something is only acknowledged and not fully grasped, because these types of predictable shows “function to inhibit articulation.”

Too often do the plotlines of Stranger Things season two mirror those of season one: a new girl causes a rift in the group, Will Byers is possessed instead of being kidnapped, Nancy can’t reconcile her critical view of Hawkins and her relationship with Steve Harrington, nobody believes Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder), but she eventually cracks the code with arm movements that don’t in any way mirror the pattern she draws on a page, a marginal character dies, the monsters are now “Demodogs”, doglike miniature Demogorgons. The Duffer Brothers render the inhabitants of Hawkins as the televisual counterparts of the band of Democrats, led by Tom Perez, who are still retracing the steps of the 2016 election, unable to diagnose a root problem or deal with what they perceive to be new threats, relying on methods that have already been proven to be delaying tactics at best, unable to acknowledge that only defeating avatars of evil rather than evil itself leads to this constant cycle of crises.

As the season progresses, you start to realise that the Duffers have nothing to offer you but the self-referential dough on which we are supposed to gorge, whether it’s the presence of a Goonie, the Stand by Me aping train track walks, or Max’s reaction to Lucas revealing the secrets of the first season to her. Her contention that the story could do with being “more original,” an obvious thumbing of the nose at the show’s few dissenting critics, pushes the self-celebrating, self-referential zenith into a realm beyond parody. Stranger Things has never been anything but an ‘80s nostalgia vehicle with good acting and slick production, but those are effects that eventually wear off when the writing is based on nothing but style. It is as Benjamin said in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”: “The whole sphere of authenticity is outside technical reproducibility.” Try as they might, the Duffers can’t create classics by adopting the ‘80s and their own first season as the aesthetic guide to Stranger Things 2.

Any work that is nothing but style eventually reveals what Frankfurt School members Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer called “an obedience to social hierarchy” in the chapter “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” from Dialectic of Enlightenment. In the case of Police Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour), that obedience turns to a mimicking of manoeuvres, doing deals with Dr. Owens (Paul Reiser), the new director of Hawkins Lab, ostensibly for the good of the town. The lab is an institution shown to be at the root of all that was wrong with the town, but Hopper’s hope is that he can limit the evil by working with Owens and it blows up in his face, just like every time a Democrat attempts to reach across the aisle to “sensible” Republicans like John McCain or Jeff Flake. Hopper is presented as well meaning, striking bipartisan covenants with the moderate sides of evil like some experienced Third Way politician. Like the Obama presidency, what follows these kinds of deals is usually the true form of the evil they had attempted to moderate being unleashed, which is then allowed to take over by an opposition unprepared to mobilise against it due to their steadfast commitment to political pragmatism and the maintenance of the status quo.

Even the highlights of Stranger Things are achieved in the shadow of the works that came before it: the aforementioned Nancy Wheeler comes off as a younger, more innocent Laura Palmer. Both see through the fabric of Smalltown, USA, both juggle relationships between the high school sport star and an introvert, and both show a penchant for numbing the pain of seeing the great hypocrisies of life: Nancy gets too drunk at parties and vomits her feelings on Steve Harrington (Joe Keery); Laura had a cocaine addiction. The comparison between Laura and Nancy comes to symbolise Sean T. Collins’ take on the show, which is that “nearly everything difficult about the original works has been stripped away.” Laura’s inability to expose her father as a rapist, due in part to the power structures within Twin Peaks and his position as attorney to the town’s richest man, leads her on a suicidal path of cocaine and prostitution. Nancy, played brilliantly by Dyer, drinks too much punch because people are hypocritical and some Dungeons & Dragons monsters are turning things to bullshit. Nancy’s travails are decidedly less difficult to digest and endure, although in this case the stripping of the difficult elements is a welcome reprieve from the abusive treatment to which Laura is subjected. It is there that any slack that can be given to Stranger Things in comparison to Twin Peaks, one of its clearest influences in terms of plot and atmosphere, ends.

Twin Peaks: The Return, the long-awaited third season of Twin Peaks, had more right than any show in history to drown itself in self-reference. Instead, David Lynch and Mark Frost decided to almost completely implode the world that they had so carefully created in 1989: Kyle MacLachlan was cast in three roles, the least of which was the beloved Agent Dale Cooper, Audrey Horne was quite literally left in limbo, most of the characters were new, and the ending offered us no resolution. Only the reuniting of Big Ed and Norma seemed like it was born of the same series that had preceded The Return. Yet the season’s most interesting aspect was its significance in the political context: Norma’s attempts to franchise the RR Diner, with her location failing in a Twin Peaks more economically-downtrodden than before, and, while tensions over North Korea and Syria brewed over the summer, Lynch and Frost were tying the birth of BOB, their universe’s embodiment of evil, to the most horrific weapon ever used by American military forces: the atomic bomb.

It may seem harsh to compare any show to one as singular as Twin Peaks, but since Stranger Things and its creators insist on playing up the 80s influence, it will always be compared to what Collins called the show’s “building blocks.” Recently speaking with The Guardian, the Duffers wore the hearts of others on their sleeves as much as ever; it is because of them and their inability to give the show its own identity that it adopts Adorno and Horkheimer’s idea of works taking on a “surrogate identity” that comes from relying on similarity with other, stronger works. Its cast carried the first season, but even the strongest of casts eventually loses its way when aimless writing hamstrings it. Millie Bobby Brown makes the most of what she is given, but it isn’t until the season’s seventh episode – a truly dreary solo episode where she finds Kali, who had been in Hawkins Lab with her when they were children – that she draws any real emotional reaction and even then it is only brief. When asked to move a train carriage with her telekinetic powers, Eleven realises that it is only through anger that she can harness the full extent of her powers. Channelling the anger she feels against Hawkins Lab and the limp politicking of Hopper, she moves the train. The combination of her screaming and pain-ridden face is impressively unbearable. For a brief moment, we touch upon something real: that the channelling of anger can be both cathartic and useful.

That the indulgent foray into Eleven’s backstory is the seventh episode of a nine episode series – set just after the massive revelation that the as-yet-unnamed monster is using Will as his spy – is testament to the season’s disjointed pacing. When we are returned to the action, it’s lacklustre, encountering the same problem Collins identified in the first season, that “there’s nothing strong or scary deep down.” Noah Schnapp – practically unused in the first season due to Will’s disappearance – performs admirably, but his exorcism feels like a hollow waste of time when The Exorcist exists. It is fitting that Joyce, Mike, and Jonathan attempt to save Will by shouting shared memories at his possessed body; the entire premise of the show is that nostalgia and looking inward are inherently good things.

One of the few interesting moments in a standard conclusion is Mike’s successful identification of the monster at the root of all of the problems encountered by Hawkins. Its name is the Mind Flayer, an illithid from the Dungeons & Dragons universe (for the second season in a row, the Duffers fail to produce an original villain) that controls the Demogorgon, the Demodogs, and the Upside Down itself. Putting names to things is an important step in fighting them – this way we can clearly visualise the enemy. Say it out loud: Mind Flayer, capitalism. The problem isn’t and never has been the Demogorgon or the Demodogs that came after it or Ronald Reagan and the Donald Trumps that came after him: it is the ideologies that birthed them. For the Demogorgon, it is the Mind Flayer’s conception of humanity as inferior and in need of destruction. For Trump, it is capitalism’s insistence on profit over people.

Another telling incident comes toward the end when, with Hawkins Lab destroyed, Dr. Owens – fittingly, an aloof bluffer who doesn’t seem to know what is around the corner in the late era of the lab – agrees with Chief Hopper to let Eleven lead a normal life. Some might see it as a welcome change, the amnesty that Eleven needs, but it is only one agreed upon as Hopper saves Owens from bleeding to death, the implication being that he won’t unless El is protected.

Watching season two of Stranger Things is reminiscent of how Britton described feeling upon seeing the 1981 slasher film Hell Night: “Everyone could guess what would happen and it did happen.” We did know what was going to happen; from the last scene of season one – an almost exact copy of the iconic “Where’s Annie?” scene that finished Twin Peaks’ original run – we knew that the Upside Down would strike again and that it would strike through the infected Will Byers. We knew Eleven would return, we knew that the Steve-Nancy-Jonathan love triangle would continue. We knew Barb was dead even if we didn’t want to admit it. No matter how pale or possessed Will became, we knew that the core group would survive in the end.

Britton further described Hell Night as feeling as if the viewers had all been “invited to participate in communion,” and perhaps that’s what this season is meant to be: a cleansing of the dirty feeling that hangs over America every day of the Trump presidency, a reminder that things can go back to normal. It is a sentiment for Perez and his wing of the Democratic Party, doing everything within their power to cleanse even the slightest hint of left-wing progressivism from their agenda in time for the 2018 Senate race. Yet the last scene of Stranger Things 2 shows us that if you try to go back to “normal”, dancing at the Snow Ball, returning to the ways of life that left you susceptible to attack in the first place, the Mind Flayer will always be waiting.

Benjamin said, “the manner in which human sense perception is organised… is determined not only by nature, but by historical circumstances as well.” In the age of the binge watch and social media, anything that isn’t reacting in real time, like us, can feel like a waste. Things that portray a lack of basic contextual understanding, from the idea of Trump as anomaly to Perez’s scheming within the DNC to this show, are almost uniformly worthless. Works like Twin Peaks: The Return or the election of Democratic Socialists of America member Lee Carter to the Virginia House of Delegates show us how we can react to the world both in art and politics. More and more people have started waking up to this reality since Trump’s victory, yet the Duffer Brothers and the Democrats insist on continuing to direct their gaze inward and inward alone. Stranger Things and the Democrats are relics of a lost reality; to be truly effective in the age of Trump, all they have to do is look outside.