So much of Stranger Things strikes the viewer as, well, not strange. Familiar even.
Before we’re even fifteen minutes into the first episode, we’re hit with visual allusions to E.T. the Extraterrestrial, musical cues reminiscent of Halloween, a title sequence that typographically evokes early Stephen King novels, and a plot with echoes of Twin Peaks. And it doesn’t end there. References to Mirkwood and Radagast bring us to Tolkien, a poster of The Thing on a the wall of a character’s basement reinforces the Carpenter legacy, and a quartet of characters who while away the hours playing Dungeons & Dragons feel like an alternate take on the Goonies more than once.
And that’s before we even get to the Carrie-junior protagonist.
Stranger Things is steeped in nostalgia for the early 80s and its cultural iconography. It is, frankly, perfectly made for the current generation. The Duffer Brothers hearken back to what has now become our golden age of cinema, a period when blockbusters were still new and original and there was an innocence to nerdish affection that has almost disappeared in post-Avengers fandom.
Is this a good thing? It’s hard not to love Stranger Things from the outset. But is it love that comes for something new? Or love for a story that takes us back to when all these elements were new?
If there’s fault in the first episode, it’s that the characters feel almost too familiar. The show doesn’t take time to dramatise any of characters before the chaos, in order to allow us to separate these characters from their forebears. They feel like old friends, which does have the capacity to leave them appearing like archetypes, rather than fresh incarnations.
However the story itself frees Stranger Things from token nostalgic sentiment early on, and maintains this throughout. The disappearance of Will Byers is enormously evocative of Elliott’s first discovery of E.T. And yet there is no safety in this homage. Instead of a slow, suspenseful reveal of an alien in the garden shed, we instead have a character fleeing some terrifying, potentially alien spectre, retreating to an almost identical garden shed, but disappearing at the moment when we might see what pursued Will. Gone is the candy to be used as a lure, replaced instead by bullets for a rifle, loaded in panicky fear.
Beware of nostalgia in Stranger Things, it is a dangerous path.
Later, Will’s three friends – Mike, Dustin and Lucas – all head out in the middle of the night to revisit the location of Will’s disappearance, and suddenly realise how terrifying it is.
‘Did you ever think Will went missing because he ran into something bad? And we’re going to the exact same spot where he was last seen?’
I’m reluctant to say where this is the Duffer Brothers directly commenting on contemporary nerd culture’s obsession with preserving and repeating childhood ephemera, but it will be interesting to see if this continues during the coming episodes. As it stands, the moment reinforces the danger of the familiar. Stranger Things might initially feel homely as a tapestry for a story, but its characters – thinly drawn as they are – know enough to fear this homeliness.
The beats of Will’s disappearance – his mother and brother readying for the day realising his absence; the call to the friend’s house; the empty desk at school; the police arrival – are almost a perfect match for the pilot episode in Twin Peaks, and yet there’s some fundamental differences.
In this case, it’s not the typical missing or murdered girl. The exhaustion of that trope over the decades – from Brick, to Veronica Mars, to The Killing, Top of the Lake and True Detective – is turned around with Will’s vanishing. On top of that, his three friends instead find a girl by looking for a missing boy. It’s a neat piece of dovetailing, reinforced by the rapid plotting in this first episode that fuses these two separate storylines so succinctly into one by its closing image.
Eleven’s flight from shadowy figures of authority – led by Matthew Modine who is channelling either Ted Danson or David Cronenberg or both – is itself quite typical of genre fare. But coupled with its economy and the rather direct looks at what is going on at the Hawkins National Laboratory suggest that this storyline is going to head into more unique territory than the brief scenes in this episode provide.
Ultimately, Hawkins in Stranger Things isn’t the same as Twin Peaks in Twin Peaks. Nor is it any of the other predecessors. In the town Twin Peaks, the hidden evils were met with gee-whiz boy scout enthusiasm by the irrepressible goodness of Agent Cooper. In the Minnesota of Fargo, similar small towns deal with invading forces of evil by challenging them with the idealised niceness of the locals. Genre stories, particularly on TV, have a habit of elevating the stakes to represent some conflict beyond realism.
The residents of Hawkins are presented as everyday people. Neither good nor bad, just ordinary. The formula for good, thrilling terror – particularly in the early novels of Stephen King – comes from presenting extraordinary fear in ordinary lives. As the Duffer Brothers mentioned in an interview,
‘Why did we love all this stuff growing up?…The simple answer is it’s generally about very ordinary people, whether it’s family or whatnot, coming into contact with something extraordinary…can we go back to that style of storytelling?’
There are no real heroes, just kids and mothers and cops and diner cooks and teachers. They organise a search at night because that’s what people do. Chief Hopper seems more interested in whether Will might’ve been gay than his actual whereabouts – he’s unable to immediately elevate his concerns to match the situation.
As a first chapter, ‘The Vanishing of Will Byers’ manages to do many things, and do them unbelievably well. Not only does it immediately evoke the canvas of the early 80s, and the nature of the characters that inhabit this canvas, it admirably aims to ground this style in a realism that befits the stories that inspired Stranger Things. The true measure of the show will be in how it continues to defy the trappings of nostalgia for the sake of it, and to what extent it can challenge our expectations by offering new pains from old wounds.