When Netflix released House of Cards as an original series in 2013, media watchers rightly noted it signaled a sea change in the entertainment-industrial complex. Since then, Netflix has produced a steady stream of original series, as has online retail titan Amazon. It's no understatement to say the trend has triggered a television renaissance.
However, topping even House of Cards' popularity, is Netflix's newest offering, Stranger Things, a sci-fi horror tale set in the 1980s. On Aug. 12, Esquire reported the show had pulled 8.2 million viewers in its first two weeks.
To call Stranger Things a success is downplaying its effect, with fans and critics alike gushing over its feast of nostalgic homages coupled with a genuinely gripping story focused on a band of ragamuffin kids facing off against an evil entity from the netherworld. With a 94 percent critics' score on Rotten Tomatoes, the consensus seems to be Stranger Things is a pitch-perfect throwback that scratches all the right itches without coming off as a forced trip down memory lane.
Stranger Things isn't the only Netflix original series that plays with the idea of nostalgia. Released in 2014, BoJack Horseman, voiced by Will Arnett, is an animated series focused on the titular BoJack who is, literally, a horseman: half-man, half-horse.
While the anthropomorphic conceit adds an element of absurdity (no less because it is never explained and BoJack is far from the only humanoid animal in the show), the show's subject matter is deadly serious. The gist: BoJack is an middle-aged actor whose glory days as a 1990s sitcom star are far behind him. The tension between clinging to his past and pushing his career into the future drives BoJack deep into his own psyche, revealing a deeply flawed individual whose toxicity infects everyone around him.
Following the July 15 premiere of Stranger Things and July 22 season three release of BoJack Horseman, Boise Weekly convened a panel of Associate Publisher Amy Atkins, Staff Writer Harrison Berry, Editor-in-Chief Zach Hagadone and Graphic Designer Jeff Lowe to analyze its nostalgic components with an eye toward what attracts us to shows dealing with the recent past. (Warning: spoilers ahead.)
ZH: The New York Post writes Stranger Things is '80s "nostalgia bait," which seems to be meant as a pejorative. While you all agree it's nostalgic, is it pandering? Is it "nostalgia bait" or is it legit?
HB: Well, what we see here is a riff on that kind of Goonies theme. Here's a troop of kids going out solving mysteries or having an adventure. It has that feel so, of course, it harkens back on those themes of the '80s, but what we're looking at here is a level of composition quality that is much more contemporary.
AA: I think it goes much deeper than that. There is a video setting Stranger Things up against a variety of '80s films and they are scene-for-scene matched. The Duffer Brothers, who created the show, followed a formula. Can you contemporize nostalgia? Isn't nostalgia, by its nature, past tense?
JL: It succeeds in what it's doing by taking themes and stylistic cues from the '80s, but it's even doing what the '80s did, like borrowing from the '50s. There is a huge Stand by Me element, which is an '80s film set in the '50s.
ZH: I was struck by that re-watching the first episode. The kid who goes missing, Will Byers, is running from the monster. First of all, he's riding his bike in the middle of the night, which parents would never let their 12- or 13-year-old kid do today. Second, he's being chased by this weird beast, and his first thought is to run to the shed and grab a rifle, which he knows how to load under stress. That's a skill that doesn't exist for most kids these days. The idea that kids are capable or competent is an interesting concept in the show.
AA: But they are always capable in those kinds of shows, whether it's Stand by Me or Goonies or Silver Bullet.
ZH: So that's an element of nostalgia, looking back to a time when kids knew how to use rifles and were given free rein in the neighborhood, regardless of the time of day.
JL: I was wondering how you would describe their environment: Is it suburban or rural?
AA: I would say it's suburban except I was thrown by the fact that at one point, you see Will's house and you can barely see it through the trees.
JL: It took place in suburbia, but was also on the edge. You go up a block, and they're in the forest. They didn't have to go far to be on the frontier.
ZH: And in the meantime, there is an alternate reality, overlaid or under-laid, that is happening concurrently. There are two realities happening simultaneously, which may speak to that "kid life," where you mark out certain trees or gullies that becomes your whole world, apart from grownups.
JL: The biggest trope I think it takes from the '80s is this band of outsiders.
ZH: And this fear of the government. The demon in Stranger Things is unleashed by the government, and it's such an '80s thing to have the government doing something shady... "Oh, we're the Department of Energy. We're here to help." It's the big, bad government with Matthew Modine—and his poor man's Ted Danson hair—stalking around to nefarious ends.
AA: Remember what the Department of Energy is fighting against? Who's the enemy? Russia.
HB: So this is a metaphor for nuclear weapons? That in cultivating this weapon—in this case, Eleven, a little girl whose mental powers we plan to use on our enemies—we end up visiting destruction on ourselves?
ZH: You can't separate the '80s from that sense of paranoia about the Cold War, which I thought was one of the coolest '80s throwbacks, indirectly evoking that feeling of existential dread.
AA: I think they get a lot of credit for setting it in the '80s but not shoving your face in some Kajagoogoo song. I like how there was certainly a little bit of music, you get the Clash, but it was used as a way for the brothers to bond as opposed to the whole, "This is the '80s. See all these '80s things? Hear this '80s music?" It showed such restraint.
ZH: So, what makes it so satisfying to watch?
AA: The characters are, from the first moment, developed without feeling like weird stereotypes.
ZH: That might be why it goes beyond pure nostalgia-bait. I love Batman; I'm nostalgic for Batman, but I can't stand another Batman movie. I don't want to hear the story of Batman's origins one more time in my life. I don't want to see that put on film, I don't want to see that painted on velvet. I don't care about Batman anymore. I felt none of that rehashing with Stranger Things. I've seen all these characters and this story arc before. I've see the harried single mother before, I've seen the drunk cop. Everything in this show I've seen before but it felt like it was the first time it had ever been done. There was a sense of discovery to the thing that I wasn't expecting.
In our media culture where everything is so mass produced and mass marketed, it's refreshing to have that intimate discovery.
JL: There's nothing new really. I never need to see ET or The Goonies again, but there's something about those movies that they were able to use to their advantage in Stranger Things. ET was the obvious one to me: you've got kids on bikes, when the car flipped I immediately thought of them flying and especially when they dressed Eleven up in the pink dress and the wig.
AA: Holy god, Jeff. I never even thought of that. And one thing I really liked was the kids. You've got Dustin, with his actual disorder that they left in the show. That's a real thing for that kid.
ZH: Jonathan, Will's brother, he looked like a baby Neil Young who got left out in the rain.
JL: I just love it when kids in movies are cast at their age and given lines and motivations that kids at that age would do and say.
ZH: Even the way they cussed felt authentic. They only know a couple of swear words that they dare to use and when they do, it's serious.
JL: It's about friendship and coming together for a greater cause, and that's an '80s trope, which is interesting because actual '80s movies were coming out of the "me" decade and steeped in the yuppiedom of the '80s, yet the theme is often using friends to accomplish some goal.
ZH: I think part of the attraction of this series is that it speaks to a lot of contemporary anxieties, like technology taking over everybody's lives. In this series, technology, or high-technology, is a bad thing—it unleashed a demon. So to see kids on bikes with their crappy little lights and banana seats, and their walkie-talkies—that's refreshing to people of an age who experienced life without constant technology and life with constant technology. That simplicity is attractive.
HB: That's legit. Though I felt institutional tension beyond generational tension. You have the Department of Energy versus a small-town cop; you have youth versus adulthood and, in the end they're fighting the same enemy, this trans-dimensional monster.
ZH: To bring it back around: nostalgia bait, yes or no? Is it fair to mine these tropes and heap critical acclaim on them?
AA: It's one of the best things that's hit the small screen in a super long time. I don't know how Netflix keeps doing this. To me, it's next to True Detective. It's in that top tier.
JL: It's a matter of quality and using that attention span that people have for TV series—these nine-hour binges where every detail matters. That attention to detail that invites you to explore.
ZH: Maybe some of the popularity is because it's a pushback against the big studio superhero blockbusters. We just want something well made that's a self-contained thing.
JL: Is that one of the reasons it's surprisingly good? Because people are on their couch not expecting anything?
AA: When HBO first came on and people were swearing on TV, it changed everything. These were real people saying real things. This feels to me like that, when there was something so new and interesting apart from the pablum.
ZH: In our media culture where everything is so mass produced and mass marketed, it's refreshing to have that intimate discovery.
JL: I watched Suicide Squad because I felt like I had to. I'd seen those dumb trailers for a year.
ZH: I know. I started watching Batman vs. Superman because I felt like it was a civic obligation, but I couldn't get past five minutes.
HB: One thing that's been leveled at a lot at superhero movies is all these segues into the next big ensemble movie. It's tough to be original when you're tyring to set up for the next installment.
AA: It's like they're so not present; like they're so worried about the next one and merchandising and money. This series doesn't feel like it was made with the idea, "Oh, who can we bait to make more money off this thing?"
HB: Stranger Things is just a great show. Maybe it's that simple.