One of the great oddities of our present moment is the overwhelming sense of stubborn conformism. The need to relish in specific designer trends and pose in the aesthetic of the middle or upper class is so strong that the rebels now find themselves shunned in popular media. The pressures of establishing oneself in a solid career and making a respectable income have turned collegial life into a Darwinian landscape of predatory competitiveness, where attainment of status supersedes any real intellectual growth. Do your homework, prove you can recite what the lecture told you, and off you go.
Even political rebellion now takes on the form of slick websites and liberals find themselves rehabilitating George W. Bush. All this as headlines grow more extreme, fear is constant and political life falls apart. As Susan Sontag wrote in The Imagination of Disaster, with much portent, “Ours is indeed an age of extremity. For we live under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror.” In this terrain it is the freaks and outcasts who will save us.
The new season of Netflix’s Stranger Things is a fun but vital cultural phenomenon. Like its inaugural season, the new batch of episodes displays the elements that make it so popular: A nostalgic approach in which the 1980s are fully evoked. Its visual style is an elegant throwback to the picturesque, fairy tale-fueled visuals of films like E.T., Poltergeist, Labyrinth and It. The music, by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, is a synthesized homage to the scores of Giorgio Moroder and Tangerine Dream. There is a meticulous sense of detail where everything from shoes to jackets to furniture feels absolutely authentic, like an era quite literally resurrected. And shot with the latest in modern film technology, we altogether feel this is a work from another time and place. Consider the opening credit sequence, in which the title appears in neon glow and we can catch faint film scratches on the image. Like Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse, the use of artificial film scratches completes the illusion (and thrill) that we are not watching a mere new work, but something that will take us back to a not so distant past.
But this new season has an apocalyptic tone in which the show’s young heroes find themselves in a world spinning out of control. The monstrous forces of the Upside Down now begin to creep into their own world and the stakes begin to rise. The four middle school outcasts, Will (Noah Schnapp), Michael (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), are written with a precise understanding of how life works for the quirky child who may feel a little out of the bubble. They have been thrust into a conflict involving greater forces beyond their comprehension. In the first season Will was lost in the throes of the Upside Down and now suffers from a kind of paranormal PTSD in the form of apocalyptic visions of gathering storm clouds and a monstrous creature rising above the town of Hawkins, Indiana. Dustin comes across a small creature from the Upside Down and can’t help but care for it–with dangerous consequences–and the adults are themselves trying to lead normal lives suddenly rattled by the coming of dark forces and the ever intrusive presence of the Hawkins National Laboratory, a government entity monitoring the Upside Down. Will’s mother, Joyce (Winona Ryder), in particular wants to have a normal relationship with the serene, loving Bob (Sean Austin). But serenity is nearly impossible in a world tilting on its axis.
Stranger Things is both pop entertainment and deep metaphor. Its structure is that of a spooky, adventurous yarn reminiscent of Kolchak the Night Stalker and the gothic paranoia of The X-Files. But Stranger Things has a subversive quality that appeals to our subconscious in these times. In terms of its writing and aesthetic, it challenges the normal depictions of youth and culture replete in modern entertainment. It is in the most digestible entertainment that we find some of the truest reflections of how we see ourselves. Stranger Things celebrates the outcasts of the past while its peers reveal (and revel in) a restrained conformity in the present.
Two other hit shows about teen and family life highlight a stark contrast. Earlier this year Netflix released Thirteen Reasons Why, a depiction of depression and suicide in a modern, suburban American setting. The high schoolers of this show never display a hint of real, rebellious curiosity. Their worlds revolve around coffee shops, fashionable clothing and good behavior masking darker impulses. In the classic style of American hypocrisy–in fact a near throwback to the 1950s–they drink, party hard, have sex, and scheme while carefully presenting a conservative mask. Nobody flaunts their defiance. They have good manners, and their parents are models of middle class success. In such a bottled, Janus-faced environment, it is no wonder that depression becomes a norm. The characters are trapped in a shallow existence. The only stand-out is the one Latino of the bunch, who dresses in dark leather, drives an edgier car and has multiple siblings with whom he beats up anyone who’s offended his sister. Social rebellion is embodied here by a classic ethnic stereotype.
Just as Netflix released the second season of Stranger Things, the CW began airing the second season of Riverdale, a re-working of the Archie comics as a dark melodrama. Shot in bubblegum colors and set amid lush forests of pine and mist, every character in the show looks too perfect, more plastic than flesh. They carry out dastardly deeds ranging from murder to seduction but expressed with the most naïve phrases (“I go all dark, no stars” says Veronica, as played by Camila Mendes). Every parent owns a business. One owns the local newspaper. They all live in sensuous homes and luxury. The only working class character is Jughead (Cole Sprouse), here cast as the son of an outlaw biker. Archie himself, as played by K.J. Apa, is no longer a goofy guy living life’s trials but a buffed specimen who sleeps with his hot music teacher. Their life crises revolve around rich parents harboring secret scandals. It is the refined and well-mannered who save the day in these shows, while the villains are the social outcasts who dress in grittier clothing and hate school.
In both these shows there is little sense of a wider world beyond the encapsulated urban neighborhoods of the protagonists. Stranger Things uses classic science fiction to evoke a setting where a small town is pulled into a larger, more dangerous reality its inhabitants were otherwise oblivious to. The Upside Down is the truth beneath the surface. Our pre-adolescent heroes become attuned to it because they are already so disconnected from the social cliques and conformed characters around them. They are nerds who feel small next to the jocks. Dustin doesn’t mince words and will call a clueless adult an “asshole.” The look of the homes is working class, and few dare dress in ways that might stand them above. The teens try to look “cool” in imitation of the heavy metal and pop trends of the era, but like real teenagers they do so to mask their insecurities. In one scene, Steve (Joe Keery) instructs Dustin on the ways to make his hair look good, but warns Dustin not to reveal his cosmetic routine to anyone. None of the female characters look like Barbie dolls, including Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) and new character Max (Sadie Sink), a skateboard riding misfit who has the grit and character to fit in with the guys and teach them a lesson or two in real courage.
Even romance in Stranger Things shames the pale nonsense of its streaming peers. Relationships in this show develop out of shared experiences and friendship, with a down to earth elegance in the way feelings are expressed. Joyce’s boyfriend, Bob, is a RadioShack employee who wants to help, but has no idea what he’s getting himself into. In one of the series’ most tender scenes, Nancy and Will’s brother, Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), spend the night in the bunker-like home of a journalist investigating the strange going-ons in Hawkins. They share a room and the sexual tension is treated with such subtly that it pulsates with real authenticity. Stripped of shallow gimmicks, it does present a portrait of normal people caught in an overall harrowing situation.
Key to this idea is the character of Eleven (Millie Bobbie Brown), the telekinetic escapee from Upside Down trying to find both her mother and answers to her origin. She is a heroine, but led by an urge to seek important answers rather than to just fight some malevolent force or, more in line with today’s television, save herself. She’s heroic against her will. In Episode 7 of the current season the show takes on a great Punk aesthetic as Eleven runs away to the big city. There she falls in with a group of thieves decked in full Punk gear, among them a fellow telekinetic who might have been housed with Eleven during her childhood at the Hawkins Laboratory. Unable to get answers or aid from the adults or regular society, Eleven finds solace with the outcasts, with those living in the underground who flaunt their insurgent credentials through dress and rebelliously stylish hair. Her psychic powers become a symbol for that feeling in every outcast that each is different than the considered norm. Within a conformed society being different physically stands out as strange, even freakish, like a troubling blot on a family portrait.
It is important to note that Stranger Things takes place in an era, 1984, that today may seem appealing in a retro sort of way (like vinyl) but which was a time of rebellion and social conflict. The Reagan era was the apex of the Cold War and nuclear confrontation was a real fear. Movies like Testament and Red Dawn conjured stories about nuclear holocaust or a Soviet invasion. In Central America the United States was deeply involved in civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala. The CIA funded the Contra war against the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua. These were conflicts as defining as the Syrian Civil War is today. The debate between Communism and capitalism was taken seriously.
In Stranger Things there is a deep mistrust of government power. The Laboratory is run by shadowy men in suits and medical coats. They can burst into your home at any moment, their flashlights cut through the woods at night, and like all governments they hide darker truths from the wider public. There is a sense in the show that official institutions tend to create monstrosities the general public must then endure. The Upside Down and its creatures could be a metaphor for the Iraq War, Vietnam, Syria, the banking crisis and every other official policy resulting in blood spilt.
In the same way that the original 1954 Godzilla was a powerful allegory of the atomic bomb, Stranger Things touches viewers deeply by reviving the past while capturing the current feeling that everything is not right, that, on the contrary, there is something quite wrong with the system. But because our own age is one of conformity, it takes stories set three decades past to cast an appropriate mirror. The characters have regular jobs, live in average homes, and deal with the same microcosmic dramas that affect all lives–money, unrequited crushes, insecurities–but they are forced into questioning and then into rebellion by a wider world that begins to shake their private existence. When we see a chasm open from the Upside Down, and the dripping hand of an alien monster reaches out and grabs the ground in our reality, we can’t help but wonder if the metaphor isn’t perfectly apt for this very moment in our lives, where everything we thought was safe and comfortable is but mere illusion.
Stranger Things is the American Dream as beautiful panorama masking a nightmare. In this culture prone to conspiracy theories, where we constantly suspect there is something off in our memories of the past, Stranger Things imagines that our deepest suspicions might be onto something, possibly even darker than we would like to imagine. Its emotional reach depends on the fact that it understands who we are and what uncertainties lurk in our collective conscience. Only the freaks are disconnected enough from the traffic of orderly civilization to realize something is wrong. This makes the series transcendental and timeless. Even if we find love, the night is always full of terrors, and we continue living strange days.
Alci Rengifo is a Contributing Editor at Riot Material and a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He frequently contributes to the Los Angeles Review of Books and the East LA monthly Brooklyn & Boyle.