Life being what it is, I didn’t get around to watching season 2 of Stranger Things until this past week, binging on most of it last night while being held down by a cat who missed me while I was away at a retreat. Lying on the couch and absorbing a story that entertainingly calls back to the pop media of my growing-up years without being solely a nostalgia piece (the reason I wound up detesting Ready Player One) seemed like a good end to the weekend.
It’s interesting to me that TV now still has the episodic serial structure while being consciously aware that many (maybe most?) viewers are going to watch the whole season in one go. Stranger Things‘s references to chapters rather than episodes feels like an acknowledgment of this: while you might not read a whole novel in one go, you rarely read a single chapter and then put the book aside for a week before reading the next. Stranger Things feels novelistic, and even though Netflix allows one to skip the opening and closing credits, these breaks in the action are still introduced, requiring the viewer’s intervention to skip over them. They become a part of the narrative framing of the show.
This has the advantage of being able to build a strong arc with less worry that viewers will be able to follow plot developments, because they probably just finished watching the previous episode. On the other hand, things like character inconsistencies, usually due to the plot needing a character to do something out of character, become a lot more obvious. (It didn’t make sense to me, for instance, that the kids–Dustin very much included–weren’t more suspicious of Dart’s provenance, even though the playing out of that storyline supported the overall story plotwise and thematically.)
Weaker episodes also suffer more by being bookended by stronger ones. “The Lost Sister” feels like a lost opportunity in a lot of ways, and it doesn’t help that it’s preceded by “The Spy” and followed by “The Mind Flayer”, even if I am fond of El’s new look. At this point I’d like to see what look she’d choose for herself, after spending the entire series thus far being dressed by other people. Watching her come into her power has nonetheless been a delight, not least because I was once a teenage girl who experienced a shocking awakening to the power that, specifically, adult men had to affect my world and control my actions–even if none of them were shadowy government agents with spooky research agendas. At this point I just want to see her agency develop more fully. And, I really want to see Kali/Eight/Linnea Berthelsen again in a more interesting episode.
What impresses me, though, is how the show is using nostalgic resonance to its own advantage. Stranger Things isn’t just a nostalgia piece; certain aspects of the story are timeless, most especially its study of how humans respond to trauma. The 80s setting and deliberate references to media of that era (the Alien movies always freaked me out; thus and so, the tunnel scenes in Stranger Things likewise do so quite suitably) are enjoyable to an audience of a certain age in which I am very much included, but I like to think I’d be enjoying the show anyway.
It does raise the question in my mind of creative reasons for the era of the story’s setting. There are obvious marketing reasons: folks around my age will be drawn in by it (I’ll admit, it’s a reason I started watching, though less a reason I keep watching), and there’s ample opportunity to sample from cultural tropes that people both older and younger than myself will be familiar with. And given the age of the creators, that sampling is no doubt enjoyable, in the very particular way that referencing well-loved stories and artifacts from one’s childhood past can be.
But what’s a story reason for setting it in 1983-84? I have a few theories, though some I want to sit with for a bit and see how the show develops. I will observe that the story itself–government mind-control experiments, Cold War paranoia, alternate dimensions wherein lurk Chthulhu monstrosities, and the science-y rather than fantasy veneer overlaying all this, is as characteristic of the era in which the show is set as the kids getting around on bikes and using walkie-talkies, the town library’s limits on how many books you can take out, and Billy’s hair-metal listening habits. A story with this premise set in 2017 would, I think, feel oddly dated, out of sync with the times. Our understanding of science has evolved, and we’re paranoid about other things.
On the other hand, while phones have replaced walkie-talkies, libraries are as much about the Internet as about books, American parents generally don’t let their kids wander around on bicycles until after the streetlights, and Russia is no longer a–wait, never mind that last one–human nature hasn’t changed much. We still lie to ourselves and to each other, we still take foolish actions for noble reasons (and vice very much versa), and traumas past have a way of rising up and smacking us in the present. The very nature of nostalgia requires hindsight. Stranger Things might be set in the 80s, but it probably only could have been written now.