Stranger Things is one of the hot new shows on everybody’s lips, and I’ve been watching it nonstop as the forest fires rage through the dry brittle Southern California landscape. It feels like Christmas here, what with the white flakes floating through the air. We’re not supposed to go out for fear of the damage we could do to our lungs. But you have to go out every once in a while…to see that roiling orange ball of gas–that thing we used to call the sun–veiled by the welter of gasses that are now a part of our air. You’ve got to leave it to pollution: It makes everything in the atmosphere look like it were a painting.
The Netflix show is a paranormal thriller, wrapped into a mystery, with elements of horror—one part Steven Spielberg, one part Stephen King. A young, nameless girl appears in the lives of young teenage boys—a nerd-group, the fourth of which has mysteriously gone missing at the same moment she has landed in their lives (coincidence?). The girl arrives almost pre-verbal—her head shaved—sporting only an Auschwitz-like tattoo stamped on her wrist. It is her name: 011.
Eleven is not unlike ET—a supernatural creature from another world who has to be hidden from adult eyes. She can even do ET-like things, like manipulate radio signals to communicate long distances with things that should not exist in our mortal coil. And this seems to be the modus operandi of the show, which exploits as its main appeal, the way that it is built on other narratives: specifically, the greatest hits of eighties narratives. We are feeling much nostalgia for that moment nowadays, even if some of us never lived through that time of regrettable fashion choices and synthesizer music.
In this vein, the boys are not unlike the heroes of suburban ET, especially in the way they ride their bikes through the streets. They are also like those kids from the Goonies. They hide 011 and slowly discover that she is gifted with psychic powers—powers like telepathy and telekinesis. So, she’s kind of like King’s first bestseller Carrie. We slowly see that she has escaped a local government laboratory—Firestarter anyone?—where she has been trained to become the Cold War machine that she is. 011 is formidable.
The narrative occurs in the landscape of a small town in the heyday of the eighties when such towns were still prospering. We’ve got a sheriff—the figure who functions as the primary figure of ratiocination. He’ll get down to the bottom of it. Yes, he will.
We’ve also got that most Stephen King element: the weirdos and social types that occupy a small town: the rich boy, the middle class family, the trashy divorcee who lives in a double-wide trailer—all these people are represented and done so richly. Stephen King knew these elements so well, having grown up in rural America and, later, having moved to rural Maine. (When he was run over later on in life by a drunk driver on a rural road, the driver would say “I was just going to the store to get a Marses Bar,” and Stephen King would lament that he was almost killed by one of his own characters.)
This is probably the mystery I think about the most as the sky roils with its blood orange sun above me and the ash of a thousand acres falls upon the city and ruins my paint job: What has become of originality? Yes, the show is absolutely fun to watch and some of the best watching I have experienced in a long while. But the show is a greatest hits—a pastiche—and it looks back with nostalgia to an era that, with all its faults, was all about what was new.