Stranger Things may be nostalgia bait, but it’s still really, really good - 5 minutes read

Stranger Things may be nostalgia bait, but it’s still really, really good

Here is a partial list of the films referenced in the third season of Netflix’s Stranger Things: Back to the Future, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Karate Kid, Day of the Dead, Stand By Me, The Evil Dead and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It goes on: Alien, Jaws, The Blob, The Thing, Wonder Woman, Die Hard, Terminator, The Godfather, The Shining, The Neverending Story, etc.

That’s maybe half the film references you’ll spot in this latest batch of episodes, and only a fraction of what you’ll find in the series so far. The show’s heavy nostalgic overlay has been the series’ selling point since Season 1, but to some critics who lambasted its abundance of references when the latest season premiered two weeks ago, it’s grown tiresome. Netflix subscribers hardly seem to mind, however. The Monday after it premiered, the streaming service announced that 40.7-million household accounts have been watching the show since July 4, “more than any other film or series in its first four days.” This sets it on track to top the network’s last major record, when more than 45-million accounts watched Bird Box within a week. But perhaps the most impressive number that Netflix released was the more than 18-million households who completed the entire series by the end of the weekend.

The nostalgia is working, better than ever in fact. Netflix’s numbers suggest that the use of past pop culture in Stranger Things is more than mere bait to hook viewers, it’s a part of the show’s creative fabric. It’s the first of its kind to so nakedly and consistently show off its influences; to go out of its way to create a play-along-game within the series: Spot the reference and tell your friends.

Its use of references and nostalgia isn’t a subtle nod; it isn’t Martin Scorsese borrowing from Jean-Luc Godard with a shot of Travis Bickle staring into a glass of fizzing Alka-Seltzer in Taxi Driver, or Jane Campion borrowing from David Lynch’s love of suburban horror and strangeness in Sweetie. Throughout Season 3, a shot will linger for a few too many seconds (for instance, in a scene where the Mind Flayer screams against Nancy Wheeler’s face, matching the infamous Alien shot where that creature breathes against Ripley), clearly giving its audience time to notice and then grab side-by-side comparison pics (for a quick tweet).

Stranger Things understands its shtick. It uses its nostalgia not only as a means of providing pleasure to the viewer, but as a social media marketing tool unto itself. What pop-culture nerd is going to pass up the opportunity to “explain” to their friends how even the casting of the series is a wink to the most iconic films of the ’80s: Winona Ryder in a career-rehabilitating lead role, and guest stars ranging from The Princess Bride‘s Cary Elwes to The Goonies‘ Sean Astin. That’s something Riverdale has recently borrowed to great effect, casting former teen stars as the parents of the current teen stars leading the series, with Molly Ringwald, Luke Perry, Skeet Ulrich, Madchen Amick, Robin Givens, the list goes on.

And this season, the nostalgia tour has been used to even greater marketing purposes with endless product placements: There’s an entire dialogue dedicated to Coke in one episode, another to Burger King, and endless shout-outs to other retail chains thanks to the fact the season has brilliantly set its drama to play out in a mall. It’s fun to catch all the old logos and slogans, but you also might just feel a craving for Lucky Charms or a Whopper by episode’s end.

All of these manipulations and maneuvers have people talking (and social media sharing), but most importantly, they also have people watching. For Netflix, then, Stranger Things arrives as an all-in-one, incredibly lucrative package.

By the way, it’s also pretty good. And that’s a fact that gets overshadowed by all the talk of nostalgia. Yes, it plays off our subconscious sentimentality for the past. And yes, that means it can often resort to old and easy tropes. But there’s something refreshing about the show’s ambitions, or lack thereof. It’s not trying to be anything that resembles Peak TV.

And perhaps that represents its greatest nod to the past. Stranger Things is content to follow the template of an ’80s sci-fi fantasy and worry about little more than bringing pleasure to its viewers.


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