Since I’ve been watching the new Netflix series Stranger Things [slowly since we don’t always have time/energy to watch television] I’ve been thinking about the science-fiction/fantasy/horror pop-culture of my youth, particularly the way it functions as cultural artifact. Clearly, as anyone who has watched Stranger Things will know, this series does not hide its influences and in fact is trying to celebrate 1980s and early 1990s genre television and film. From the soundtrack, to the title font, to the lovingly recreated 1980s setting and look, to all the nods to 80s mass culture and film/television references, it has worked hard to become pure simulacra. Hell, they even cast Winona Ryder (darling of weird but popular films in the late 80s and early 90s), follow a bunch of kids driving around on their bikes looking to solve a memory, had an episode where the character “El” was dressed up almost identically to the way Drew Barrymore’s character in ET dressed the titular alien, and etc.
One thing that has struck me during my viewing experience of Stranger Things is that the quintessential 1980s-90s sci-fi/horror thriller could only be made now, decades later and looking back through the lens of nostalgia. Being a copy of an original that does not exist Stranger Things functions as the way we remember these older shows rather than the way they actually were. That is, it is only possible to make the perfect late-80s/early-90s genre thriller in retrospect, filtered through successive layers of memory and desire.
Everything about the appearance of Stranger Things is dead-on: the sets, the costumes, the mass culture references, the ways in which teenagers are supposed to act, the stock characters, the fashion, the technology, even the bloody colour pallets. The viewer who grew up watching what Stranger Things references is meant to think, after experiencing the first episode, “holy shit this is exactly like a show/movie from my childhood!” Except it’s not really like any of those shows or films; it’s more like the way we wanted these films to be, the ways they were supposed to be, the way we tend to remember them. Taking these cultural memories as artifact, and aware of everything that has happened up until the present, Stranger Things is better able to do what those shows could not: largely avoid dating itself by placing its narrative in a past that is already understood, demarcated by nostalgia. On the accompanying technical level, 21st century special effects are able to reproduce the look of cutting edge late 20th century technology, even if it’s “secret government” technology, due to an understanding of an imaginary possible that, unlike the 1980s/90s imagined future, violate the course that technological development would actually take. We are being shown a retrospective that does not, in contrast to the shows Stranger Things channels (and as long as we accept the fictional universe’s boundaries), look or feel fake.
The best way to explain what I mean is to look at some of the genre thrillers, particularly those based on government conspiracy and supernatural/alien activities, of the late-80s/early-90s. X-Files, for example, dates itself and violates one’s original memory of its broadcasting the moment it is rewatched: FBI agents trying to uncover the truth their own agency is trying to hide, and the alien technologies hidden by this conspiracy, seems entirely hokey when it is re-encountered. Just why the FBI would bother covering up the existence of aliens when we know, especially after Snowden, that it has better reason to cover up what it is actually doing – that it is in the business of political and not extra-natural repression – and that this is a more terrifying (and confirmed) “truth is out there” scenario than whatever overly complex secret business Mulder and Scully are pursuing. This dated nature of X-Files is most probably why the recent sequel series didn’t work: we wanted the show to remain a dormant part of our fond (or not-fond, depending on your taste) TV genre nostalgia rather than try to reestablish its same conceits in an era that had passed them by. Since Stranger Things locates its subject matter in the past, however, it avoids dragging the nostalgiac cultural artifact into the present and simply becoming an updated X-Files: its narrative happens in a past imaginary that could have existed within the universe of genre thrillers; it is not happening now, it is a window into the genre past but with better special effects and verisimilitude.
Or take another example that I recalled when watching Stranger Things and that the show provokes by its attempt to place itself within past genre offerings of television/film: Nowhere Man, the Prisoner of the early 1990s. The protagonist of Nowhere Man is chased by secret government organizations because he is a photographer who made the mistake of capturing part of a conspiracy on film and has hidden the negatives of the photographs. Although it ends up being the case that the protagonist’s memories of the negatives have also been altered, and that the meaning of the negatives becomes more and more ephemeral, the very fact that the viewer could take this part of the thriller seriously relied on an acceptance that the photograph could at some level represent the truth of an event and that journalists could threaten a government conspiracy. We don’t even need the fact of digital photography and Photoshop, which emerged as normative very soon after Nowhere Man‘s airing, to recognize the dated nature of this show. The very fact that journalistic revelations have not challenged hegemony for a long time (if they ever really did) is revealed by the fact that the aforementioned Snowden leaks do not matter to the average US citizen. Add to this some of the weird representations of technology in Nowhere Man that were written in an attempt to demonstrate the secret technological acumen of the US shadow government: that episode where the protagonist met a hacker who used “VR” technology (remember the whole early-90s imagined VR obsession?) to take him into some early imaginary online world, a very shitty cyberpunk reference, where you can actually “die” from computer viruses and system crashes.
What Stranger Things does is place itself in the world of these older shows as a fond memory of what these shows should have been. It possesses the budget and technology to make itself look more authentic than the cultural offerings it takes as its influences as well as the benefit of historical hindsight. Aware of the limits of the time period in which it has built its fictional universe, this show will not make the error that Nowhere Man made with its [now embarrassing] “hacker” episode, for example, nor will it push the limits of government conspiracy beyond the limits of what it can possibly describe as “strange” in retrospect. Yeah, we got alien stuff happening in this show but it’s not run-of-the-mill Area 51 bullshit; it’s thoroughly weird because it knows all of this Communion era pale men with giant-ass eyes is a parody of itself. And if it does end up landing in this territory it can justify such conventions by appealing to genre irony. Its genre irony is most apparent in the way it simulates a social existence that belongs more to mass culture depictions of the US than reality, and irony that is only possible because Stranger Things functions as a throwback that is more perfectly constructed than what its influences.
Indeed, this show’s genre reconstruction of small town America seems intentionally ironic: an imaginary place, like a whole bunch of movies and shows, where all of the actual problems of US settler culture do not really exist… Racism is not a real issue (even though it has never stopped being one), the chief of police can be a hero (even though #BlueLivesMatter pigs are gestapo), and some creepy stalker with a camera (that like Nowhere Man‘s camera can reveal truth) who is also okay because he’s a poor intellectual – though maybe not because the woman he stalked doesn’t just accept his creepy photo-taking but challenges him, just as she ignores the dude who, if we were following the earlier conventions of the genre, should have ignored her after they had sex. The show is very conflicted in its attempt to recreate 80s/90s sensibility from the perspective of the 21st century; but this conflict, as simulated as it is, makes Stranger Things feel like a show that really did exist in the past even though we know, at the same time, it could not have been made in the era we feel it perfectly replicates.
In this sense, Stranger Things is a period piece. Not a period piece that attempts to accurately represent a historical period as it truly existed, but one that excavates a periodical imaginary; a history that never really existed except in genre television and film. It works to make this imaginary history correct, according to the boundaries of its conceit, and thus to aestheticize nostalgia. While it is an enjoyable experiment, and while it proves that the 80s/90s genre film cannot be truly constructed until well after its time, decades after it has become artifact, it might also function to aestheticize actual social relations, i.e. become the aestheticization of a politics it simultaneously obscures by imagining a perfect nostalgiac fictional universe of an America that never existed. Where the bad guys are secret conspirators, the good guys are good old American kids and lawmakers, and all the shit of vicious mode of production is partially obscured (though sometimes revealed in easily cognizable class warfare, shitty father figures, etc.). White male mavericks emerge to help save the day, even if they are more gritty than their nostalgiac influences, and an apolitical geek squad ride their bikes to solve mysteries. If the quintessential 80s/90s genre show/movie is salvaged and reclaimed in its rearticulation decades from the original, then maybe we can also say that the quintessential early 21st century genre show/film can only be made in future decades.