Netflix’s Stranger Things offers an original alternative to reboot culture

Kids can’t get enough of the stuff they love, and grown-ups can’t get enough of the things they loved as kids.

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“Whoa. Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa – that’s not it, is it?” In a lamp-lit basement in an Eighties Indiana suburb, four schoolboys are coming to the end of a game of Dungeons and Dragons. “The campaign was way too short,” one insists. Another replies, “It was ten hours!”

Kids can’t get enough of the stuff they love, and grown-ups can’t get enough of the things they loved as kids. This scene from the final episode of Netflix’s nostalgia-fuelled Stranger Things raises a knowing eyebrow at both children and adults – the line could as easily refer to the season’s relatively short run (eight episodes) as the children’s day of roleplaying. Especially when the service knows its users are likely to binge on its new series for multiple hours a day. The children’s searching desire for closure (“What about the lost knight?” “And the proud princess?” “And those weird flowers in the cave?”) mirrors questions many fans have about the finale.

Since devouring the first season, fans have put forward a proliferation of theories, reference cataloguing, detailed analysis and speculation over the plot of a second series online. Fan art abounds, particularly that with a retro edge, like a photoshopped VHS cover. BuzzFeed has produced an impressive number of quizzes, lists and reaction pieces in the short weeks since Stranger Things was released, including one article that is simply lots of different foodstuffs written in the title font. Stranger Things is not the type of show you watch and walk away from. Stranger Things fans are hungry for more.

Critics have been quick to credit the nostalgia factor for the show’s success. It follows the mysterious disappearance of 12-year-old Will (Noah Schapp), and the search to find him undertaken by his mother Joyce (Winona Ryder, whose own nostalgic appeal is wonderfully analysed here by Soraya Roberts), brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), best friend Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Mike’s sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and police chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour). The series takes the fundamental threads of Eighties science fiction movies – kids on bikes in small-town America coming into contact with something large and vague and spooky – and weaves them into a new tapestry. It’s John Hughes and Steven Spielberg and George Lucas and Stephen King all rolled into one.

In fact, its cultural references span a much wider selection, from the voyeuristic, grainy photography of 1966’s Blow Up to the creepy, black room of 2013’s Under the Skin. But the visual lexicon of Eighties youth culture dominates, and is, understandably, considering the age of Netflix’s core demographic, the element that has most captivated audiences. It takes them back to their own childhoods, where they, too, would while away the hours in a room adorned with posters for The Thing, Jaws and The Evil Dead – or at least a Tom Cruise pin-up.

Stranger Things is a rare example of a cultural phenomenon that has delivered wistfulness and familiarity without simply giving audiences more of the same. Anyone who has been to the movies in the last few years can tell you that Hollywood is going through a nostalgia obsession: from Ghostbusters to Gilmore Girls to G.I. Joe:

But despite a never-ending cycle of hype for each of these new revivals, few of these reboots or sequels or remakes have resonated with audiences, proving how thin the line is between truly reviving something and creating a Frankenstein’s monster-esque disfigurement of an iconic cultural phenomenon – between relevant cultural dialogue and the distortion of a work’s original message.

Stranger Things even touches upon this balancing act through its fascination with retro technology. At its essence, it is a show about desperately trying to make connections with someone, or something, who is both “right here”, and simultaneously a million miles away. The cultural past, too, is both immediately accessible yet intangible and distant, omnipresent but impossible to fully recover.

Whenever Joyce, Mike, or Nancy try to cross the series’s great divide, walkie-talkies fizz, lightbulbs burst, telephones melt. In the show’s opening scene, Mike’s dad fumbles with the aerials on his TV, muttering to himself. In the A.V. club headquarters, a Heathkit Ham radio explodes. Later, a Panasonic RX-5090 boombox is overwhelmed by static. These vintage tools of cultural transmission are unreliable and delicate. Reaching the other side is complex, erratic, and, even when it does happen, fleeting.

Stranger Things provides one of those rare moments where you can feel truly immersed in a different, yet familiar, world – like it’s been turned upside-down. It’s a powerful reminder to executives working behind the big and small screens alike that there’s a better way to indulge the world’s nostalgia receptors than by endlessly rehashing Literally Everything Else From Your Childhood. Original content, with a set of hugely engaging new characters, has the possibility to transport audiences further than they expected. It can even leave them begging, like the children in the basement, for “just 20 more minutes!”

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.