As I dove headfirst into the rabbit hole that is the 8-episode Netflix series Stranger Things over the weekend, I found myself with two immediate reactions: 1) Winona Ryder is killing it! and 2) Everyone I know needs to watch this. It’s a rare treat for me when a series manages to hit every single one of the expectations that are conjured up by its promo materials. This is exactly what happened with Things. The show I watched was exactly what I expected when I saw this:
I quickly found myself trying to figure out how best to pitch the show to my friends without spoiling the plot. I tried “Imagine if ’80s Steven Spielberg (and John Carpenter) directed an adaptation of a Stephen King novel you never read.” This is when I found out an alarming number of my friends thought Spielberg directed Stand By Me. I did also just say “Winona Ryder is killing it,” to a few people, but they were like “Doesn’t she always?” and I had to go, “Fair point, but it seems like we don’t see her nearly enough.” They tended to agree.
Finally I landed on the pitch that seemed to perfectly sum up Stranger Things. “Hey, did you see Super 8? Imagine if that was a series.” This seemed to sell it. Which is of course an interesting way to do it since the logline for Super 8 was essentially, “J.J. Abrams makes a classic Spielberg movie.”
Like Super 8, Stranger Things baits a hook with nostalgia, placing accouterments of a very specific type of ’80s movie, and then positions them around a new narrative. The series opens with a group of pre-teen boys deeply invested in a Dungeons and Dragons game, which neatly sets the table for what these projects do. It’s as if someone bought a campaign setting source book that Abrams and Things’ Duffer Brothers could craft a narrative around. One can imagine a guide book filled with nerdy kids who stick together, cops who have lost family, a working single mom just trying to keep it together, a deadbeat dad, a loner teenager, a strange kid with special abilities, and of course a weird imposing shadow government. Now just roll up a monster.
Crafting stories within a genre is hardly a new thing for storytelling. From the American West, to the court of King Arthur, dating back even as far as the godly machinations of Classic Greek theater, and certainly further still, there’s something to the air of familiarity an audience has with the world being built that seems to allow us to easily get lost in it. What’s intriguing about this new slate of work, though, is that it isn’t just living inside a familiar genre, it’s building a new one from the romanticized ideal of what that genre was, and of a ghost of a memory of a specific set of filmmakers’ work.
Both with this series and Super 8, myself (above) and others often toss out “early Spielberg” as a go-to catch-all for the type of movie we’re talking about. It’s a description that conjures up a very specific type of movie. Typically everyone is on the same page about what is promised in that dungeon guide. But is that really what that era of his career was populated with? Looking back, it feels like we’re really talking about two specific movies, E.T. and Close Encounter of the Third Kind. Maybe, maybe Jaws. But the Spielberg of that, let’s call it pre-Schindler’s List era was just as active making three Indiana Jones movies, 1941, and The Color Purple.
It’s not just Spielberg either. Two seasons of FX’s Fargo have shown us what Noah Hawley would do with a source book that said “Coen Brothers” on it. Granted it’s being pretty on the nose with what it’s doing, what with the title and all, but still, when we go into Fargo we expect a very specific vision of what a sprawling crime history in the northern midwest would look like. Not unlike the Spielberg comparison, we’re also again really only talking about two specific Coen films, Fargo and The Big Lebowksi, which while set in LA is fairly tonally on point with the voice of the series. The Coens add an interesting flavor too, because they play with homage as a storytelling tool as a matter of habit themselves.
When you throw in other anthology series like True Detective or American Horror Story, it feels like homage itself is becoming a bonafide genre of its own. And while the initial reaction to this concept is to bemoan the derivative nature it suggests to the landscape, it feels not unlike a cover song. When it is done poorly, it can make us roll our eyes and pine for the original. But when done well, it can feel amazing, like a conversation between artists, a game of dueling banjos spanning across years, even decades.