Stranger Things: In Defense of Nostalgia

Nostalgia is having a resurgence on television, as led by the ’80s throwback Stranger Things. We examine how nostalgia is nothing to fear.

The person who understands nostalgia the best is a Greek man named Teddy from a fur company in the 1950s. Teddy knew that to the ancient Greeks, nostalgia literally meant “the pain from an old wound.” 

“It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone,” he said. Teddy shared that information with a young Dick Whitman, who then shared it with a room full of gobsmacked Kodak executives.

Mad Men has been off the air since 2015 now and that “nostalgia” scene in question just passed its 10-year anniversary.* It could have aired for the first time yesterday, however, and felt just as achingly poignant and perfect. Maybe even moreso.

*Yes, Mad Men season 1, episode 13 “The Wheel” aired on October 18, 2007. How on Earth did we all miss the chance to fully celebrate the anniversary of that Kodak pitch?

The best TV shows are predictive. It could just be sheer luck that a show happens to come out with a thesis statement right before the world makes it true. But it happens too often for it to be purely serendipitous.

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“Sometimes, I feel like I came in at the end of something,” Tony Sopranos tells Dr. Melfi in the first episode of The Sopranos. Just three years later the World Trade Center towers would fall and America went from post-Cold War success story superpower to the land of perpetual paranoia and war. It was the end of something.

Then Don Draper stepped up to the plate at the end of Mad Men season 1 back in 2007 and told us what the foreseeable future of pop culture would be all about: nostalgia. Or at least what we’d think it was all about.

The advent of streaming services meant that Silicon Valley execs, programmers, and creative types had unprecedented access to the inside of TV viewers’ heads. Nielsen ratings showed raw data. Whatever information Netflix is pursing through at HQ shows the contents of your TV-watching soul.

And the contents of our soul, it would appear, are nostalgia.

Stranger Things on the November Sci Fi Fidelity podcast (at 36:55):

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When the Netflix algorithms analyze our viewing habits, they appeared to have noticed a penchant for living in the past. Netflix’s first originals were indeed original creations but were also clearly modeled after other shows that succeeded in the binge-able format. House of Cards was Netflix’s attempt to keep viewers eyes glued to their televisions like Breaking Bad had done while Orange is the New Black was an attempt to do the same but within a more light-hearted, comedy context.

Recognition and familiarity played a huge role in the first round of streaming original offerings. The second round, however went full into nostalgia territory. Netflix went on a ‘90s kid entertainment acquisition spree in early 2016 and ’17, picking up reboots of shows like Fuller House, Bill Nye Saves the World, and The Magic School Bus Rides Again. What had started as the familiar and moved into open acknowledgement of their appealing to nostalgia.

People got kind of creeped out and understandably so. Here we had complex algorithms and tech folks analyzing our viewing habits to determine what we want to see and apparently the answer was “everything I saw when I was a kid.”

Then Netflix’s nostalgia magnum opus came out: Stranger Things. This seemed like the most insidious manipulation of our nostalgia-starved brains yet. It was almost an exact 50/50 cross between Steven Spielbergian and Stephen Kingian tropes. A group of preteen kids in the ‘80s deal with the supernatural forces in their town. It’s E.T. and It placed into a tumbler with dozens of other ‘80s and ‘90s movie tropes and shaken up until a story comes out.

Critics and cultural commentators were worried.

Stranger Things Tests Limits of Netflix’s Nostalgia Strategy,” Vanity Fair wrote about the first season.

Stranger Things mines ‘80s nostalgia for slow-going Netflix horror series,” CNN wrote, also about the first season.

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The Telegraph is even more concerned two seasons in: “Something old, nothing new: why Stranger Things gives nostalgia a bad name.”

Even reviews and essays that were generally positive felt obliged to mention the nostalgia angle.

Stranger Things doesn’t just reference ‘80s movies. It captures how it feels to watch them,” Todd VanDer Werff at Vox wrote.

Neil Genzlinger of The New York Times wrote of season one: “With Stranger Things, Netflix Delivers an Eerie Nostalgia Fix.”

Nostalgia was and is clearly on everyone’s minds. The high-profile additions of old shows like Will & Grace (Gah! Nostalgia is spreading to terrestrial TV!) and Mystery Science Theater 3000 along with nostalgia-drenched pieces like Stranger Things seems to have struck a chord with TV audiences and the people who write about them.

Still is there even any truth behind the perception that TV in general and streaming services specifically are using nostalgia as a weapon for our attention? Is nostalgia indeed trending upward on TV?

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It’s hard to tell as there are seemingly no reliable data or studies on the subject yet. Hell, answering the question “how many TV shows are there anyway?” is a shockingly difficult endeavor. Take a look at this Wikipedia entry of “List of American television programs currently in production.”

This thing starts all the way back in 1947 (Meet the Press) and works its way up to modern day. It provides no final number for how many shows are in production but the answer is clearly “hundreds and hundreds and hundreds.”

Just as a brief, poorly constructed scientific experiment, we looked at new shows from 2015 – 2017 and tried to determine how many of the new shows introduced in those three years utilized nostalgia as a selling point or storytelling tool. Here is the final list of shows from those three years that are at least nostalgia-adjacent.

  • 12 Monkeys
  • AlVINNN!! and the Chipmunks
  • Ash vs. Evil Dead
  • F is For Family
  • Daredevil
  • Fresh Off the Boat
  • Scream
  • American Crime Story
  • Bunnicula
  • The Crown
  • The Exorcist
  • Fuller House
  • Lego Star Wars: the Freemaker Adventures
  • Lethal Weapon
  • Luke Cage
  • MacGyver
  • The Powerpuff Girls
  • This Is Us
  • Westworld
  • The X-Files
  • Battle of the Network Stars
  • Bill Nye Saves the World
  • Duck Tales
  • Fear Factor
  • Feud
  • GLOW
  • Iron Fist
  • Inhumans
  • Mystery Science Theater
  • The Orville
  • Riverdale
  • Star Trek: Discovery
  • Will & Grace
  • Young Sheldon

That’s 34 shows. There were a total of 401 shows introduced in those three years, meaning the percentage of nostalgic shows introduced was around 8.5 percent. That does indeed seems kind of high. There certainly is at least some concerted effort from TV producers to introduce a little nostalgia into the proceedings, especially considering Stranger Things’ success on Netflix and Marvel’s success at the movies.

Still, is that number worth worrying about? Will it trend up to the point where we’re suffocated with nostalgic content?

The Greeks knew that nostalgia meant “pain from an old wound.” And Don Draper knew that that pain could be twisted and exploited to help sell product. Did Netflix know and exploit the same thing?

Sure, probably.

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But also: who cares.

If all nostalgic properties, or even some, are going to be as good as Stranger Things, then what are we worried about?

Nostalgia is just the in for Stranger Things, not the appeal of the entire show. In fact, we still don’t even know who is watching Stranger Things. Nielsen recently announced that soon they will have a way to find and present accurate viewership and demographic information about streaming shows (though Netflix disputes their initial findings). When reliable viewership information comes out for Stranger Things, it should be a fascinating cross-section of viewers.

Surely, there will be some in the 35-50 age range watching it to reconnect with their inner child. But anecdotal evidence from the internet (i.e. social media and forum postings) suggests that there will be just as many viewers in the 16-34 range. Of course, millennials can be drawn to ‘80s style paranormal or horror movies like E.T. or Carrie but they’re not coming to it to connect with their childhood. It’s not their opiate of the masses.

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Instead, what most viewers are coming to (and staying with) Stranger Things for is the simple fact that it’s a great show. Stranger Things is one of the greatest “it’s not rocket science” shows in recent memory. It succeeds in at least three of the most fundamental characteristics of visual storytelling: excellent characters, intriguing imagery, and a fully-realized, logical story.

The characters on Stranger Things are almost uniformly excellent. Each character on the show accomplishes the difficult task of filling out an archetype while at the same time being a believable, charming human being with the capacity for growth. The Duffer Brothers clear empathy and understanding for Midwestern kids is on display with their tender characterization of children like Mike Wheeler, Will Byers, Dustin Henderson, Lucas Sinclair, and others. Each of the kids fills out the role of precocious, naive Midwestern children believably while at the same time feeling like their own actual individual.

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Then there’s the imagery at play. One of the many reasons why Stranger Things has become so precious to meme-makers on the Internet is that it understand the value of the “visual” aspect in visual storytelling. Think of how many striking images and symbols there are in Stranger Things that are just begging to be turned into a Halloween costume of reaction .gif. Joyce Byers Christmas lights that communicate with the Upside Down, Will Byers crayon map of the underworld, Eleven’s wig, bloody nose, and army boots. These are all provocative and interesting images that make movies, television, and comic books really sing.

The show is then able to take those compelling visuals, and richly-drawn (yet still archetypical) characters and then marry them together in an 8-9-ish hour narrative that is just so perfect in its pure fundamental storytelling. Both seasons of Stranger Things are paced beautifully. Action rises and then explodes. Events begin, they climax, they end. And there is a perfect sense of escalation throughout.

Witness in season two just how the show knows when to bring characters together and when to keep them apart. We as the viewer get to geek out and marvel over characters interacting in different groups with different chemistry and then they all take that newfound chemistry into a climactic final battle with the forces of evil in which everyone has a different role to play.

It’s fitting that Stranger Things season 1 opens with our child leads playing a game of Dungeons and Dragons because that’s what this show really is: a live-action Dungeons and Dragons. Any fantasy roleplaying game worth its salt knows the secret to good storytelling: get everyone involved. Every character in Stranger Things has a purpose and eventually they’ll work together to slay a demon/monster/demogorgon with everyone feeling as though their natural talents and the things they learned on the journey came into play.

So no, it’s not all nostalgia with Stranger Things. It’s not all just nostalgia with many other shows on television that traffic in it. Nostalgia can get a viewer to the table but by it’s very definition nostalgia is fleeting. We love to feel the pain of an old wound sometimes but dragging that melancholy out for hours on end is just not sustainable.

That doesn’t mean that those who feel manipulated by streaming service algorithms have no cause for concern. You are absolutely being manipulated for an emotional response. It’s just not nostalgia. It’s storytelling that’s manipulating you and compromising your feelings and attention. Just like human beings have been doing since the dawn of language.

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Nostalgia may seem like pain from an old wound. But storytelling has it beat in every other facet. Don’t fear nostalgia. Because without the story to back it up, it’s just a misplaced half-remembered feeling that no streaming service algorithm will ever be able to figure out.