Stranger Things--an 8-hour trove of 80s-90s-00s quotations--has proven great fodder for nostalgia fans, particularly GenXers gleefully posting its myriad references to their youth. For some dubious critics, that's all it is: "an homage and pastiche of all things Spielberg...[but] a little empty." Certainly, much of the spectatorial joy, for the GenX set at least, comes from identifying and reliving that era's texts.
Yet the series delves deeper than simple nostalgia for a Spielbergian heyday--often challenging it, even as it revels in it. The kids swear more realistically, for example, and experience more harrowing danger; one even loads a gun. And counter to Hollywood's insistence on heterosexual romance during a quest, Joyce and Hopper never romantically couple during their search for Will or even at the family dinner--sans Hopper--at series end.
The Duffers Brothers credit the medium of the television series--"basically a long-form film"--with the time and breadth to rework those movie formulas that inspired them. "We've seen so many movies and they tend to follow a very similar pattern. Television has been breaking narrative rules." The character of Steve, for example, they initially wrote as "the biggest douchebag on the planet"--clearly the wrong suitor for Nancy. So audiences expected heroic Jonathan, in classic Proppian fairytale style, to win the princess. Yet a closing shot shows Nancy instead snuggling with Steve. The directors explain their choice: "it felt like in a movie world she winds up with Jonathan... But it felt almost more real to us that she would wind up back with Steve... That's what's fun about television. You don't have the opportunity to do that as much in film."
The TV series format similarly granted room for a more complex identificatory structure. Rather than specify one age cohort for audience identification--more typical of the nostalgic source material--Stranger Things offers three age levels: kids, teens, adults. Although all three groups do appear in some 1970s-80s films, it's unquestionably the kids' story in E.T., the teens' story in Carrie, and the adults' story in Jaws. Splitting its narrative among three cohorts was risky, but it's striking how successfully Stranger Things appeals to GenXers, Millennials, and teens alike--and how pleasurably slippery their identification is. Presumably, now middle-aged GenX parents identify with the adults, twenty-something Millenials with the teens, and teens with the children. Yet GenXers also identify with the teenagers and children that they were in 1983, pluralizing their nostalgic pleasure.