Nostalgic nightmares: how Netflix made Stranger Things a watercooler smash

While the distribution method is state-of-the-art, the Duffer brothers’ supernatural series is one of many harking back to the 80s

Television’s latest hit show combines a distribution model that represents the future of screen entertainment with content that harks back to its past. Set in 1983 and filled with references to popular culture of the period, Stranger Things is streamed online by Netflix.

It forms, with other web television successes, such as House of Cards (also Netflix) and Transparent (Amazon Prime), a challenge to the convention of network drama behemoths such as the BBC in the UK and NBC in the US, beaming dramas into homes at a time of the viewer’s choosing.

In the increasingly common modern way, all eight parts of Stranger Things were released on Netflix on 15 July. It’s impossible to know how many viewers have watched all or part of the series because, to the irritation of media commentators and the suspicion of competing networks, Netflix is parsimonious with figures on the number and nature of its audience.

But according to data provided by the US media measurement company Symphony AdvancedMedia, conducted over the first 17 days after the program’s release on Netflix, Stranger Things averaged 8.2m viewers among adults aged 18-49. This made it the third most popular Netflix show in the equivalent period, behind the proven hits Orange is the New Black and Fuller House but ahead of House of Cards. Charles Buchwalter, CEO of Symphony, characterised this as “a very good start”.

By the metrics that Netflix prefers, meanwhile – a deluge of media enthusiasm from traditional and social media – Stranger Things can be judged to have cut through the huge volume of TV dramas to an unusual degree. A sign that Netflix is pleased with the series is having made Stranger Things the basis for its first experiment with virtual reality, through a 360-degree video released on YouTube on Thursday.

Netflix has yet to confirm whether a second series will be commissioned – though chief exec Reed Hastings told the Guardian “we would be dumb not to”. Matt Duffer, who created the show with his brother, Ross, has ideas for a continuation. This, though, would be “not a second season, as much as a sequel,” because the first run has a fairly conclusive ending.

Winona Ryder, Charlie Heaton and Natalia Dyer in Stranger Things.
Winona Ryder, Charlie Heaton and Natalia Dyer in Stranger Things. Photograph: PF1/

Brought to life by 80s stars like Winona Ryder and Matthew Modine alongside a cast of young unknowns, the narrative begins on 6 November 1983 in a small Indiana town called Hawkins, where what normally counts as serious crime is the theft of garden gnomes. When a 12-year-old boy disappears while out cycling in woods near a secret government research facility, the community suffers visitations, including an apparent monster and an unworldly young girl called Eleven, who may be the result of either scientific or supernatural interventions.

The show’s creators, who take the screen credit the Duffer Brothers, were born in 1984 but, from the evidence of Stranger Things, subsequently spent a lot of time catching up with the culture that was coming out at the time. Their show is infused with influences from a famous Steven and a Stephen, entertainment superpowers who first came to prominence in the late 1970s and early 1980s. There are numerous narrative and visual references to Spielberg movies of the era, including ET and Poltergeist – especially pre-teenage boys cycling into plot twists – and to King stories, such as ’Salem’s Lot and the Shining, in which sleepy US communities are alarmingly transformed.

This reimagining of the early 1980s also draws on TV and movie hits from slightly later, especially 1986 movie Stand by Me and 1990 horror miniseries It, both based on stories by King, and David Lynch’s small town weirdness series Twin Peaks. The Duffers have also visibly seen the X-Files, which, starting in 1993, would have been a major show of their childhood and was one in which investigation of the supernatural overlapped with political paranoia.

To such an extent do the Duffers pack their storylines with screen references that spotting them is a central pleasure for viewers. An early scene in which a high school swot, studying in her bedroom, is surprised by her would-be boyfriend climbing through the window alludes to this Romeo and Juliet trope in numerous teen flicks, but most specifically Johnny Depp dropping in on Heather Langenkamp in A Nightmare on Elm Street, released in 1984. Typically of the series, the young woman in the movie and in Stranger Things are both called Nancy.

Matthew Modine and Millie Bobby Brown in Stranger Things.
Matthew Modine and Millie Bobby Brown in Stranger Things. Photograph: PF1/

Variety, the leading showbiz publication, has identified Stranger Things as part of a “nostalgia strategy” in Netflix’s fiction. And, if so, the web-network’s time-machine seems especially aimed at the decade when Ronald Reagan was twice elected president and America was at cold war with the USSR. Other current Netflix shows include Fuller House, a reboot of an 80s family sit-com, while next Friday the company releases The Get Down, film director Baz Luhrmann’s drama set in New York in the late 1970s.

Other artistic revisitings of that period include this summer’s remake of the hit 1984 film Ghostbusters, and the return, expected from the Showtime network next year, of Twin Peaks.

One likely reason for this flight to the past is the obstacle that modern technology poses to plot lines. Mobile phones, the internet and widespread CCTV have made contemporary mystery stories increasingly hard to write. An interesting exercise for viewers of the opening episode of Stranger Things is to imagine how the vanishing of Will Byers might have been achieved so mysteriously if he were carrying a cellphone.

A darker explanation, though, is that the 80s are being reprised elsewhere. Donald Trump can be seen as a deranged Reagan tribute act, while Vladimir Putin frequently seems to be channelling hardline Soviet era leaders such as Brezhnev and Andropov. If Trump does become president in November, then viewers of the Netflix hit may conclude that Stranger Things has happened.


Mark Lawson

The GuardianTramp

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