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We live in exciting times. We really do. We’re transitioning out of one century and into another. And more than just the odometer rolling over from 19 to 20. We’re actually entering a whole new age. The digital age.
The last third of the 20th Century was a period of immense cultural transformation, when the world went from being black and white, buttoned down, and conservative to Technicolor, free-spirited, and tuned in and turned on. The transformation was well expressed in popular media. The 60s and 70s in particular are still considered to be the high water mark, when the best films and the best music, rock music anyway, of the modern era came out.
The transformation continued into the 80s and even the 90s. The quality of the movies and the music may or may not have gotten better, depending on who you ask, But the technology got better and it moved to the forefront. Music went from being guitar-based to being synthesizer based, and movies got more and better special effects. The transformation from analogue to digital had begun. But by 21st Century standards, it was still a very analogue world.
The great leap forward for consumer technology in the 70s, 80s, and even 90s, was magnetic tape: both audio and videotape.
Tape was revolutionary, because it meant you could burn your own copy of something, anything. And if you were a kid, with a modest allowance, and limited access to the wider world of pop culture, blank tape was your all access pass into that wider world.
Before the internet, you would have to wait to see a movie at the cineplex, and you’d have to watch whatever they happened to be showing. And if it happened to be rated R and you and your friends were 16 and a half years old, you might be out of luck altogether.
You’d have to watch whatever was on TV when it was actually on TV.
If you had to eat dinner, or go to your grandma’s that night, the opportunity was lost, maybe forever. Maybe they’d show it again at some point in the future, or maybe not.
When you could use a VCR to tape a show, or even better, to program a VCR to tape a show when you were away, or you were sleeping, or even watching another channel, well that was like Mr. Rourke turning your wildest fantasy into reality.
Musically, you didn’t have to save up your money to buy a record anymore. Or a CD. You could tape your friends’ records or songs off the radio, and listen whenever you wanted. You could even make a “mix tape.” Of course, blank cassettes weren’t exactly free, but they were a lot cheaper than records, and certainly than CDs.
It should be noted that CDs were marketed as the big audio technology innovation of the 80s. People were encouraged to dump their albums and upgrade to this new technology at its premium prices, and many did. The selling point of CDs was that they were new, they were futuristic, they were digital. They were smaller and lighter than records, and they were scratchproof (ha). The cool part was you could instantly skip from track to track in any direction without the guesswork of having to rewind or mess with a needle, and you could do fun tricks like setting it on automatic repeat or random play. We laugh now, but the quest to live in the future was real. And CD players felt like the future.
The point of all this is that, even as we started getting home computers and dialing up the Internet, we still lived in a tape based world all through the 90s and into the 2000s. Televisions still came with built in VCRs and cameras still used film that had to be developed. But then, overnight it seemed, the blank cassettes you used to always buy at Woolworths and Walgreens disappeared off the shelves, and photomats went out of business.
In plain terms, the change from analogue to digital may be the greatest transformation humankind has ever gone through. It really separates our world into two distinct before-and-after eras and we’re still just at the beginning of it. We’re so near to the beginning, that you still have people from both worlds living here together. It’s like having Neanderthals and homo sapiens sharing the waterhole.
I’m not a religious man, but I’ve long thought the year 2000 works unnervingly well as the de facto Year Zero for this new era, with BC standing for Before Computers, and AD standing for After Digital. And the world agrees. The term they use is Digital Native, to describe the people who are too young to remember a world without the Internet. With each passing day, there are more of them, and less of me and my kind, the Digital Neanderthals.
And yet here we both are, Digital Neanderthal and Digital Native, for this intersectional moment in time when we can sit around in the same living rooms, watch the same televisions, and enjoy the same programs, one of which happens to be a program called Stranger Things…. Our subject on this episode of the TV Room.
Today’s podcast is about Season One of the breakout Netflix series and instant cult classic, Stranger Things. But first, let’s take a moment here to reflect on the remarkable fact that Netflix is now a major player in this new world of serial television, which most people refer to as the Golden Age of television.
In my day job, I used to deliver a box of produce every Friday to a customer at Netflix headquarters sometime in the mid-2000s. I couldn’t tell you whether it was 2003, 4 5, or 6. But I would make a weekly drop at a little office park duplex right off the 85 in Los Gatos. There wasn’t even a receptionist, just a table in the hallway where I would leave the box. I never saw anybody come and go, and I never bothered to pay attention to the name of the company.
And then sometime in 2004, 5, 6, or 7, I began hearing those radio ads on my long drive down to Los Gatos, you know those ads. “If orange plus green equals infinity times pi, what is the square root of Atlanta, Georgia?” Those ads were relentless, and they wormed their way into my head as I went through my day of making deliveries. But I couldn’t have told you what company made those ads or what they were even trying to sell. And then sometime in 2005, or 6, my housemate and I, avid video renters, invested in a DVD player and signed up for Netflix. And then when the envelopes started coming, I noticed the red logo, and all of a sudden I also noticed what those radio commercials were for, and I noticed that the same red logo on the DVD envelopes was also on a little sign hanging on the wall above the table in the hallway of the duplex where I made that Los Gatos delivery off the 85 for all those years. And finally, it all clicked into place. And I even started to notice that a lot of the residential customers I delivered to had the same telltale red DVD envelopes in their mailboxes that I now had.
And, right at the same time, it seemed, I started making that office delivery to a new address, at a building right on the Los Gatos freeway off ramp that had been under construction seemingly forever. Well, that building turned out to be the new headquarters Netflix had commissioned for itself, that it didn’t have to share with another company down the hall. And Netflix is still there today, with another branch in Hollywood.
Netflix first revolutionized the movie business by taking the Blockbuster Video rental model and updating it to DVDs that you browsed and ordered over the internet, and received and returned in the mail. Their catch phrase was “No late fees. Ever,” and their model put Blockbuster out of business. Then, Netflix began to offer a streaming service and started phasing out DVDs altogether. And recently, they’ve begun culling their once legendary deep catalogue of movies and TV series in order to focus on creating and distributing their own content.
The Netflix tale represents a storybook progression from the old movie era, the analogue movie era of the 20th Century, into the digital era of the 21st. They replaced videos with DVDs, they replaced DVDs with streaming, and finally, they bypassed studios altogether and began selling their own product.
If anyone did more to kill off the 20th Century and bring in the 21st Century than Netflix, I’d like to know who.
So, perhaps it’s only fitting then that Netflix would be the ones to bring us Stranger Things, a series that celebrates the wonders of golden age analogue technology in all its battery-powered glory.
Now, a lot of Stranger Things podcasts will talk about the plot, and the characters, and the actors, and Justice for Barb. All worthy topics for sure. But, we’re gonna take a different approach. We’re going to talk about some of the great film craft that the Duffer Brothers used to make this series; we’re going to talk about Winona Ryder and Matthew Modine, and we’re going to step inside the time machine and talk about Stranger Things’ treatment of 1983–what they got right, and what they got creative with.
But first, a reminder that this is a review specifically of Stranger Things Season One; I haven’t even seen Two yet. And we’re not going to discuss the storyline or dissect the plot, so there’s probably not going to be any major spoilers to worry about, but maybe a few small incidentals.
As far as criticisms of Season One go, there aren’t many, but there are a few. Let’s start with the cast and the characters. Everyone’s talking about how great these child actors are, and I agree. They’re a cast of unknowns, and they basically carry this entire series. That said, I found that putting heavy dramatic themes and emotions onto these grade school children, giving them adult dialogue and situations, did take me out of the moment occasionally.
We like to idealize children as pure beings whose innocence somehow puts them closer to god and makes them the adults in the room instead of their bickering, repressed parents.
It’s a good device to use in filmmaking, but sometimes it’s easy to forget that kids are still kids, not life coaches, grief counselors, or self help gurus.
Along those lines, in one of the establishing scenes, a boy, a child of divorce, is waiting around for his dad to come by to pick him up and take him to his little league game. Eventually, crestfallen, angry, resigned, the kid turns to his mom and says, “he’s not coming, is he? That felt like a cliché from any number of divorce themed afterschool specials of the period. A little too cliché.
In another scene, that little kid’s brother, the prototypical alienated high school loner who, unsurprisingly, is way into nonmainstream music, name checks all the right early ‘80s British bands to show his bona fides as a rock and roll rebel.
I feel like in reality, only a 28-year old underground music journalist with a four year degree and two semesters of grad school would have been able to tick off that list, not some teenager in a town like Hawkins, Indiana that in late 1983, gives every indication that it’s still stuck in 1978. More on that later.
And the last thing I’ll mention is the use of a Bangles song from 1987 to close out the second episode. They had done such a great job of creating this fantastical but believable version of 1983 small town America, and then they totally ruin it by shoehorning in this Bangles cover song with nothing 1983 about it.
Most of the songs used in the soundtrack are late 70s/early 80s radio singles that are true to the period, like Africa by Toto, or they’re late 70s/early 80s synth tracks by the likes of Giorgio Moroder, Vangelis, Tangerine Dream, etcetera. But they do take poetic license with the timeline, like using Peter Gabriel’s 2010 version of David Bowie’s 1977 single, Heroes, which maybe worked better cinematically?
The soundtrack is an important part of the series’ appeal, and may have helped spawn a revival of the entire style of analogue synth music from the pre-techno era.
At the other end of the spectrum, there is one Sixties anthem that is used very prominently in an important scene of Episode One.
Today, and really for the entirety of the last 30 years, we’ve been mainstreaming the Summer of Love and celebrating its place at the forefront of our culture. And we treat Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit as the icing on the cake of that celebration. When that song plays, it is a generational callback to what some would call the most important and most influential decade in modern history, when the counterculture subverted the dominant culture.
What makes Stranger Things such an authentic 80s series is that it basically writes off the Sixties altogether, which is what the actual trendsetters of the early 80s were doing in real life. Trust me, I was there.
Long hair, guitar music, earth tones and embroidered denim had been mainstays year after year from 1967 onward, until by the end of 1982, hair styles had suddenly shortened and become angular and spiky, synth music replaced guitar music, neon replaced earth tones, and electric blue replaced faded denim. And that’s the sod in which Stranger Things is rooted.
The only nod to the Sixties generation and its culture of psychedelic drugs is that they are an entirely evil thing manifested by shadow government types, along the lines of MK Ultra and DARPA.
So when the signature notes of White Rabbit come wafting over the speaker, instead of ushering in a groovy kind of love, it signals the arrival of a malevolent kind of danger. If you’re an 80s kid, that generation and its music are not your friends. And the drugs are used by the CIA to control your mind.
Stranger Things has been described as a Frankenstein of movie styles. And no review is c omplete without a mention of all or some of the 80s filmmakers it draws from. Stephen King. Steven . John Carpenter. George Lucas. David Cronenberg. Freddie Krueger. Tim Burton.
Yeah, that’s a lot of movies. But what about all the great TV shows? You don’t hear quite as much about those.
First of all, Freaks & Geeks. If I had to sum up Stranger Things in one phrase, it would be Freaks and Geeks meets a Tim Burton movie.
The Duffer Brothers should cut a big fat royalty check to Paul Feig based on the Stranger Things nuclear family alone. The Wheeler family, sitting around the dining room table of their shag carpeted Mid Century Modern ranch house, with the mom, the dad, the older daughter on the brink of popularity and the younger brother deep in the weeds of geekdom; are dead ringers for the Weirs, who were the nuclear family that Freaks & Geeks was centered around.
And then there is the whole Stranger Things ensemble of good kids and bad kids; and cool kids and lame kids, which was very much the through line of Freaks and Geeks; and there’s the setting of the show itself, a Great Lakes state in the 1980-81 school year. Now, for some reason Stranger Things is set in the 1983-84 school year, even though it really looks and feels like 1980-81.
We’ll return to that topic shortly.
Stranger Things is a series about magic, horror, the supernatural, and parallel worlds.
Usually, a director will want to work with a big special effects budget to make this kind of make-believe world more convincing and plausible. But the Duffer Brothers were working with a limited budget, so they did what filmmakers with limited budgets do, they got creative.
They sought out the magic and wonder in the everyday objects around them, objects that with a little bit of imagination, could easily be transformed into portals to other worlds, especially when seen through the eyes of a child.
It starts with something as ordinary as a Lazy Boy chair. Even though no “magic” is involved, there’s a great scene that captures the child’s perspective on climbing up into one of these beasts and being swallowed by its girth, and the unbearable tension as the reclining lever is pulled and the chair snaps into place, like the kind of adjustment you might get from an aggressive chiropractor.
So even though no actual magic takes place here, it shows you how any mundane household object is a potential source of wonder, fear, and fascination. In order to access the parallel world of the bucolic town of Hawkins Indiana, the Upside Down as they call it, you first have to have a mind that’s open to the possibility that this kind of world exists. And that’s pretty much gonna be the exclusive domain of children, who can’t quite operate the machinery of adulthood yet, who have to stand on their tiptoes just to get a glimpse of what’s on the stove and the high shelves, and have to use the full strength in both hands to open doors, or activate Lazy Boys.
Water of course is a great conduit into other worlds. It is another world. Submerge yourself into the ocean, and you’re suddenly in a whole other animal kingdom with completely different life forms, life forms that predate our own and continue to exist right here with us on this planet, contained within a physical realm that has its own rules and properties that is still just about as inaccessible to us as our world is to them. And it’s all right there contained in a liquid ectoplasm that covers ¾ of the planet. The best we can generally do is float on the surface of this ectoplasm and peer down into it, and the best they can do is look up and catch fleeting glimpses of the bottom of our boats. Our floor is their ceiling. We are their upside down and they are our upside down. And the mysterious underworld of water extends all the way inland to the plumbing of rural Indiana.
You don’t have to build an elaborate set or use a lot of special effects to utilize the innocuous looking fountainheads of suburbia: Swimming pools, faucets and bathtubs, to represent the farthest reaches of the sinister, murky Upside Down; to show its deep reach into our bubble of domesticity…on a student film budget.
The other medium they use as a conduit to the Upside Down is electricity. Before the Internet came into our homes, electricity was still the mysterious frontier of technology where artificial intelligence, such as it was, existed. It was the frontier where ordinary humans could do things like light up a Christmas tree, play video games, and transmit information–through phone calls or records or television, or walkie-talkies–in ways that would have been considered sorcery by our great-great grandparents.
And the Duffer Brothers once again conjure up the hidden forces on a student budget in such objects as strings of Christmas lights, and even a bare light bulb itself. Of course, a naked light bulb is also synonymous with a torture chamber, so the Duffers have that going for them.
Now, Christmas lights, in 1983, were a little closer to the cutting edge of consumer technology, in the sense that you could buy them at a department store, bring them home, plug them into a regular wall socket, and they would work, just like that, even outside, in winter weather. That was kind of a big deal, and something to be appreciated, rather than taken for granted.
Christmas lights were a little bit like long distance phone calls in those days. If you’re a Millennial, I’m sure your older relatives have told you about how when they were kids, long distance phone calls were for special occasions only. You kept it brief and you got off the phone quick, and that was because it was expensive.
And even when it became less expensive, the habit of keeping it brief died hard because it was so ingrained.
And so it was with Christmas lights. They were more expensive than they are today, and they tended to short out a lot more quickly. So, they were a special occasion item.
But sometime in the 90s, I had a friend who bought Christmas lights as a year round accessory for his bachelor pad. A few years later, I went to Kmart and saw for myself how cheap Christmas lights really were. So, I bought a couple of boxes to use year round for my own apartment. They’re a great way to spice up a room on a student budget, and a great way to summon the Upside Down in a cinematic way on a student budget.
“One blink for yes.”
Today, entities from the Upside Down would probably manifest through the Internet, but in those days it would have to be the static of a blank TV channel or the live wires of household electricity that served as the conduits.
Speaking of telephones, in the second episode we got a great little primer on the technology curve of the early 80s, when Joyce (the mom, played by Winona Ryder) when her yellow wall phone with a rotary dial gets fried by the electrical surge, and she has to buy a new one. She upgrades to a plug-in phone that comes in two clunky pieces in two separate boxes and has to be snapped together. We’re supposed to laugh at the primitiveness of this device, but those phones were actually revolutionary at the time.
The fact that you could buy a phone over the counter and just snap it into these jacks that were built into your wall was revolutionary. I’m pretty sure that was a result of the fiber optics revolution of the ‘70s, and I’m pretty sure that well into the mid-70s your phone cable was still installed permanently into your wall, and your range of motion was limited by the length of the cord.
Those coiled curly-cue cords that extended your phone length by a few inches were the major innovation of the home phone for much of the 60s and 70s. And getting a second phone line installed would be considered a major upgrade, somewhere between getting a second family car and a second television, which would also have been a pretty big deal at the time.
Repairing, installing, or replacing a phone required a visit from specialists in a work truck to come out and do the job, and they probably charged more than plumbers. And they were with the government, or at least with a government-sanctioned monopoly, like Bell, so they got to play God with your time.
Everything associated with phone technicians was costly, in time and money. The rates they charged seemed exorbitant, and the waiting list could be weeks to get an appointment. You think it’s bad dealing with the cable company today, and it is, but you should have seen the phone company back then. So the idea that Joyce can simply go to the store in 1983 and buy a phone that plugs right into a waiting wall jack is revolutionary.
And although today we’ve been liberated altogether from landlines and having to pay attention to long distance rates, the telephone still occupies a major place in our psyches. Think about that little device that you carry in your pocket that connects you to the internet, allows you to text your friends, listen to music, worldwide radio stations, podcasts, to watch television and movies, summon a car to pick you up, take photos and videos, monitor your home surveillance cameras and doorbells, find your car, give you GPS directions, and download apps for just about anything else you can think of…what do we call this digital everything bagel that we depend on for just about anything? Do we call it a hand computer? A miracle tool? A pocket Spock? No. We call it a cellphone or a smartphone. In our vestigial memories, it’s still a phone; it’s just an extension of that big plastic thing that Winona Ryder plugged into her wall in 1983.
About that year, 1983, I happened to be a high school senior that fall, when Stranger Things was set. So my memories of the time are pretty lucid. And the 1983 I remember was a little bit different than the 1983 of Stranger Things.
From my perspective, their version of 1983 looks suspiciously like the late Seventies, or maybe 1980-81, that particular era when the 70s are over but the 80s as we know them haven’t quite begun yet.
It’s the era of the Iranian hostage crisis, and you see it portrayed well in period pieces like Argo, or…Freaks and Geeks, which is set in an Upper Midwestern town in the 1980-81 school year, and looks really indistinguishable from the Stranger Things Upper Midwestern town in the 1983-84 school year, at least in terms of clothing, haircuts, home décor, architecture, and cars.
Where I lived, it was already peak ‘80s culture by 1983. Swatches, pinstripes, New Wave haircuts, pastel and neons instead of earth tones.
With cars, you saw Rabbits, Honda Civics, and even little imported Japanese jeeps by 1983. In Stranger Things, virtually every vehicle you see is a 70s American-made classic. (There is a Vanagon spotting in episode 6. Blink and you miss it.) Maybe that was because this was rural Indiana, while I was on the West Coast.
Maybe. But the change in trends, seemingly overnight, from classic album oriented rock to New Wave singles, would have been reflected on MTV by 1982, and I presume they had MTV in Hawkins, Indiana.
The seminal TV show Square Pegs, which had a noticeably quirky New Wave look to it, as well as classically 80s characters and situations, would have already aired its one season and been cancelled by the spring of ‘83.
Movies like Valley Girl, with its new wave soundtrack and stylings, would have been out in theaters for over a year by the time of Stranger Things, not to mention the summer blockbuster film, Risky Business. Maybe Square Pegs and Valley Girl were too cultish to have made it out to Hawkins, Indiana, but Tom Cruise would have been a mainstream name by then, and surely even kids in small town Indiana would have been exposed to his work.
In fact, one of the Stranger Things high school characters does briefly name check Tom Cruise and reference the fact that there have been two Tom Cruise movies in theaters by then, so he does exist on their timeline, but the buck stops there.
To me, Risky Business was more than just a quintessential Tom Cruise movie, it was also a quintessentially ‘80s movie. It played on ‘80s themes about getting rich instead of getting even; it dropped a Tangerine Dream synth-pop soundtrack into the mix of teenage movies, and it introduced a clean-cut preppie hero who rebelled against society by reinventing himself as an entrepreneur and ‘what the effing’ his way into Princeton.
It inspired teenagers everywhere to start Billionaire Boyz Clubs, or at least to wear Ray-bans and express their rebelliousness by being more ambitious than their parents.
But that was in my time zone on the West Coast. Not so much in Hawkins, Indiana, apparently.
Those kids see Tom Cruise movies in their theatres, but they still look and act like Fast Times at Ridgemont High kids.
What I specifically remembered about 1983 was just how much everything changed that year, not just the movies: Also the music, the styles, the haircuts, the computers. I noticed all these things in that year precisely because they were so new. 1983 was the year that everything became 80s, and all traces of the 70s had vanished.
Now, that might have had something to do with the fact that in ’83 I turned 17. I was somewhat dialed into trends and fashions because I was getting ready for college and what have you myself, and I realized that my record collection of Neil Young and Bob Dylan and my hippie themed wall posters were not just out of style, but out of favor, for the first time since 1968 really.
College campuses had remained the faithful bastions of anti-conformity and civil disobedience even after the sixties ended. But in the fall of 1983, membership in fraternities and sororities not only stopped declining for the first time in 15 years, but spiked with a vengeance nationwide.
Counterculturism was out; joining the system was in.
Thirteen years after they ended, the Sixties were finally over. Kids were done rebelling. They knew what they wanted, and that was to get rich. To have success. The ‘60s were passe. It was morning in America in the 83-84 school year, and the future was so bright, you had to wear shades. Just like Risky Business.
And other forces were at play that would make the 80s part of the future, and the Seventies part of the past. On the day after Christmas 1982, Time Magazine did something that had never been done before. They announced their annual person of the year award, and they didn’t choose a man or a woman or even a group of people as they had always done before. This time, they chose the computer as their Machine of the Year. That issue was subtitled “The Computer Moves In,” and featured an image of a cyborg-looking man staring intently into the screen of a home computer sitting on his old-fashioned wooden desk; the proverbial desktop computer.
This magazine cover is frequently cited as the beginning of the Information Age. And it was dated January 3….1983; a full nine and a half months before the events of Stranger Things take place.
Another game changing teenage movie came out in 1983. May 7 to be exact. It was called WarGames. Like Risky Business, WarGames was a movie about a reluctant teenage hero whose impetuous nature soon lands him in dire circumstances, where he has to tap into the resourcefulness and savvy that are his birthright simply by being part of the video game generation, and which enable him to outwit the adults, beat them at their own game, and get the girl. That unspoken birthright was very much a part of the 80s zeitgeist. There was no birthright for the teenagers in Fast Times at Ridgemont High or Over the Edge or even The Van. In the late Seventies, the only teenagers who had the god-given moxie to outwit the adults just by being their own bad selves were teenagers of past generations, like Porky’s or Animal House. Seventies kids had no such mojo.
WarGames also served as a milestone for Year One of the Information Age, aka 1983. For the adults it had been the Time Magazine cover. For the kids, it was Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy hacking into the Internet ages before anybody would even begin to hear about the Internet.
To be sure, video games were huge by 1980 and ’81. Arcades would be packed with kids waiting in line to stuff their quarters into Missile Command, Space Invaders, and what have you. But those early adapters were still Seventies kids, kids with lowered expectations, and video games were seen as as big a time waster as afterschool television was, with the added bonus that you blew your allowance on it. It wasn’t until WarGames that gamers were seen as part of the new frontier instead of lethargic, wasted 70s youth.
So if you grew up in and around the Seventies and its pervasive vibe of lowered expectations, but happened to be coming of age in 1983, you couldn’t help but notice all the new changes taking place that year.
But for people a decade younger, people whose childhood memories begin in the 1980s and who came of age in the 90s with the Internet and everything else, well what would they remember about 1983 besides all the leftover “Seventies-style” stuff that was still around.
Even the computer technology of 1983 would have seemed primitive, and would not have belonged to the brave new world of tomorrow like it did for me, but to the world of the past that included big beige cars, wallpapered kitchens, shag carpeting, wide ties, and 70s haircuts.
So, assuming the Duffer Brothers are on the younger side of the equation, and they are by a lot, they would think of 1983 as the mythical good old days from family photo albums, when their parents were still practically teenagers themselves….To them, 1983 would pretty much have to be part of a nostalgic past, not Year 1 of a brave new world.
There are other advantages to setting the show in October ‘83 instead of October 1980 or ‘81.
Mostly, there’s the music. All the New Wave and the synth pop that works so well as the show’s soundtrack would have been current. And of course there’s Africa by Toto, which came out in ’82.
And, there were some things about 1983 that came as a genuine surprise to me. In the fourth episode, there’s a little excerpt about going to the video store to rent any video you want. I wasn’t even sure if they had video stores at that point, but it turns out they did.
Episode 7 features a cordless phone. Now, 1983 seems really early for that. But apparently they were around, too. Even in rural Indiana. Ditto for baby monitors. I wouldn’t have imagined them even being a thing yet in 1983, but apparently they were.
Earlier in the podcast, we mentioned some of the devices, like Christmas lights, that the Duffer Bros. used to convey dramatic tension and the presence of the supernatural on a budget. There was also the ordinary compass, with its magic needle that responds to the mysterious forces of magnetic north, usually to help Cub Scouts orienteer themselves in the woods, but it can also be used to track down missing children in the Upside Down.
They used some over the counter Radio Shack technology apropos of 1983 as well. There were the battery-powered walkie-talkies the kids used to communicate with. And, when the police chief Jim Hopper starts tearing up his trailer looking for a planted bug, that was definitely a familiar scene that played into the Watergate paranoia of the time. Bugs like that seem positively antiquated now with all the high-tech surveillance and tracking methods at our disposal, but being bugged in your living room by an electronic device the size of a goliath beetle was a clear and present danger at the time.
Shortwave radios also make an appearance in Stranger Things, but this is something that is reserved for the cream of the science geek crop at the local school, behind the velvet rope of the AV room, with access granted by invitation only from the grand poobah of the nerds, the Carl Sagan-like science teacher, Mr. Clarke.
A classic story within a story vignette for any pre-internet whodunit like Stranger Things occurs when police chief Hopper, needing to find information on the previous activities of the evil scientist Dr. Martin Brenner, has no choice but to go to the library to research their archives.
And once there, suddenly, the shoe is on the other foot. The all-powerful chief of police becomes the humble supplicant; and the mild-mannered librarian becomes the gatekeeper, possessor of all the cards…and the card catalogue. She gets to give the patented speech about how all the knowledge of the world is at your disposal here, contained in the card catalogue, and the microfiche.
And that’s how it really was before the internet. Squat in the middle of the library’s cold institutional floor under its high ceiling, sat a large wooden chest of drawers, dozens of drawers; each one a fist-sized file cabinet that slid out to reveal three or four feet of hand-typed indexed cards. In addition to books, there was a card for every notable person, place, thing, or event in the known world. This was where you had to go for information.
And the one person who knows how to navigate this catalogue of cards, this repository of records, who has studied for years to earn an advanced degree in the library sciences, and mastered the microfiche and the Dewey decimal system, is none other than the head librarian.
Chief Hopper is a roll up the sleeves and get to work type A personality, the kind of guy who feels like a fish out of water in silent, safe spaces like libraries, where he has no choice but to solicit help from the church-lady librarians. And in this case it’s especially awkward for the chief because, as is the case with so many of the women in Hawkins, Indiana, the chief has a past history with this librarian that didn’t end well…it never does, because of him, it always is.
So, after years of avoiding the issue by avoiding her, the chief now has to approach her desk and ask her nicely to do him a favor because he has no clue how to search the microfiche, and she does.
In a TV series where adults, and especially those in positions of authority, are not the most sympathetic characters, Chief Hopper emerges as an unlikely hero for our current times.
Chief Hopper is a pickup truck driving, womanizing, man’s man; he was probably the star of his high-school football and baseball team, and probably always felt secure in his position at the top of the food chain.
Until tragedy struck him, and he lost his young daughter to a devastating disease. And now, middle aged, he lives alone in a trailer in a haze of booze, tobacco, and pills, and rarely bothers to shave or even comb his hair. Although the show is set in 1983, In many ways, Chief Hopper is the stand in for that trending demographic of our time, the 2016 version of the soccer mom….namely, the white male with the decreasing lifespan, and the desire to make it great again that Donald Trump tapped into so successfully this election.
And finally…how about the return of Winona Ryder?
Much of this podcast has been spent weighing whether the setting for Stranger Things is a post-Seventies world, or a proto-80s world. Really, it can be either one, depending on how you choose to look at it.
In the same way, you can ask yourself whether Winona Ryder’s early movies were best described as proto-90s films, or post-80s films.
In other words, did Winona Ryder’s rise to box office prominence as the It Girl for the young adult demographic signal the end of the Brat Pack or the beginning of Generation X? Well, the answer is yes.
It started with her performance alongside Christian Slater in the 1988 black comedy, Heathers, which was followed up with co-starring roles in two films both released in the same week of December 1990, playing Cher’s eldest daughter in Mermaids, and Johnny Depp’s love interest in the suburban gothic, Edward Scissorhands, a film that turns ordinary teenage suburbia into a world of magic and enchantment, just like Stranger Things does, and just like Twin Peaks would do that year on the small screen.
Mermaids explores the relationship between a single mother and her two daughters in a slightly eccentric working class family set in the time of the JFK assassination. The novelty of the film is that it allows two state of the art Hollywood actresses, Cher and Winona Ryder, to give a thoroughly modern treatment of the mother-daughter relationship in a distinctly nostalgic setting, with the styles, the furnishings, the automobiles, and the Top 40 singles of the time all playing prominent roles in the movie. In addition to being a film about mothers and daughters, Mermaids was an ode to 1963.
Just like Stranger Things is an ode to 1983; but this time Winona Ryder is not the daughter in the slightly eccentric working class single parent household. This time, she’s the mother in the slightly eccentric working class single parent household.
Her character’s name is Joyce in Stranger Things, which happens to be the perfect 70s mom name.
Supposedly, Ryder based Joyce’s look on Meryl Streep’s portrayal of the title character in Silkwood, a film that came out in 1983, but is set in, and made to look like, the ‘70s….which by and large matches our description of what Stranger Things looks like.
Winona Ryder is pretty much playing the same personality she was the last time we saw her, 25 years ago; lighting up a cigarette and trying to keep it together while vigorously standing her ground and stating her case to some male authority figure, such as her boss at the local drugstore where she works.
As the distraught mother of a missing child, the boss is sympathetic to Joyce’s plight and offers to help any way he can. She tests his offer by presenting him with a growing list of the things she’s gonna need to face these difficult times: She’s gonna need an open-ended leave of absence, she’s gonna need a hefty advance on her paycheck, she’s gonna need several high-end electronic items from the store’s inventory, and, almost as an afterthought, she looks her boss dead in the eye and says, “And a pack of Camels!”
That line could have come from a scene in any number of Winona Ryder movies from the early 90s.
Movies don’t show their protagonists lighting up cigarettes to be cool anymore. But they did, as a matter of course, until not too long ago at all.
Joyce is the classic Winona Ryder role…all grown up now, but still the same combination of scrappy and vulnerable. She’s basically playing the same character she always has, whether she’s the mother or the daughter. And that’s not a knock on her acting; it’s more about how her personality seems to come through in her character.
Winona may seem timeless in Stranger Things, but Mathew Modine is the actor who gives you a real sense of how many years have actually passed between the 80s and the present.
In 1984, Modine played the title character in an ambitious coming of age film set in working class Philadelphia in the 1960s, called Birdy. Modine plays a teenager in that film. You could call his character a misunderstood genius whose fascination with and intuitiveness towards birds give him seemingly supernatural powers, but whose inability to socialize on an everyday level condemn him to isolated loner status.
He was the original misunderstood teenage genius outcast in Birdy; the kind of boy Winona Ryder would fall in love with in later 80s movies. In fact, Modine and Ryder did briefly work together onscreen in the 1989 Roy Orbison music video, A Love So Beautiful.
In Stranger Things, Modine has gone from playing a teenager with apparent supernatural abilities, to playing a white-haired, CIA-dark-ops scientist who experiments on children with supernatural abilities. It’s a big role reversal for Modine, to say the least.
By the way, filming for Birdy was scheduled to begin in late 1983, but was delayed a couple of months while Modine finished up another project. Point being that filming for Birdy would have taken place precisely in the months when Stranger Things is set, for anybody keeping track of these things.
In conclusion, let’s talk about kids on bikes for a minute. Kids riding their bikes through pastoral leafy suburbs is a timeless scene out of ET, Stand By Me, etc. etc. Bikes are the great equalizers of childhood. You usually get one at a pretty young age and it opens up your frontier and enables you to cover great distances you otherwise would never be able to. And until the big day when you finally get a car or some kind of motorized vehicle well into high school, your bike is pretty much all you have. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in fifth grade or tenth grade, your bike is your stalwart companion whether alone or in a group of friends throughout the journey from grade school to high school upperclassman.
And for the less than alpha kids, the bike has an added significance. Someone like Stephen Spielberg may not have been the most athletic kid, or the most popular kid. He may have been picked last for team sports or dreaded having to change in the locker room after gym class.
But there were probably days as a child where he got on his bike and rode and rode and rode farther than he had ever ridden before, with the pedals moving effortlessly under his feet, the wheels rolling fluidly over the pavement, his body parts working like a well oiled machine, and his trusty bicycle taking him wherever he wanted it to go.
And in those moments, he and children like him everywhere, are pretty much on the same footing as the captain of the swim team or the track team or any team.
Those transcendent moments when they took the lemons of childhood and turned them into lemonade, when they hopped on their bikes and escaped the specific gravity of schoolwork and parents and bullies, and rode to the mountaintop and saw what was out there and what was possible, those transcendent moments are what they will remember as the magic of childhood that will be distilled and recreated in films like ET, and Stand By Me, and Stranger Things.
Today’s college age kids are digital natives. They don’t remember a time before the internet existed. But even among digital natives, there are hierarchies. Today’s grade school kids are growing up with the Internet of things. By the time they’re 16, cars might very well be driverless. And if you don’t need a driver, why would you need a driver’s license? And if you don’t need a license, what’s the big deal about turning 16?
In the ‘80s, starting with WarGames and Risky Business, teen movies became about hacking into the adult world of finance and technology. But up until then, the ultimate teenage conquest was being able to drive a car. That’s what teen movies from before the 80s are about, and that’s what TV shows are about. You counted down the days until you could get your driver’s license the way you counted down the days until summer vacation.
But there’s a new real-life phenomenon where kids are blasé about getting their license and it’s hard not to think that that has something to do with the proliferation of the internet and the ease of being able to access everything online or summon an Uber from your smartphone. Maybe today’s teenagers are already subconsciously adapting to a world where cars, or at least driving them, is a superfluous appendage.
But, as we continue down the path of handing over more and more of our work and our thinking for the Internet of Things to do for us, let’s remember that as sure as day becomes night, Things become Stranger Things. And when your friendly smart devices start talking back to you like HAL the computer from 2001, and the unmarked van suddenly pulls up into your driveway, being able to run out the back, hop on a bike and disappear down the side roads, off the grid, could become the most important decision you’ll ever make.