It’s been very interesting to see the ways that television content is splintering into increasingly narrow shards. How the hell did Maria Bamford get a sitcom-style TV show, let alone one as delightfully not-giving-a-fuck as “Lady Dynamite?”
I guess it’s not surprising in this era of breaking from the monoculture, decreased reliance on traditional television metrics (like Nielsen ratings), and an increasing ability to cheaply produce professional-looking programming, that people are pretty much just doing whatever they want. And that’s amazing!
“Stranger Things” is an 8-episode show on Netflix that is beyond indebted to its 80’s-era influences: Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter, and Stephen King (to name some). It doesn’t so much use these influences as a point of departure as it reconstitutes them in collage form with only the lightest papering-over of modern and/or novel touches. It is simultaneously a loving tribute and faithful retelling.
I turned to my wife during an early episode and said, “this is like a designer drug for a very small market.” I loved it!
It’s a story you already know: In any-suburb, America, a group of misfit kids from dysfunctional families encounter an out-of-context threat. Someone has decidedly-80’s-style superpowers. The government cannot be trusted and is an active antagonist against the kids. There is a dark parallel world brushing up against ours.
But they do the details so well — the costuming, the set design, the era-specific props. Check out these opening credits, for example. I could literally listen to that synth-core theme on a loop for hours. There’s a moment, a small detail, where a couple of kids jump off their bikes and cast them aside outside the back door of one of the kids’ house. It is a perfectly representative moment, lovingly brought forth from cultural memory.
There are some subversions and modernizations from what would be typical from the source material. Nancy, the “good girl” teenager character, despite losing her best friend, is allowed to move through a harrowing journey that sees her becoming a self-sufficient badass, rather than a scold, a mess, or a victim. Joyce, who’s lost son is the major plot driver, is allowed to transition from the typical shrill, “worried-mom” character into someone that doesn’t need her shithead ex-husband to help her, someone that can’t be tricked by the government scientists, and someone that ultimately braves the “Upside-Down” to save her son. Even the dick-face popular beau gets to redeem himself. In fact, that might have been the strangest and most welcome subversion — watching the second-in-command jock douchebag assert the menace that someone that horrible would actually have, and scaring the lead-jock straight.
I guess the least modernized take would be what’s handed to the character of Eleven (“El”). They didn’t find a way to turn her E.T. into anything beyond what you might have expected from a movie produced in 1983: a completely uncomprehending blank slate when that was convenient to the plot, and a tuning fork for her closest companion’s feelings when that was convenient to the plot.
I have a couple of quibbles. There’s a portion midway through the series when the wonderfully dad-bodded Chief Hopper turns into Sir-Knockout-Punch that threatened to take me out of things. And though they obviously spent a lot of budget on licensing for era-specific music — which was awesome! — I wondered if they might have been better off using a set of contemporary songs instead, to give it a small sense of separation. This playlist, which Apple Music keeps serving me, would have delivered the same sense of nostalgia via new content that the show managed. Or they could have just used “The Suburbs,” by Arcade Fire, which won a Grammy some years ago for preemptively scoring this type of looking-back. When all of the houses they built in the 70’s finally fall, indeed!
But all in all, it’s almost better than the things it borrows from. It has all the advantages, both culturally and in terms of production, of being produced in 2016, and none of the disadvantages of being produced in 1983. That is a very specific and somehow laudable accomplishment.
“Mr. Robot” is a USA TV series currently in its second season, set in present day NYC, that centers around a brilliant, if unstable, cybersecurity engineer who work for the interests of “Evil Corp.” by day, and is a man-of-the-people vigilante by night. And somewhere in the depths of his own mind, he is also the leader of a cyberterrorism group (F Society), bent on taking down the likes of Evil Corp.
I was so blown away by the pilot. It’s such a subversive show that I was caught off guard, thinking, “how is this on TV, on the same network that produces shows like ‘Chrisley Knows Best?’” I guess if the revolution is being televised, you have to wonder if it’s really the revolution, though. Somewhat ironically, in the time between its 2 seasons, with our nation’s descent into Trump-ian madness, the show’s sense of the zeitgeist went from disturbingly prescient to oddly quaint.
But! Mr. Robot also engages in an examination of nostalgia in a similar way to Stranger Things. From the very first episode, the allusions to Fight Club are very clear, particularly in the very large plot point of taking out the consumer credit bureaus. But there’s also a lot of 90’s-repurposed punk rock nihilism and Christian Slater in full “Pump Up the Volume” glory.
When they give us the very telegraphed reveal that “Mr. Robot” is a dissociative personality of Elliot’s, it’s while playing “Where is My Mind,” by The Pixies. This is both an acknowledgment of their derivation, and a “fuck you.” In other words, they want us to know that they consider it to be beside the point. And as Elliot says to us, a personality in his head — shocked — “You knew all along, didn’t you?” And we did.
I have to say that at that point in the show I was a little bummed. I had been beginning to wonder if the twist was going to be that none of what was happening with Elliot was as real as he imagined, and that he was somehow projecting the plots of 90’s movies — his childhood — onto his everyday life, as a coping mechanism. But I guess that isn’t a recipe for a multi-season show, is it?
But it’s interesting, to me, to consider that both shows exist at all, and the ways in which their being is inextricably tied to both the past’s popular culture, but also to specific regions within that popular culture. Is that now a style of TV show? Something that so actively engages with other stories?
There’s something odd about Stranger Things’ nostalgia for the comfort found within art that was itself a response to a very uncertain and fearful time, with the cold war looming, the 70’s hangover not quite faded, and the not-what-it-seems Reagan-era promise of a return to bygone values. What does that say about where we are now?
“Mr. Robot” doesn’t want to recreate its influences in the same way that “Stranger Things” does; it wants to comment on, and reconsider them. “Fight Club” ends with Edward Norton and Helena Bonham Carter holding each other’s hands, triumphant, as the credit bureau buildings collapse around them. At the end of the first season of “Mr. Robot,” they also succeed in wiping out peoples’ credit. But they let us experience the aftermath, too, and it seems clear that this doesn’t change anything. Or at the very least, that the future they wanted — whether they even knew what that was or not — wasn’t the one they were going to get.
“Stranger Things” really does just want to give you what you’ve had before and remind you why you loved it. In its best moments, it succeeded in the truly spectacular sleight of hand of recreating in me the sensation of seeing any of its influences for the first time.
The best example I can think of is this: It’s such a cliche to have the superpowers of a character be tied to their emotions, and for the use of those powers to take a physical toll on the person using them. And that was definitely one of the thin things about the character “El,” in this show.
But despite all of that — and how many times I’ve seen something just like that — through the prism of “Stranger Things” I wasn’t thinking about any of that at all. I was remembering being a kid, a kid like the kids on screen — playing D&D, wandering the world just hoping to find an adventure with my friends, and believing there must be something just beyond the all-too-thin membrane of my suburban surroundings. I remember wishing that the intensity of my emotions made me powerful.
“Mr. Robot” would tell you that that was always foolish — that it was never that simple — and maybe that’s right. But as silly as that sounds in the world I live in now, it also seems worth remembering that I felt that way.