Netflix’s Stranger Things Passes the Patriot Test
“Stranger Things,” Netfix’s original sci-fi series and one of the most popular streaming shows in the world, released its third season on the Fourth of July (this review is not a spoiler, so those interested in watching the show can continue reading). Set in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana, during the mid-1980s, the series successfully blends Stephen King-style supernatural events with innocent, Reagan-era culture. Those who grew up in the 1980s -- or who raised children during that time -- will appreciate the numerous 80s references and homages, which add a layer of nostalgia to the story and help the audience bond with the characters.
The first thing to like about “Stranger Things,” besides its endearing middle-school characters and brilliant use of eerie suspense, is that it’s refreshingly free of 2019 heavy-handed identity politics (mostly). It remains true to the era of the 1980s, a time when we were basically united as Americans (Reagan won 49 states in 1984), perhaps because we all had a common enemy -- the Soviet Union. The USSR was no fantasy boogieman, either. People were genuinely fearful of nuclear annihilation (think of the movie The Day After), and this constant underlying tension seemed to bring us that much closer.
Season 3 takes place during the Fourth of July holiday, 1985. Russians have secretly infiltrated the town of Hawkins, and are trying to reopen the portal to the terrifying Upside Down parallel universe which happens to be deep beneath the local shopping mall. Dustin, Steve, and Robin are trying to climb through the heating ducts to get inside the newly constructed Russian compound, but are unable to fit. This is where Dustin asks Erica, a snarky pigtailed African-American girl who keeps trying to score free ice cream samples from the parlor, to do the dirty work. He explains her service is needed to save the United States from ruin.
“Don’t you love our country?” Dustin asks her.
“You can’t spell America without Erica,” she replies, and proceeds to tell Dustin how she loves capitalism. She goes into a definition of the free market and how supply and demand dictates the level of pay -- in particular, how compensation should be based on the value of the service provided. And what does Erica want in exchange for climbing through the heating ducts? You got it -- ice cream.
God bless the 1980s.
Somehow, sandwiched between the radical counterculture of the 60s and 70s and the birth of the misery merchants of the 1990s -- was this fantastic oasis of American conservatism, a time of the “Cosby Show” and “ALF” and “Punky Brewster,” where women with big permed hair wore blazers and turtlenecks and shoulder pads, covering every inch of skin from their nose to their toes. Somehow, the 1980s seemed to come right out of a Disney movie, where children were taught to “say no to drugs” and every sitcom had a moral. And what was a major lesson during the 80s? To look past skin color and gender and simply treat people as people.
Well, “Stranger Things” is able to teleport us back to this time. The series appeals to our universal humanity, as all good art tends to do. And season 3 even gives us something extra: a little bit of good old-fashioned Reagan era patriotism. Hawkins mayor Larry Kline not only blurts out the phrase “commie bastards” on his clunky plastic car phone, but there’s some interesting pro-American subtext in the dialogue between private investigator Murray Bauman, and captured Russian scientist Dr. Alexei.
The two men are enjoying themselves at the Hawkins July 4th Fun Fair, when Bauman says to Dr. Alexei, “It doesn’t get more American than this, my friend. Fatty foods, ugly decadence, rigged games...”
“They are rigged, these games?” Dr. Alexei asks.
“They do not look rigged.”
“That’s just it, my dear Alexei. They have been designed to present the illusion of fairness! But it’s all a scam, a trick, to put your money in the rich man’s pocket. That, my dear friend, is... America.”
But after Dr. Alexei wins a giant stuffed Woody Woodpecker by popping balloons with a dart, he looks Bauman in the eye, and shouts triumphantly, “Look! It’s not rigged!”
And indeed it wasn’t rigged; there was no cheating involved.
Interestingly, because it lacked the requisite social justice warrior political blather, a number of millennials had trouble with the whole concept of “Stranger Things.” Film critics, such as Ben Travers of IndieWire and Caroline Framke of Variety -- neither of whom were even alive during 1985 -- kept trying to view season 3 via the lens of gender and sexuality.
Of leading man David Harbour, who plays the strong but lovable lug Police Chief Hopper, Travers writes:
“Watching a schlubby, overweight husband yell for another beer from his well-dressed, model of a wife may have been a funny encapsulation of “average” American households for the masses to chuckle at 30 years ago, but now it’s kinda gross.”
Travers goes on to say Hopper’s behavior “calls to mind sexist double standards, if not overtly reinforcing them.”
Caroline Framke of Variety had this to say:
As a purposeful homage to adventure movies that tend to only include female characters in the margins, it wasn’t exactly surprising that “Stranger Things” didn’t quite know what to do with its own. Though the Duffer Brothers knew enough to include women and girls, they still struggled to find ways to make the characters distinctive on their own merits outside of which boy or man they’re inextricably tied to.
It’s obvious Framke fails to understand a major theme of the series -- which is the innocence of the 1980s, where story, character, and the universal human condition took precedent over divisive identity politics. Perhaps as a product of liberal indoctrination, Framke feels obligated to turn the otherwise innocent and fun-loving series into a hackneyed lecture about one-dimensional and/or underrepresented female characters, which is quite mind-boggling, to say the least; the hero and most developed character of the story is Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), who is a female. Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) is also incredibly complex, courageous, and independent, who saves her son in season 2 and has a major role in the resolution in season 3. Females Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) and Max Mayfield (Sadie Sink) have similar characters, as does Kali (Linnea Berthelsen) in season 2.
Still, the clumsy reviews by millennial social justice warriors aside, “Stranger Things” is a thrilling and extremely heartfelt sci-fi series, especially season 3, which continues to deliver in its nostalgic Reagan-era setting.