Why does Stranger Things affect me so strongly?
I realized that even after writing a lengthy review of Stranger Things’ second season, I’m still not sure I’ve adequately put into words just how much this show means to me. So feel free to skip this post if you want; it’s just more of me processing Stranger Things for my own benefit (but hopefully yours, too, if you’re a fan).
Ever since finishing season two earlier this week, I’ve been experiencing a major sense of Stranger Things withdrawal, which makes me wonder why this series has such an effect on me (something I explored briefly in the aforementioned review). I certainly understand why others might find the series derivative, clichéd, too reliant on tropes, etc. But it doesn’t feel derivative to me at all.
Rather, I feel like Stranger Things just “gets” me more than any other show I can think of that I’ve enjoyed over the years. As I’ve written before, the series exists at an intersection of so many things that have fascinated me ever since I was an awkward, nerdy kid like Mike or Will that at times, it’s almost like Matt and Ross Duffer tapped directly into my subconscious when they were creating the show.
As a result, Stranger Things is more than just mere nostalgia. Shortly after finishing the first season and seeing how much it had affected me, my wife remarked that it was like the show had ministered to me — and in a sense, she was right. As I said, I honestly don’t think I’ve ever felt so strong a connection to a TV series — and it’s a weird, even scary feeling. For crying out loud, I’ve been moved to tears when thinking about season two’s school dance finale, which takes all of the school dance clichés and uses them to create the platonic ideal of a school dance scene.
It’s weird because this is still a TV series we’re talking about here — though we’ve passed the point where it’s strange (npi) to think of TV as “serious” culture worth “serious” analysis and consideration (even shows about psychic girls and extra-dimensional beasties). And it’s scary because, if I feel this strongly about something, what does that say about me as a person? What, exactly, is it about me that resonates with this show? What in my imagination is fired in ways that I previously thought unlikely?
The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve come to believe that Stranger Things possesses, among other things, a purity. Sure, the kids curse like sailors (which is pretty hilarious in Dustin’s case), but there’s a deep genuineness in their relationships and interactions with the world around them that’s endearing and moving — especially in this too-cynical age of ours.
I think this recent Todd VanDerWerff article touches on this when he writes (emphasis mine):
One of fiction’s most powerful functions is the way it allows us to tell stories about what we do and don’t value, the kinds of people we want to be and the kinds of people we want to see in the world. I don’t need to someone to explain to me that the best way to win somebody’s heart is to treat them like a human being, because I’m past that phase of my life. But many of those who watch Stranger Things do need to hear that, and I’m glad there’s a show willing to talk to them, too.
The world we live in might be complicated and full of bad choices, but some things remain easy to understand: Treat other people the way you would like to be treated. Remind yourself that other people are the authors of their own stories as surely as you are the author of your own. Don’t ever treat anybody as if they exist solely to help you get what you want.
Too many stories of the past several years have flirted with the idea that any or all of the above values might not be sound. Even if Stranger Things isn’t 100 percent to my taste, I like knowing that one of the most popular series of our time doesn’t just embrace said values, but shouts them from the rooftops.
Earlier in his piece, VanDerWerff mentions that Stranger Things is not exactly the most subtle series. But that lack of subtlety is quite refreshing. Stranger Things wears its heart on its sleeve, and does so with zero cynicism or skepticism whatsoever. And so it can get away with simple-yet-pure aphorisms like “Friends don’t lie” that are absolutely true, but we so easily lose sight of that in our world, and so thank goodness for Stranger Things to remind us of it again (and again).
(I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that much of this is due to the series’ amazing cast, especially the kids, who are pretty much adorable and actual friends in real life. In light of all of the sexual assault allegations that have been leveled at Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Brett Ratner, James Toback, etc., in recent weeks, I’ve found myself praying that these kids are spared from experiencing Hollywood’s dark side.)
At the risk of sounding too obsessive, not only am I reminded of the friendships and freedom I had as a kid, but Stranger Things makes me yearn for something similar for my own kids. Obviously, I don’t want my kids facing extra-dimensional Lovecraftian horrors, nor do I want them to start cussing any time soon. But the loyalty, confidence, bravery, and willingness to sacrifice that we see in Eleven, Mike, Will, Dustin, Lucas et al? I absolutely want my kids to have those qualities.
I totally get it if you don’t like Stranger Things, or if it’s just one more binge-worthy series for you to enjoy over a weekend… but man, this show has become so much more for me. And even after everything I’ve written so far, I find I still have some difficulty completely understanding and explaining why that’s the case. But that’s the reality, and season two’s unevenness has (thankfully) done nothing to change that. If anything, it’s made me appreciate the good things that much more as I eagerly await season three.