Rachel D, Birthday Boy Peter Fenzel, Ryan Sheely, and Matthew Wrather are joined by guest Sam Reich to overthink Srangter Things, discussing the show’s nature as a period piece, its unexpected non-relation to Lost and Twin Peaks, its surprising gay subtext, and what we expect in season 2.
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Sam Reich heads up College Humor Video and is the executive producer of Adam Ruins Everything on TruTV.
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Out of curiosity, did anyone else actually Google that exact issue of X-Men that the kids were talking about?
It was one with the Hellfire Club manipulating Jean Grey during the Dark Phoenix saga.
That’s all very relevant to Stranger Things in general and Eleven specifically but I did ALSO want to point out that it was Will’s choice to be given that particular issue as a trophy and that this is what Jean Grey would have looked like at the time:
That, uh… might not exactly back up Pete’s idea about Will being gay.
Thanks for looking this up! It’s funny – when we were writing our antihero think tank series, I actually referenced this specific arc quite a bit as the definitive emergence of Wolverine as an antihero. I was going to link to it, but it looks like that particular tangent might have been cut out of the articles for length (which is fine).
Also notable is that in this arc, the X-Men team up to go rescue Jean Grey, who has been captured and mind-controlled by the Hellfire Club, and they all lose, except Wolverine, who, left for dead, survives by hiding in the dungeons/sewers.
So there’s more than a few reasons he might have picked that arc, though I’m not sure of the specific issues.
By the way, The Advocate has a similar take to what I was saying:
“There are no obviously LGBT characters in Stranger Things, which was created by Ross and Matt Duffer (Wayward Pines). But one doesn’t need a Hays decoder to ascertain that every character the audience roots for is queer in some fashion.”
I think they’re spreading it a bit too thin by looping in Lucas and Dustin with Will and Eleven and not more directly referencing the barrier of the worlds between then, but as I said I don’t think this is so much the central theme of the whole piece as something that has been added to serve the expectations of the genres and provide some consistency in subtext.
They also refer to Eleven as a gender non-conforming “queer avenging angel,” which to me feels much more clear and deliberate than, say, the more indirect, emergent sort of connection between scene where Barb sheds the droplet of blood that signifies the loss of Nancy’s virginity and the scene where Eleven makes the bully pee his pants for homophobically bashing Will and threatening Mike.
There really is a ton of blood imagery in this show, isn’t there? I mean, it’s a horror show so par for the course, sure, but I wondered about that when I was watching since it seems to make sense more on a thematic level than a story logic one. (Wait, so the creature attacks everyone who bleeds? Wouldn’t everyone who’s shaved recently be attacked? Even if it’s only in certain areas, people are combing the place that Will disappeared in constantly.)
Eleven’s nosebleeds are an obvious one, the cutting of hands together to draw the monster (similar to a blood oath and definitely a signifier of intimacy) which is mirrored earlier in Barb cutting her own hand but doing so alone and on accident after being distanced from Nancy which leaves her open to being attacked instead of open to fight back, people bleeding from their eyes when Eleven uses her mind powers on them, etc.
And there’s definitely a sense that by tracking people by blood, the creature is deliberately preying on something fundamental to their humanity rather than randomly mauling/abducting/impregnating them.
I would agree with the Advocate’s assessment. All of our core characters are rooted on the fridges of society and looked down upon by others. Its no coincidence that once Nancy begins to figure out what is going on she is immediately slut shammed into being an outcast. This sense of being an outcast might be another reason the story is set in the early ’80s. What it means to be an outcast 30 years ago is different than what it would mean even a few years later. The bullying that occurs in this show could have happened 30 years ago, maybe even 20 years ago, but not today. I’d argue the shady government agency could never pull this stuff off in any other decade. By the ’90s every government facilities was being watched by internet users searching for UFOs.
One more practical aspect of setting a story like this in the ’80s: at the time, individuals and even groups were routinely isolated. It was well before everyone, including kids, had mobile phones or even pagers. Relatively young kids were expected to disappear for a while and move about town unchaperoned, and nobody would call social services unless something was clearly awry. (When Lucas answered his own door, nothing seemed amiss to me; I was a latchkey kid.)
If isolation is a routine fact of life, it becomes a setting in which ordinary teens and pre-teens can (a.) frequently and consciously assume some of the risks of isolation without being flagged as paranoid fools or daredevils and (b.) realize they’ve taken on more risk than they realized, which can lead to ruin or to cooperating and becoming heroes. They can’t immediately call for help even when it seems prudent; venturing out to the woods or the quarry or the junkyard is usually an irrevocable assumption of risk, so that it takes something unusually timely like the intervention of the sheriff with one of their walkie-talkies or the arrival of a telekinetic friend to save them from something they can’t handle themselves.
3 things that I see linked plotwise:
-The waffle box. (Hopper wasn’t present for any of the Eggo conversations or incidents, if the purpose of that scene was to express his sorrow then the writers uncharacteristically missed a chance to connect motivations to actions.)
-The Byers’ lifestyle upgrade.
( I didn’t examine it in detail, but they either got a new house or a major home makeover, and suddenly an Atari is a viable option.)
-Hopper getting picked up at the hospital. (We know he’s a deal maker)
I am a long time listener and (in general) a fan but… (always a big but)… this episode was an example of what happens when the reason for the podcast’s existence is obscured by nattering. I watched Stranger Things and found it mildly engaging – far from great – but even I, a non fan and overall light consumer of pop culture, found a plenty think about that directly intersected and engaged with the ostensible reason for the podcast…. the TV Show. Your discussion of the 80’s was superficial and seemed to ignore the clubbing the show was giving you. Are you not aware the Duffer Brothers were trying to make a movie/adaptation of Stephen King’s IT for years, and they took this project on as a homage/replacement? Two seconds on Google would have made this clear (I had no idea before I spent two seconds on Google). The guiding light for the entire show is, yes, partially Spielberg but he’s not the gorilla: Stephen King. I’ve only read about 4 King novels (early ones) but Firestarter was one of them: Stranger Things isn’t “loosely” based on the book, it IS the plot of the book. You have college kids given psychedelics and experimental drugs; their kids end up having powers leading the state to kidnap them/imprison/leverage them/weaponize them/etc. Not only is the plot a perfect recapitulation it was quite embarrassingly made explicit by the sister of the silent mom (in the show) who asked “Haven’t you ever read Stephen King?” Well, have you? You have so many “King” things going on: Stand by Me, It, etc… It is this which is driving, more than anything, the 1980’s setting… the 1980’s were the site of all of King’s early and many would consider best novels. This is trivially easy to suss out; “underthinking it” to a massive degree is required to ignore what is being shoved into your faces. Because of this you don’t ask some interesting questions like: what is it about King’s novels that make for great adaptations/movies? Is he in touch with a zeitgeist… what exactly is going on? Where does Stranger Things depart from a strict Kingian view of the world, and where does it adhere firmly? These are questions coming directly from the show, out of the show, demanded by the show. It’s fun to be light and superficial and clever but that is, frankly, easy. We all manage it from time to time. Can you do it while engaging with the actual focus of the show? Do you want to chew meat or popcorn? My objections sound weird even to my ears as I have not read King in 20 years and would not consider myself a King fan: yet it says something that I remember the plots so well, and his work is continually being revived. So, to sum: it’s always better to engage more, rather than less. It makes the show more interesting, deeper, and more complicated. It’s not 1980’s because of nostalgic targeting to a certain age range for marketing purposes; that might be why it was made, but that’s clearly not the point of the setting. You know as well as I do how bad “clever” poetry is, how bad “clever” writing is when the author is showing us this cleverness and asking us to think, hey, that’s clever. The truth is anyone can be clever. It’s a trap, not a goal. Delve into the nitty gritty; get your hands dirty. You can’t claim to be overthinking something by refusing to think.
I do find it fascinating an “IT” adaptation in coming in 2017 and will feature Finn Wolfhard as the Richie character. Even more weird, this new It adaptation will take place in the present with a flash back to the ’80s instead of the 1950s. This means Wolfhard will play a geeky monster hunter in two popular shows set in the ’80s within a year of each other. He might get type cast.
We are currently reaching a peak King adaptation period no seen since 2007. In 2017 we will see not only It adapted, but the first Dark Tower film and possible The Stand coming to film in 2018. Last year a popular adaptation of 11/22/63 hit HULU. Its worth noting that 11/22/63 mostly takes place in the past as well. That’s because King is good at mining nostalgia for his stories. It, The Body, 11/22/63, Shawshank Redemption, Green Mile, Dreamcatcher, and others I can’t remember take place decades in the past.
I would agree the Stephen King-ness of Stranger Things is a factor for the ’80s setting, but its not the whole story. Nostalgia is a huge factor and it just happens to influence King too. This isn’t even the only TV show in recent years to feature a ’80s setting. The Americans and The Golbergs are mining the era. It is something that happens in 30 year increments–much like the monster from It. In this case instead of a Clown it is an entire decade being brought to the present haunt adults that thought they moved on from their past.