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Great Britain

How Eleven’s punk makeover turned Stranger Things upside down

Nostalgia is a supremely powerful thing. What other force is strong enough to make otherwise rational people spaff astronomical wads on cute mini-Mega Drives, or crap Casio watches that don’t even have the internet, or tickets to watch an exhausted four-fifths of the Spice Girls each pretend to like the other three-fifths? With the world being the steaming pile of Mogg that it is, nostalgia’s grip on modern society is hardly surprising. We need that escapism to whoosh us back somewhere warm, somewhere safe, to a simpler, more innocent time when uni was free, and “Piers Morgan” was just something a gentleman might say to a body artist when he wanted a Prince Albert. When Stranger Things arrived on Netflix, less than a month after the referendum result in 2016, it was as if all our prayers had been answered. Here was nostalgia, weaponised, and crikey-o-blimey we needed it.

You don’t need a huge precis on what it’s about, because you watched it. Everybody did. It was a global sensation for a litany of reasons: that lovable cast of goofy teens, none of whom – and this is rare with teens on TV – were so annoying you wanted to push them down a ravine. There was a redemptive, twitchy performance from Winona Ryder, Millie Bobby Brown’s star-making turn as Eleven, the oafish brilliance of David Harbour’s Hopper, and the resplendent hair-acting of Joe Keery as jock-turned-geek hero Steve. The plot was a deft blend of schlocky scares, Lynch-lite mystery and coming-of-age triumphs and failures. And, most vitally of all, knitted throughout was a sense of nostalgia so tangible that it made you pine for a lost childhood you never even had – one of Dungeons & Dragons, Chopper bikes, CB radios and teeth-braces so vast you could grate pumpkins on them.

Did it matter that all the show’s creators the Duffer brothers did was shamelessly smoosh together their favourite bits from Spielberg and Stephen King? Not one bit. Nor did it irk that the central premise – the Upside Down, the Demogorgon, all of it – was utter nonsense. The show was superb fun, looked fantastic and laser-focused all the benevolence that’s concomitant with the feeling that things really were better Back In The Day. The world seemed united in its love for Stranger Things. Then, Eleven became a grumpy punk for some reason, and the world was united by not really knowing what was going on.

In season two’s The Lost Sister, Eleven naffs off to Chicago to find her “sibling” from the facility she was raised in, and falls in with a gaggle of preposterous ne’er-do-wells who, umm, do graffiti and petty crime and stuff.

The episode was roundly panned. But why? Was it because the change of tone wasn’t the right kind of nostalgia? Was it against character? Or was it because it had nothing to do with the main narrative and was therefore a profound waste of everyone’s time? Season three atoned as best it could, but to this day the show is still trying to recoup the goodwill this inexplicable misfire lost. Which prompted a weird new Escher’s stairs form of nostalgia: Hey guys, remember when Stranger Things used to be amazing?

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