The Problem of References: Stranger Things

Having just rewatched Stranger Things so that the second eldest padawan could experience it, I was struck by more than a few things that I didn’t enjoy as much the second time around.

To be clear, I still think that the first season of Stranger Things is essentially perfect. It’s got a great sense of stakes, builds with the right momentum, and doesn’t waste its payoffs. That’s a fairly impressive accomplishment in television. Heck, it’s impressive in any medium.

But there was something that nags at me still. It sort of bothered me the first time through here and there, but it blossomed into a full-blown irritant by the end of Season 3.

It’s the clumsy cultural references. They’re obviously inserted by people not entirely familiar with the time first-hand, or who didn’t check the references against someone whose sole escape was pop culture in the day.

I’ve always harped about the fact that it’s the wrong Millenium Falcon toy in the first season. The one that they used was from the 1990s, not the 1980s. It makes a difference and pulls me out of the moment that should be cool.

Why can’t I let it go? Because I was there. I had the damn toy. It was a treasured item in my collection for many, many years.

The first season takes place during November 1983 and the kids keep referring to Lando Calrissian as a traitor. This would not have been true at all. Once Return of the Jedi came out in May 1983, Lando’s status was changed to “hero.” It wasn’t until the Kevin Smith Effect took place that everyone started walking that back, because they fetishized The Empire Strikes Back.

Trust me, we all forgave Lando the moment that he showed up in disguise. Trust me, “Surprise Surprise I’m Lando in Disguise” was burned into our cerebral cortices. It will be words we utter while in dementia-addled presidential campaigns.

And it’s why the cultural references drive me nuts. They are all rooted in the “easy get.” The modern perspective erases the truth and distorts through warped perception what it was that people loved at the time. Sure, you can have a New Coke discussion to get a quick chuckle, but to do it at the expense of other pop culture touchstones.

The lack of dust-caked, disgusting Wacky Wall Walkers in the kids’ rooms is a minor thing to overlook, I guess. You could say they were moldering behind the couch. (I’d buy that.) The fact none of these kids is eating Fruity Pebbles by the carton is ridiculous.

There’s no point in reciting a whole litany, because you get the point.

References to the massively overrated The NeverEnding Story don’t land with younger viewers, either. Trust me, I had to explain why they wasted time in an episode singing the song. The general consensus within my focus group was, “Oh, but they could have done that some other way.”

Yes they could have. But they went with the cheap reference. Also, The NeverEnding Story isn’t that good. I don’t care what your memory tells you. I guess I’ll just be glad it wasn’t a reference to the equally-overrated The Goonies. (I said what I said!)

You mean to tell me Hopper wasn’t watching pro wrestling? I’m supposed to believe that none of those kids loved pro wrestling? I know it’s gauche to admit at this point, but pro wrestling – the WWF in particular – was enormously popular. Everyone knew and loved Hulk Hogan.

Even if you weren’t a wrestling “fan,” this stuff was cultural bedrock for the era.

And you can’t use the dodge that the kids are nerds. Nerds especially loved pro wrestling. Trust me on that one.

Why I Care

Let’s be clear: I still like Stranger Things. I think a fourth season is a mistake, but I hope they prove me wrong.

It’s just that the setting has the wispy hints of authenticity but isn’t authentic enough. Had they worked just a little bit harder, they would have nailed it. Especially because, before Fake Nerd Chic was ushered in by shows like Big Bang Theory, there are any of a number of us who would gladly serve as Time Period Advisors.

To be fair, historical fiction runs into these issues all the time. There are any of a number of mistakes that you’ll find in time period pieces, up to and including the note I read long ago that the “middle finger” given in Titanic wouldn’t have even been something someone would have done at the time.

I suppose the issue is more pronounced here because I have functional memories of the time in which Stranger Things takes place. It’s not like when Oliver Stone puts a protest at the wrong political convention in Born on the 4th of July because it agreed more with his politics. It’s not like when Air America used a modern-day cover of The Doors’ Love Me Two Times performed by Aerosmith in a movie set when The Doors were around.

I just wish there were some job for someone like me, to vet the scripts and props to make sure that they get it right. It kinda does matter, because every time you slip you take a part of your audience out of the experience. You should avoid that if you can.

Also, just to make sure I was clear: The NeverEnding Story isn’t a good movie.