Stranger Things ‘meddling kids’ have worryingly gone full-1980s

Patrick Freyne: There’s worse things than having a portal to hell – what do you think the M50 is?

The teenagers in Stranger Things are far too quick to blame the interdimensional shadow monster for what's gone wrong in their community of  Hawkins, Indiana. Yes, its head opens up and it drags people to a hell dimension where it consumes them and stockpiles their corpses, and sometimes it possesses children and attempts to destroy the walls of reality, but lamestream media always focuses on the negatives when it comes to the interdimensional shadow demon.

They should watch Fox News. There they will learn that the shadow beast also tells it like it is with its chittering shrieks (stop being triggered snowflake, it’s just locker room talk) and that it’s responsible for a lot of local employment, albeit largely in the mad science and soldiering sectors.

Frankly, having just contributed to an Irish Times series about the future of rural Irish towns, I can say with journalistic authority that there are way worse things for a rural town than having a portal to hell. Here in Dublin we call that infrastructure. What the hell do you think the M50 is?

There are a lot of other TV towns that have a darkness at their core – Eerie, Indiana, Royston Vasey, Twin Peaks, the extremely flammable Pontypandy where Fireman Sam lives out his doomed Sisyphean life and, of course, Doonbeg, which featured this week in When Trump Came to Town (RTÉ 1, Wednesday). In Doonbeg, the wily locals have a much more pragmatic approach to dealing with an interdimensional hell beast. They help him run a golf course and simply ignore the terrible nightmares they're having. This might have worked in Stranger Things too if that town were not blighted by what upstanding capitalists since the days of Scooby Doo have called "meddling kids".

We’re now three seasons into Stranger Things (Netflix) and those meddling kids have to contend with shadow-monster-colluding Russians (the monster is no doubt calling these tales of collusion “fake news”). Well, they do, but it all takes a while to kick in. Unfortunately, like the 1980s romps from which it took inspiration, each sequel to Stranger Things (I’m calling this one Stranger Things: Mission to Moscow) has been less urgent and less consequential.

It was never the most original show. From the start, the Duffer Brothers were happy to remix the best of 1980s pop culture (Season 1 was Stephens King and Spielberg with a John Carpenter soundtrack) but they also had a great sense of plot and pace and they ensured the stakes were high with apparent child deaths. Three seasons later, two of the characters have pretty much come back from the dead and no one we care about is endangered for episodes at a time. It's very slow to get going. (Some very gentle spoilers ahead.)

Most worryingly, Eleven/Elle, who started out as a slightly terrifying Carrie-esque character, has developed into a more sitcom-friendly I Dream of Jeannie type who mainly uses her unholy powers to slam doors sulkily and play pranks. She even gets a very 1980s makeover scene in a mall. This is a little like seeing Darth Vader get involved with community theatre, to be honest. When her annoyingly saintly boyfriend, Mike, gaslights her with stupid child lies, I feel a bit disappointed that she doesn't rip his skeleton out of his body with her mind. I know there are some problems with "boardroom feminism" but I really feel like Elle needs to read Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg or, if that's too anachronistic, Lady Boss by Jackie Collins.

Nerdy chums

In fairness, part of Elle’s story here is an attempt to rewrite the supernatural manic-pixie dream girl traits they gave her in previous series. They do this by bonding her with other female characters and ditching Mike for a while, who complains to his nerdy chums like the men’s rights activist he’ll probably be by 2019. There’s a lot of talking and a lot of pop-cultural pastiching. For ages, none of the characters seem sufficiently terrified by the fact that the shadow monster now manifests as a malleable mass of melted human parts (you know, like Trump). I guess this is what they call “the new normal”.

So, characters have time for Breakfast Club-type moments of understanding after they’ve been tortured, and they bicker in the face of danger like Sam and Diane from Cheers. Cheers is actually referenced. Lots of things are. There’s a clip from Day of the Dead to foreshadow the gory action ahead, and a discussion of John Carpenter’s The Thing as an apologia for retreading some very Thing-like tropes. There’s even a clip from Magnum PI foreshadowing Hopper’s newly luxuriant moustache and a charmingly random musical duet from a classic film I won’t spoil.

In fairness, it all goes down easy. The actors are great, the filmmaking is slick and witty, the character dynamics are often moving and it successfully evokes the 1980s gems it quotes. But it also feels a bit weightless. So, if you want a more disturbingly grounded smalltown drama, try the time-bending German sci-fi show Dark (also on Netflix) which manages to be consistently surprising and beautifully plotted.

If you want to see more nefarious Russians, however, try The Last Czars, a daft Netflix production in which real academics and writers appear in talking head segments to add heft to a steamy drama about the last of the Romanovs. We know what happens at the end because of, well, history (if you don't know the history, think The Crown but with a happy ending). So, in order to give the rest of the story some narrative drive, Czar Nicholas, the richest, most powerful man in the world, is shown to lack self belief.

Presumably the academics helped the producers make the historical humping as authentic as possible

Okay, I'll bite. "You need to believe in yourself, Czar Nicholas!" I shout, as he kills loads of people. He does this, apparently, because he's bullied into it by his cruel Iago-like uncle. But what was he going to do? Not kill them and risk a frosty family dinner?

All the institutional murdering Czar Nicholas has done makes him sad and if that wasn’t enough pressure, he has to produce a male heir. He’s not doing this alone (that would be a different show). He has female help in the form of Czarina Alexandra. So the programme makers do the historically responsible thing and spend a lot of time showing the regal duo “trying to produce a male heir”.

They “try to produce a male heir” in several different positions. Presumably the academics helped the producers make the historical humping as authentic as possible. Of course, it’s possible the boffins had no idea what they were letting themselves in for. Did the history wonk who talked about Rasputin as “a man who emitted electricity at his fingertips” know they were going to dub that over a scene of the mystical filth hipster pleasuring a lady? Who knows? Stranger Things have happened.