Late last month, Sarah Gless of the design firm Nelson Cash took to the company blog to post a breakdown of the typography of Stranger Things, Netflix’s hit original series, the first season of which is now streaming. Gless focuses on the show’s title sequence, which she exalts as fifty-two seconds of “pure, unadulterated typographic porn.” The title appears in ITC Benguiat font, rendered to pulpy affect in neon-red and set to a moody synthesized score. Fewer first impressions are more enchanting and—compared to, say, Game of Thrones—more understated. More amusingly, in the week of Gless’s post, Buzzfeed published a listicle of “17 Random Food Items in the Stranger Things font”—such as “buffalo wings,” “Caesar salad,” and “a bowl of cereal.” That’s it. Even if this is not the type of fawning Saul Bass would have hoped for, one hopes that its level would make him weep tears of sheer joy.
It is, to say the least, highly unusual for a font to be the breakout star of a hit series, particularly when that series offers many traditional human options: the bespectacled, awkward Barb; the goofy Dustin (or really any of the show’s central kids); the protective, en-vested Mrs. Wheeler; the stern but good-hearted Chief Hopper; not to mention the Winonaissance. And yet, surveying the eight episodes of the first season, I find it entirely unsurprising. Watching Stranger Things, one gets a strong sense of its design, not just of graphics, but of set, costume, sound, and concept overall, an ornate framework into which a digestible—indeed, largely familiar—story has been placed.
In early 1980s Indiana, middle school student Will Byers leaves from after a night of playing Dungeons & Dragons with his best friends, only to disappear during his bike ride home. The rest of the series focuses on a slew of residents of the town of Hawkins who search for him, plus some unexpected guests. (Between this and Parks and Recreation, I’m led to believe that Indiana boasts a citizenry that is by turns exceedingly kind and profoundly disturbed.) Winona Ryder as Will’s struggling single mother, character actor David Harbour as police Chief Hopper, and Matthew Modine as the secret government scientist are the most recognizable faces. The other cast members are predominantly teen and tween newcomers, including Millie Bobby Brown, who plays Eleven—“Elle,” for short—the semi-mute girl of mysterious origin and telekinetic powers who helps Will’s friends in their own search.
The story unfolds on two levels, for two generations: The adults discover that the town in which they’ve lived for decades is not as it seems, and the children prepare to inherit that new reality as they come of age. The sentimental tone and narrative arc of the show should be familiar. Creators Matt and Ross Duffer have pieced their story together from beloved source material: E.T., The Goonies, and any number of Stephen King novels. Callbacks to these and other works are implicit and explicit. “You read Stephen King?” a character asks Chief Hopper before alleging nefarious goings-on behind government-protected doors in their weird town. Suburban America in 1983 is recreated in painstaking detail—from clothing, technology, and pop culture to overall attitude. There is something perfectly Reagan-esque about a government that is at once malevolent, omnipotent, and vulnerable to the meddling of precocious children.
A series conceived in these nostalgic terms may be something of a lose-lose proposition. Viewers born outside the 1967-1975 sweet spot of relatability lack an emotional connection and must accept the show’s premises as a kind of hearsay. Viewers who have gorged on the source material will be robbed of the suspense it hopes to generate.
But to say that this is the only way, or even the primary way, in which to view the show might not be correct. Stranger Things is a show more of our time than of the time it obsessively depicts.
The terms “fandom” and “obsession” have often been used interchangeably, or even as a mutually inclusive coupling. Yet there is a difference between, say, the fandom of Dr. Who and the obsession with True Detective. Whovians speak of their show with a mythological air wherein Time Lords and Daleks inhabit a canonical narrative order. True Detective, by contrast, is discussed in the language of trope, of deconstruction and/or remix. Details, whether integral or trivial, are teased out and fussed over, theorized and contextualized. Fans of this stripe evoke the deep (not always productive) focus of Claire Danes in Homeland, or scavengers going at a carcass. Stranger Things may aspire to the more traditional mythology of fandom (assuming it intends to expand upon Hawkins’s dark side, “the Upside Down”), but at present it offers itself to be picked apart and analyzed, down to the final postmodern fragment. This wouldn’t be a problem if the show had something firmer to fall back on—like being scary.
Writing last year on Pop Matters, Dylan Fremont called the indie horror sleeper hit It Follows “a mixtape in movie form.” The film, he writes, is an “assemblage project … that collects many of the best shards and slivers from the refuse heap of the ’80s, and recombines them into something of great gloss.” He’s not necessarily wrong. David Robert Mitchell’s film lives in a kind of temporal nowhere-land of modernity and antiquity, where there are few, if any, cell phones or computers but plenty of porn magazines. Moreover, its exclusively synth-based soundtrack anticipates Stanger Things’s justly admired score. “We are nostalgic pop culture travelers lost in time, stranded by our reminiscences,” writes Fremont. Yet the influences of It Follows appear to be an aesthetic choice, an elegant second fiddle to the film’s larger preoccupations: the hazards of sexuality and the fear of impending mortality, among humanity’s earliest innovations.
Stranger Things, to be sure, is a chaster offering. Yet compared to Mitchell’s horror “remix,” Stranger Things comes off as an interactive diorama, a display of preexisting stories, ideas, sentiments, and personality types, intricately but not always coherently or inventively arranged, and then rearranged by distracted onlookers.
Chris R. Morgan writes from New Jersey.