Stranger Things, Good Girls, and failures of pop culture nostalgia

Nostalgia is a perennial meme in pop culture, with some of our foundational works being fundamentally works of nostalgia. Gone With the Wind is about a very specific kind of nostalgia. Downton Abbey and a slew of other costume dramas similarly explore a thirst for a bygone era. Stranger Things and related works explore a recent era, looking back with the perspective of hindsight and growth. We love nostalgia, whether we’re fetishising the 1960s in Mad Men or watching Greeks go to war in 300. 

But it’s a tricky thing to do well, and two cases this year really illustrated the good and bad of nostalgia, and where creators fall short.

The first was Stranger Things, a Netflix original that caught the internet by storm, because it was amazing. Set in the 1980s, Stranger Things almost feels like it is itself a product of the 1980s, from music to sets to the very composition and framing used. For the three people who haven’t seen it, it’s about a supernatural girl with peculiar abilities who breaks out of a research facility, the three boys who help her, and a strange, monstrous creature that terrorises a town. It’s about the Upside Down and parallel universes, and friendship, and family, and love. The actors are all outstanding, and I’m excited to see what the kids of Stranger Things do as they grow into their careers.

The second is Good Girls Revolt, an Amazon Studios production that explored an uprising at Newsweek (cleverly renamed ‘News of the Week’) in the 1970s, when women sued for the right to be reporters, not just ‘researchers,’ at the paper. It was a fascinating and very important case, spearheaded by amazing women, and it should have been a totally compelling and fantastic story. It wasn’t. The show felt flat, dull, and lifeless, the pacing was terrible, and the whole thing was a little bit excruciating.

Two shows, both fundamentally about nostalgia. Or were they? Because that’s where people seem to run into trouble, and that often marks the dividing line between good and bad television.

Stranger Things has an incredibly compelling, fascinating, and delightful story. That story could take place in a variety of eras, but the 1980s actually makes a lot of sense, because it builds interesting limits into the plot as well as creating cultural references that dovetail beautifully with the story. This was a story looking for an era, not an era looking for a story. They did a fantastic job with it because the story wasn’t about the 1980s, but the people who inhabited it, and what they experienced.

Plot was foremost, and it showed. The flawless integration of the 1980s into the storyline worked so well in part because so much of it was quiet, and seamless, and going on in the background. We were not perennially reminded of the era, because it was just there. Just as we watch a contemporary show and don’t need to be constantly cued that we are watching something set in 2016, Stranger Things tells the story first and uses the era as backup. It’s there, and in some senses it is almost its own character, but the viewer does not come to Stranger Things out of nostalgia for VHS and Demogorgons. Those things are additive.

By contrast, Good Girls Revolt was firmly about the era, pinning the story to when it was set. Inescapably, because the show revolved around a specific historical incident, but that’s where the problems started. It felt like an era in search of a story, with the story almost rendered secondary to all the cutesy little 1970s references. Rather than acting as a backdrop, the era was a huge part of the narrative, and it didn’t work for me. I didn’t need the characters to parade through a series of stereotypes for me, I didn’t need to be constantly overtly reminded that this was the 1970s. What should have been a really interesting story turned dull because the creators let the lust for nostalgia overwhelm the storytelling, to the point that the story wasn’t about people anymore, but era, and place.

The show was a clear bid at Mad Men, and it wasn’t the first time people tried to bask in the reflected glory of AMC’s hit. The incredibly shortlived Pan Am on ABC also thought that what people wanted was nostalgia, so it served up a large helping. What the creators missed, though, was that Mad Men isn’t about the 1960s. It is about the characters and their stories, not the world they inhabit. Their stories are enhanced and enriched by the setting, and the setting is perfect for telling the kind of story that needs to be told, but the setting itself is not the story. What made Mad Men so compelling wasn’t the costumes and the era politics and the cocktails and the rest, though people loved all of those things. People came back, though, for the stories of people like Joan, to see how things played out, to see what kind of future lay in store for characters they’d grown to love.

I repeatedly see this divide with nostalgia television, as creators seem to struggle with the fact that just plopping something into a given era won’t work. There needs to be a reason to put it there, and the era should never foreground the story. A Stranger Things set in 1942, at the height of the war, could have been amazing. So could one set in 2022. What matters is the characters, and the story, and how they leverage the background of the era — not the other way around.