The Observer has never been one to gush about stuff we see on what the sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison once called "The Glass Teat" — much more smitten with cinema and books and art than The Dumb Box — but man are we loving this Netflix show "Stranger Things." The Observer, a bookish weirdo of note from way back, was always an outsider in grade school and high school, and so we see a lot of our own damn self in the show's core cast of young, preteen geeks, who are — without spoiling the plot too much — trying to find answers in the disappearance of their friend.
Even beyond that personal affinity for the cast, it's a marvelous show, full of mystery and strangeness and dark riffs on everything from Stephen King's classic novella "The Body" to "Goonies" to Spielberg's "E.T." We hope, for our own sake, that "Stranger Things" doesn't eventually get so out there that the show becomes another "Lost," doomed to philosophical circle jerkery and red herrings (what the hell was that smoke monster crap about?) that only exist to keep us watching until, at long last, far beyond too late, we realize the intricate Swiss watch we thought the writers were piecing together before our eyes is actually a bunch of loose widgets rattling in a wooden box, the whole exercise designed solely to keep us sitting through dish soap commercials. No commercials on Netflix, of course, so we have high hopes.
One of the things The Observer loves about the show, of course, is that we are vintage enough to have grown up in the mid- to late-1980s, Yours Truly a 10-year-old hell-raiser himself in 1984, right around the time the show is set. While The Observer is enjoying the plot quite a bit — we and our own ensemble gang of misfits would have welcomed a grand mystery to solve at that age — The Viewer is getting just as much joy out of seeing the way the world used to be. A genital pox on anyone who ever starts a sentence with "Back in MY day ..." ! But back in my day, the kids actually got bored enough to go outside and do stuff. While the mothers were more protective than they were a generation before — The Observer's dear Ma having been given pocket change for the bus, her kid sister's hand, an admonition to return at dinnertime, and free rein of bustling downtown Little Rock during the summer she was 10 — most kids were still allowed to roam fairly free range in the mid-1980s. And because there weren't 555 channels on the TV and a supercomputer in every pocket and a laptop on every desk connected to the whole world (all those experiences safely encapsulated behind a glass screen, with no smell-o-vision to take you there), we actually wanted drink in the outdoors, to come home with ticks and scabbed knees.
Ah, nostalgia. And weirdness. And strangeness. Dark monsters skulking in the forest and The Upside Down, bicycle headlights cutting the darkness and kids reaching escape velocity from childhood, cussing and farting, building forts and making dumb jokes, the way all kids who aren't on the Disney Channel do. Somewhere along that way, the depictions of childhood got sanitized and waaaay dumbed down, turning every kid seen on TV into a goody two-shoes instead of what kids really are: semi-formed hominids with zero sense of self-preservation, who say stuff like "shit fire and save the matches!" to their buddies at any point beyond 10 feet outside an adult's earshot. Yes, that includes your little snowflake. That's the way it's supposed to work.
Yep, it makes us feel like a rube, spilling this much ink over a TV show. But seeing fictional kids rendered with the vulgar, awkward, reckless fullness of real kids takes us right back, sisters and brothers. Right on back to The Old Home Place.
Visual art, through Nov. 4, "Nature & Nurture", works by Carol Corning and Ed Pennebaker,…