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Never underestimate Phil Collins
Netflix's new sci-fi horror show Stranger Things kicks off with the disappearance of a teenager on the night of Nov. 6, 1983. This date isn't just crucial to the characters in the show, all of whom are affected by the disappearance in one way or another; it also squarely sets the show in a time and place that doesn't exist anymore. It's a time and place, due to both Stranger Things and USA's Mr. Robot, that's coming back with a vengeance.
Both shows wear their influences on their sleeves. If you ignore the film quality and effects work on Stranger Things (which are way beyond what was possible in 1983), through production design and casting, the show could have been an extended version of Steven Spielberg's sci-fi anthology series Amazing Stories. From a lead actress who looks just like '80s mainstay Karen Allen, to the casting of actual '80s mainstays Matthew Modine and Winona Ryder, Stranger Things is a lost Amblin movie played long form.
Mr. Robot, meanwhile, is set "now." Ish. The drama takes place in a New York (and country) run by the ubiquitous company E Corp, and only the rebellious hackers in fsociety, led by multiple personality disorder sufferer Elliot (Rami Malek), can stop them.
Mr. Robot: Is Elliot hallucinating his entire daily routine?
Where Stranger Things is set in 1983, Mr. Robot displays the influence about 10 percent more subtly. The titles are pulled right from '80s video game fonts. The synth score by Mac Quayle is straight out of an '80s cyber thriller. Elliot's other personality is played by Ryder's Heathers co-star Christian Slater. And if that wasn't enough, the second season premiere included a stand-out sequence non-ironically set to Phil Collins' "Take Me Home."
That's the key to why these '80s influenced TV shows are different: the lack of irony. The '80s have always been played for goofy nostalgia on sitcoms before -- look at all the fluorescent colors and ridiculous feathered hair! -- but with Stranger Things and Mr. Robot, they're about setting the tone and buoying up the themes of the shows. There are no goofy jokes about giant cell phones, or winky nods to the audience like, "a black president? THAT could never happen!" Stranger Things loves its cheesy cars. Mr. Robot thinks there's nothing more powerful than Phil Collins power ballad.
Why though? Why now? The easy answer is simplicity. When Americans think of "a simpler time," we often immediately zoom back to the '50s, with its milkshakes and poodle skirts and all the other clichés inherent. The '80s weren't that. They were the Cold War, the recession, a slow road to the growth of irony in the '90s. (For that matter, the '50s weren't the innocent '50s, either.)
The '80s also saw the dawn of the movie blockbuster. While the world outside grew more complicated, audiences retreated into theaters to experience Star Wars, E.T., and WarGames. What these two shows are calling back to isn't the simplicity of the real 1980s; it's the fictional 1980s depicted in movies.
There, the villains were always shady government officials in faceless hazmat suits. They were businessmen in business suits. The good guys were hackers and rebels, the people who didn't conform. They were the tiny teen nerds on bicycles, able to outrun cop cars and tanks because all they wanted to do was help a new friend.
Don't get me wrong: Both shows have layers of complexity to them that build on their premises. Stranger Things fleshes out the adults into complicated characters with more needs and flaws than there was ever time for in any '80s sci-fi movie. And Mr. Robot plays with how much of the narrative is a creation of Elliot's brain, versus reality.
Ultimately what they're pulling on is that need to create a clear good versus evil narrative (Mr. Robot is pretty explicit about this: Elliot hallucinates that E Corp is really named Evil Corp, and that's what the audience sees too). That wasn't created by the '80s. Far from it. But that decade was one of the last times we let our heroes purely be heroes, and our villains, villains... without shades of gray.
When the world outside is as terrifying as it's ever been with routine shootings, terrorism, death, a reality show-spawned presidential candidate who preaches hate, and a world divided by something as seemingly obvious as supporting our neighbors' rights to live free and believe what they want, it's exactly the right time to retreat to something simpler. Good. Evil. And always, always, a great Phil Collins power ballad.