Steady doses of nostalgic callbacks to 1980s culture are one of the hallmarks of Netflix’s hit Stranger Things. Since the first season, video games, pop songs, and the vibe of Stephen King novels from that decade have not only served as touchstones for viewers who lived through the ‘80s, but they help ground the show’s characters in the sights and sounds of the era.
While not everyone believes the formula is holding up, whether you’re a fan of all the ‘80s references or they make you feel like you’re being gagged with a spoon, let’s agree on this: there’s a right way to do retro and a wrong way and Stranger Things can be a little scattershot in its efforts to get the period details right.
Here are some of the attempts from Stranger Things 3, alongside our thoughts on whether they were totally awesome or super bogus:
Fast Food: Burger King Whoppers, Strawberry (and Cherry!) 7-11 Slurpees, Orange Julius, M&Ms, and New Coke (which we’ll get to in a moment). So much sugar, so much fat, so many reminders that we ate like crap in the 1980s. Sure, the Starcourt Mall had a place for Jazzercise, but for the most part, Stranger Things 3 is a celebration of clogging your arteries and gulping down far too many empty calories. Given the show's long roster of product placement partners, perhaps this was unintentional. I just know that I wanted to buy every character on the show a decent Cobb salad, a giant bottle of water, and an herbal detox kit. 80s rating: Where’s The Beef?
New Coke: Much has been made about the show’s biggest product placement, with Coca-Cola showing up constantly in the series in branded cups, vending machines, and most egregiously on the lips of Lucas, who praises the New Coke formula in a ridiculous Episode 7 interlude. He’s not alone in preferring the much-maligned version (cue the Cola Wars history buffs), but the dialogue about it smacks of poor brand integration. 80s rating: Poseur!
Dungeons & Dragons as the great nerd unifier: Will’s ongoing plea, that things would just be better if everybody stopped what they were doing and sat down to some D&D was heartfelt. When the world seems stupid and disgusting, why not retreat into a fantasy world you control with dice and imagination? The role-playing franchise got a lot of play this season, but ultimately puberty and fighting monsters won out. Still, it was nice to see a copy of the original red-box Dungeons & Dragons set as well as a fun TV newsmagazine reference to the way D&D was vilified by religious groups. 80s rating: Gnarly!
The theme from The Neverending Story: One of the greatest surprises in the super-sized final episode was a full-stop musical number with two characters unexpectedly duetting the memorable theme from the 1984 film. The song even returns for an encore later in the episode. The tune, from England’s Limahl, has made for a comeback of sorts, extending the singer’s career and the fantasy movie’s notoriety. But see, that’s the thing about neverending stories… 80s rating: Radical!
Back to the Future: It’s not like this '80s classic needed a boost; it’s still popular on cable and has never really gone away. But it’s interesting that it’s the second time this year that a popular piece of entertainment has stopped in its tracks to try to decipher the time-travel mechanics of the film. (The first, of course, being Avengers: Endgame.) Also overly familiar: the whole thing about Michael J. Fox’s character going back in time and being hit on by his own mother. The glow of nostalgia hasn’t made it any less gross. 80s rating: Not even!
Magnum P.I.: David Harbour’s character Hopper is watching the TV series early on in the show, and by midway through the season, it feels like he channels the Tom Selleck character, stepping out of police uniform to tangle with bad guys in way too many fistfights and a shirt so laid back that he’d need to order a separate piňa colada for it. 80s rating: Tubular!
Red Dawn: The Cold War ends up being a big part of Stranger Things 3 with what Dustin calls a full-blown Red Dawn situation, referencing the ‘80s film about Russia invading the United States. (It was also remade in 2012, but was Iron Curtained by critics.) It turns out there are lots of Russian operatives to deal with, lots of Russian code cracking to do, and even a sympathetic scientist nicknamed Smirnoff. 80s rating: Perestroika!
Starcourt Mall: Perhaps the greatest triumph of Stranger Things 3’s appropriation of the past is its slavish devotion to recreating the neon feels of a gamechanging mall in middle America. Yes, it closed down local businesses and changed the center of gravity from the town center, but oh the Foot Lockers, the Gaps, the video arcades, the tiny cineplex and the Waldenbooks -- good lord, don’t forget the Waldenbooks! For kids who grew up in the heartland in the 1980s, it was God, Country, Family, and the Food Court. The show really gets this part right: the mall was such a big deal that it’s a literal portal to Hell and ground zero for the fight between consumerism and communism. 80s rating: Majorly bodacious!
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Omar L. Gallaga is a longtime technology and culture writer with bylines in The Wall Street Journal, NPR's All Tech Considered blog, Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, CNN and the beloved TV websites Television Without Pity and Previously.tv. He's a former newspaper journalist who now lives in New Braunfels, Texas. You can find him on Twitter @OmarG.