Back in the Bush Administration, top presidential advisor Karl Rove said “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” When he said this, he meant that American actions create the conditions he wanted to see in the world. But the lesson our political class took from this is that facts no longer matter. Last night Melania Trump’s speech quite obviously plagiarized several paragraphs of material from Michelle Obama’s 2008 convention speech, but when called on it, the Trump campaign simply denied that plagiarism had occurred, arguing that the paragraphs of duplicated language were “common” sentiments that coincidentally came out identical. Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort even claimed that taking notice of the plagiarism was an effort to silence critics of Hillary Clinton! Statistically, it’s almost unheard of for more than seven words in a row to repeat, let alone paragraphs, but the brazenness of the denial of reality was less shocking than the shrug with which media greeted it: Of course they lie about everything! That’s just what those silly politicians do.
This morning Donald Trump said that he was “furious” over the plagiarism scandal, which of course undermines his own campaign’s denial that a plagiarism scandal exists.
This scandal came just hours after a congressman, Rep. Steve King, seemed to argue that white people from Western Europe contributed more to world culture than any other “subgroup” of humanity.
“I’d ask you to go back through history and figure out, where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people that you’re talking about — where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?” King said on MSNBC. He later specified that he referred specifically to Christians from Western Europe and North America.
This, in turn, happened at the same time that Texas ended up in a controversy over a new Mexican-American studies textbook that describes Mexicans as culturally incapable of hard work and innovation. The book, produced to meet the biases of Texas conservatives, delved into controversial material, including arguments that America was founded as a Christian nation and that the Constitution is Bible-based. Critics notes that the book was superficial and appeared to have been written by authors with no training in or understanding of history.
It’s enough to make you want to escape reality altogether.
That’s why I also wanted to talk a bit today about the Netflix original series Stranger Things, which debuted on July 15. I finished watching the series, and I have to say that I wasn’t entirely impressed. Set in Indiana in 1983, the show tells of four adolescent boys who face a call to adventure when one of their number disappears and a mysterious girl with telekinetic powers appears. Along with their older siblings, parents, and other adults, they battle shadowy government forces and an otherworldly entity in an attempt to put everything back the way it was before the show started. Along the way, they learn a few life lessons, namely that girls and women need the boys and men in their lives to keep them happy and sane.
The show’s creators, the Duffer Brothers, envisioned Stranger Things as an homage to 1980s Spielberg movies, and early 1980s genre pop culture in general. It remixes—sometimes slavishly—elements of E.T. and Poltergeist with Stephen King’s early novels and some of the opening acts of Halloween-influenced slasher films. I could have done without the synth scoring, which imitated awful ’80s TV too closely.
From the first hour of the 8-episode series, the main lines of the plot became exceptionally obvious, and it never deviated from formulaic story beats it telegraphed. The show doesn’t have an original thought in its head, and while it’s an entertaining recreation of a 1980s movie, the mishmash of elements ended up reminding me most of the early 1990s kids’ series Eerie, Indiana, if that show had been left in a field to rot. There isn’t much cheeriness here, and the closest the show comes to having a point of view is its steadfast insistence that beneath the surface we are always moments away from misery. Even the inevitable ending, which should have been triumphant, instead settled for a mixed bag reminiscent of the clichéd conclusions of bad ’80s horror, and which undercut the emotional connection the viewer is supposed to feel for the characters.
Even with all of that, this would easily have been the best new series of 1983 (What? You though the A-Team was the best of the year?), but that is no compliment in 2016, for many reasons. I enjoyed watching the show while it was on, but the minute it ended it sort of decomposed back into its component parts, and no real core remained. I’m sure in a month I won’t remember whether a particular image of scene came from this show, E.T., or a Stephen King novel.
I’m not entirely sure who the audience for the show was meant to be.
It certainly isn’t me. I’m 35, which means that I was 2 at the time that the show is set, 1983. It’s not the familiar world of my youth, but it probably is the familiar childhood of those who are 45+. This is especially strange since Matt and Ross Duffer are apparently much younger than me. (The twins graduated college five years ago.) Nevertheless, for me the show evokes not nostalgia but the far remove of a period piece, and this undercuts the emotions I’m supposed to feel for the setting and the characters precisely because it isn’t presented as a period piece where the 1980s inform the action and define the characters and their world. Instead, the setting is almost arbitrary; nothing here would have been different if it were set in 1975 or 1995 or 2005. It’s set in 1983 mostly because E.T. came out in 1982. I remember seeing E. T., but it was already on its way to being an old movie by the time I was 10, so it didn’t have the kind of currency for me that made it part of my lived experience.
Compare this to the most recent season of Fargo, set in 1979, or the recent movie Everybody Wants Some!!, set in 1980, both of which took inspiration from the time period and made the manners and mores of their eras an essential aspect of the story. Both of those, despite being period pieces—and in Everybody’s case, a nostalgic recreation of director Richard Linklater’s college years—generate for me more of an emotional connection both to the characters and the time period even though both are set before I was even born. They feel lived in. By contrast, Stranger Things is cold and distant, a mirror reflecting the past but keeping us at arm’s length.
I keep circling around the word mechanical. Stranger Things is professionally made, well-acted, and coolly competent. But it’s like the metaphor of the clockwork orange in Anthony Burgess’s novel of the same name, an imitation that grinds uselessly for no clear purpose. That makes it sound like I disliked the show, and that’s where I run into trouble: It’s an entertaining pastiche and passed the time pleasantly enough, but I wouldn’t have missed it if it had never existed.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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