On first glance, Netflix’s Stranger Things and FX’s The Americans have absolutely nothing in common.
One is a nostalgic, sci-fi, family-friendly romp through Steven Spielberg’s cerebellum. The other is a series of hardened, complex moral quandaries in Cold War America. What they do share, however, is the same time period, one rife with political turmoil while simultaneously mired in feel-good pop culture. Even as Stranger Things places the 1980s in the warm glow of a flashlight hidden under bed covers, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev are dueling around the Iron Curtain, the threat of nuclear war a nightmare in every adult’s head. And which show you prefer reveals much about how well you’re going to withstand the next four to eight years.
When the United States is under threat, our media splits into two camps: one that comforts, one that criticizes. In the 1980s, we were under constant threat, and the comfort camp won out in TV and movies. As I wrote earlier this month in a piece about the premiere of Murder, She Wrote in 1984, at that time, we saw the biggest mass shootings ever, the NRA was developing racist Stand Your Ground laws, embassies were getting bombed and our president was a befuddled television star who had no political experience whatsoever and repeatedly brought us closer to a disaster with our sworn enemy, Russia.
It’s no wonder that so many who’ve embraced our current ’80s nostalgia only seem to remember Kaboodles, scrunchies, The Goonies and Saved by the Bell. These are the comforts. Watching Zach Morris’ first frozen-time aside, it’s difficult to tell that just a month before, a man with a bag of groceries stood in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square and changed the world.
The comforts are, of course, necessary. Today we might call them “self-care,” like the equivalent of putting the oxygen mask over our own mouths before assisting the child next to us on an airplane. But breathing pure oxygen in a crisis can become addictive. It’s tempting to sit there in a trance, shutting out the rest of the flaming plane. To me, Stranger Things is that oxygen. It’s neither great nor bad, but it’s as bland and necessary as breathing. It’s also an echo chamber of little white lies we fed ourselves throughout that decade, mangled and rearranged into a sterile tale of friendship that's as insular as it is American. Perhaps even, American because it is insular.
The Americans, however, thrills and terrifies me to no end. It’s the harsh light in the bathroom, the “real” mirror in the swimsuit fitting room — all that mashed-potato cellulite on our thighs is showing. The show features two KGB spies who maneuver, manipulate and kill for government secrets, while trying to live the comfortable lives that all the other American families have. The Russians marvel at how willfully blind the Americans want to be, even as their president fumbles yet another international diplomacy crisis. But even these characters want the comfort. They don’t want the critical.
Yet the critical is necessary. The critical forces us as a culture to contend with the world at large and examine our place in it, something we conveniently forgot to do through much of the 1980s in our media making, where the Brat Pack edged out the fall of the Berlin Wall for cultural supremacy. Americans have a history of forgetting history, but our media now have a chance to give us both the spoonful of sugar and the medicine. The movies and TV series we produce have an even greater onus of responsibility to maintain a modicum of truthfulness, and a show like The Americans, which can provide a nuanced, empathetic lens through which we can see our enemies and ourselves, is vital to fighting fascism and paralyzing stasis.
Yet somehow, Stranger Things got a Golden Globe nod and The Americans did not. It doesn’t have to be an either/or with these two — other worthy programs also were left off the list — but I find their strikingly different outlooks on the same time period, well, a strange thing. I find it fascinating that a show whose most famous character is one that got knocked off pretty nonchalantly in one of multiple plot holes and ridiculous twists somehow beat out one of the best, most researched, tensest dramatic series ever produced. This is quite simply a problem of comfort versus critical. And comfort seems to have won this round.
When season two of Stranger Things premieres, it’ll no doubt be binged by millions, with memes barraging Twitter, but it will only be a comfort. Read my lips: Every breath of pure oxygen inevitably releases an equal exhale of carbon dioxide, and there are consequences for escapism.