February 24, 2020

"Stranger Things" and the Problem with Kids Saving the World

“Watching a ragtag group of kids save the day never seems to get old. That’s what the Netflix series “Stranger Things,” the third season of which premièred on July 4th, continues to bet its success on. The Duffer brothers, the creative team behind the show, have blatantly plucked inspiration from a whole subset of popular films that feature children as saviors. But despite the nerdy fun of “Stranger Things,” its titillating action sequences and over-all pluckiness, the show reveals how the kids-save-the-day model represents a romantic but ultimately uneven idealism that has echoes in our current political moment. Guns in schools, climate change, terrorism—will the kids save us from those monsters?

In almost all of its core elements, “Stranger Things” Season 3 is a carbon copy of the previous two. This approach stunts the growth of the show, miring the plot in redundancies, but that may not matter much to some fans, who are happy to be given more of the same—even expected delights can still be delightful. Though the big baddie (the same one who buddied up with Will Byers in the second season, back for an encore performance) is badder and slimier than ever, the series’ D. & D.–style monsters are once again symptoms of larger antagonistic forces: shady governments and adults with nefarious intentions. Once again, the group, which now comprises the central Scooby gang of tween friends (Will, Lucas, Mike, Dustin, Eleven, and Max), one snarky preteen (Erica, Lucas’s little sister), and a few older teen-age allies (Jonathan, Nancy, Steve, and a new addition, Robin), leads the charge in saving the day. Though a small team of adults sweep in for the assist, most of the heavy lifting falls on the kids, and they step up to the challenge, as they always do.

When Erica gets roped into the monster madness, she proves to be an indispensable asset because of her smarts and small size, but she requires a bit more convincing to participate in a break-in to what an adult later describes as a totally impenetrable underground facility. It’s “Operation Child Endangerment,” Erica quips, as she crawls into an air duct. But none of the other kids seem to question their roles in the catastrophe, and none of them rely too heavily on the aid of adults. They insist that they have to soldier on themselves. The image of a group of kids boldly riding their bikes in the direction of, or away from, danger has become a cultural touchstone, thanks to, most famously, “E. T. the Extra-Terrestrial.” But there have also been the West Coast treasure hunters in “The Goonies” and the London alien-fighters in “Attack the Block.” The recent Netflix movie “Rim of the World,” a less elegant and less fun sibling of “Stranger Things,” also features a group of young outsiders who take it upon themselves to defeat a beastly threat. One of the kids, in a moment of frustration, after almost being killed by a seemingly indestructible alien, inquires, “Why is it up to us to save humanity?” It’s a valid question. In the course of the film, the kids must decide a jailed man’s fate and deliver a key that will stop an alien invasion. When they attempt to pass their burden on to adults, the adults inevitably fail them.”

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