Season 4 of Stranger Things took a detour inside an exotic world it had never explored before: a Latter-day Saint home in mid-80s Utah. While Stranger Things is a fine show, it doesn’t really understand any location outside the small town of Hawkins, Indiana. This includes Utah, and it very much includes LDS families. Consequently, just like the Soviet gulag in the first 8 episodes, the foreign setting is played for laughs.
The show doesn’t quite know how to set the scene for an LDS family home. Suzie, the teen hacker long-distance girlfriend of one of the main characters, has two BYU posters on her wall. Otherwise, the show tries to indicate “LDS family” by showing a household filled with a lot of children doing interesting things – producing and acting in a homemade movie, playing Indian dress-up with a bow and arrow, repairing a rooftop TV antenna, or (in the case of the oldest sibling) swearing and seizing the chance to smoke marijuana. The father, like all the fathers in the series, is an oblivious killjoy, while the mother is mysteriously absent. So the show opts to depict the LDS family setting not as oppressive, but as “lots of kids doing interesting things.” Thanks, I guess? In a media landscape where my faith is only allowed to exist either as a backdrop for jokes or as a pathology to be overcome, I guess I’ll take the humorous option.
Some details were off. Suzie’s devotional literature isn’t from Deseret Book, but general Christian lit instead. Her father has confiscated her computer for dating an agnostic, rather than the actual transgression: underage dating (and Dustin, her main character boyfriend, is anything but agnostic; he has a perfect knowledge that the supernatural is real).
But the real sin of Stranger Things is having Dustin’s friends Will and Mike lie to Suzie about what they’re really doing. Because in mid-80s Utah, you can go ahead and say out loud that you’re fighting an evil demon – especially one who’s in league with the Soviets and a cabal in the U.S. government – with a combination of firearms, battle axes, and a mysterious supernatural power. Suzie, her family and her neighbors are ready to believe you. Give them time to make a few calls, and they can probably have a battalion ready to set out for the Nevada desert in station wagons. Or if your party is limited to four members, I’d go with the 13-year-old Eagle Scout, the 7th Year camp counselor, the level 1 elder unsure of his powers, and the slightly deranged survivalist uncle. That’s a show I could watch for 10 episodes.
And that’s the problem with not taking LDS characters and environments seriously. You waste the narrative potential that’s sitting right there, just waiting for you to do something with it.