Two weeks ago, the highly anticipated Stranger Things 2 dropped on Netflix, and last month, season 2 of the surging-in-popularity Riverdale began, with teenagers and adults alike binging on these childhood-focused dramas. These two shows aren’t just connected by their popularity or by the shared casting of Shannon Purser as Barb on Stranger Things and as Ethel Muggs on Riverdale. Rather, they are connected through a similar approach to casting their adult characters with actors from the ’80s and ’90s that alters the viewing experience for anyone who lived through the era.
Riverdale, the rewrite of post-World War II Archie comics as a teen melodrama/mystery, takes on all the referentiality that it can muster through the ’50s, the ’90s, and now. The echoing of ’90s, even though the TV show is set in present day, is achieved through the casting of Beverly Hills 90210’s Luke Perry as Archie's dad, of Skeet Ulrich from Scream as Jughead’s dad, and of Mädchen Amick from Twin Peaks as Betty’s mom; eventually the appearance of the perennial favorite from John Hughes’ movies, Molly Ringwald (as Archie's mom), takes us back even a little further into the 1980s.
Most of the weight goes on Perry, though, as the tried-and-true father of Archie. When I first saw this casting, I was highly doubtful, because, although he has been quietly and consistently acting since his breakout teen TV drama, this felt like a gimmick. I was proven wrong, though, as he does a solid job with the role. That said, part of the experience of this show is that awkward space between feeling these characters as characters, and remembering the actor and the previous characters played by that actor, in a type of casting I’m calling retroacting. In other words, part of the power of their acting derives from their previous roles, producing a kind of split performance that combines an awareness of the past with the present.
A similar approach is taken in Stranger Things. Winona Ryder plays the mother of one of the main characters in this postmodern show’s throwback to the ’80s about a group of kids having adventures à la Goonies, Poltergeist, or any number of Stephen King stories. Cinematic references from the ’80s litter this show, and that’s a big part of its joy and success.
Ryder’s casting is also a gimmick, with her ’80s star power helping with the ambiance of this drama. But this retroacting works on multiple levels. For instance, think about her appearance at the start of season 2. She is sitting behind the counter of a general store sewing a Ghostbusters patch for her son’s Halloween costume when Sean Astin enters (he had not been in season 1, so this is his first appearance). They then chitchat their way to the storage room to make out.
The common experience in watching this show for those of Generation X and Y is to first have that moment of thinking — oh look, it’s Winona Ryder and Sean Astin (you feel it even more when they first appear). I love these actors; they remind me of my youth. Then you try to focus on their characters: Joyce Byers and Bob Newby are in a budding relationship. Though, you immediately pull back out to wonder if either of them crossed paths in their earlier roles — could Astin have been in Beetlejuice or Heathers? Could Ryder have appeared in Goonies? Impossible! So you try to shake it off only to realize you’re thinking about the idea of whether a younger Winona would have ever been interested in a younger Sean — especially when Bob says, “I can’t stop thinking about you. It’s crazy; I feel like a teenager. You know in high school you didn’t know who I was.” That’s the ride of the show.
Such instances in Riverdale and Stranger Things make you, the viewer, feel like an insider. You get the references, you know these characters, and you know the actors. We were there, is the general feeling of the shows — perhaps even as we sit next to younger kids just enjoying the adventure, sci-fi, romance, and friend-bonding aspects of the new, younger actors in the shows. The retroacting creates for us a sense of nostalgia for Ryder in her heyday and for your own desire to get to meet Edward Scissorhands, or your desire to have Perry’s hair and sideburns in 90210. You’re pulled back not only to these older films and shows, but also to that whole moment in time. At what sleepover did you first watch a Brat Pack movie? Who did you like when Aliens came out? Did you play the cassette tape of Chicago’s “I Don’t Want To Live Without Your Love” in your Sony Walkman? The whole layering of references does this work for show watchers of a certain age, but with that yearning for the past also comes the pain of it.
In Stranger Things, we see not just Will’s mom on the screen, but her former characters like Lydia and Veronica, as well as Ryder herself, all shifting over time. Scholars have called such moments “palimpsests,” because you can see through the layers of the text to the earlier writing underneath. While that’s a good way to talk about written texts where erasures can still be read and provide multiple meanings through the layers, the screen needs a less language-based term. Instead think of the image of the duck-rabbit. There is a famous drawing that if you look at it one way you are seeing a duck’s head with his long beak before him, and if you look at it another way you see a rabbit’s head with his long ears trailing behind him.
I like this philosophical idea because there are multiple ways of seeing, but you can’t take them all in at once, so you doubt your perception of reality. That kind of shifting is fully enacted in these retroacting examples, as the viewer moves between these ways of understanding, for example, Perry as Fred Andrews on Riverdale and as Dylan on 90210.
At the same time, in retroacting, we are also feeling an alienation effect that never allows the viewer to be fully immersed in the story itself; this casting approach makes the common experience of the show slightly, well, strange. It’s not quite the discomfort that Bertolt Brecht desired when he wrote plays with the goal that audiences would be aware of the actors behind the characters to move them to social action, because watching Stranger Things and Riverdale is still extremely pleasurable. Instead, these shows cause internal reflection and doubt, because the retroacting effect creates a lingering worry that another adult actor/character might be someone that you should recognize. Many in fact are those people, as the appearance of Matthew Modine and Paul Reiser in Stranger Things confirms. But other moments in Stranger Things when you are pulled out of the story are false leads, such as Dustin’s mom, who is just so familiar — and rightly so, because Catherine Curtin plays a guard on Orange Is the New Black — but no ’80s references here.
Those childhood memories also bring pain. They remind you that you, too, would now be cast as the largely oblivious, no-fun parents (whether you have kids or not). You would be cast as the one who sets the rules, enforces the punishments, and who mostly misses out on all the adventure. We’re now the homebodies who often find out about the excitement and danger after the fact. It’s a little painful to become the voices that just don’t get it precisely when you are “getting” the references in the retroacting casting.
The nostalgia that you feel at the start gets closer and swells as the story continues. You start to more fully see the references to E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The memories get clearer, and perhaps you start to feel like the character Will (Winona Ryder's character's son, played by Noah Schnapp) in Stranger Things 2 as he describes his “now memories,” which is his knowing the Shadow Monster’s experiences as they happen. Will says with sadness and disbelief, “At first I just felt it in the back of my head. I didn’t even really know it was there. It’s like when you have a dream and you can’t remember it unless you think really hard. It was like that. But now it’s like, now I remember. I remember all the time.” And with the help of some of our most beloved actors of the 1980s, we too are feeling both the pleasure and pain of reaching back to them while knowing they can’t quite ever be grasped again.
Top photo: courtesy of Netflix
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Abby Manzella is the author of Migrating Fictions: Gender, Race, and Citizenship in U.S. Internal Displacements. She has written for publications such as the Boston Globe, Literary Hub, Electric Lit, and Catapult. Find her on Twitter @abbymanzella.