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‘This Is Us,’ ‘Strangers Things’ Examine Eras of American and Global History

Whether binged over a few sittings or watched on a weekly basis, television has the ability to transport a viewer back in time in ways other media cannot. Programs set in different eras can often say something about our current political climate or offer audiences an escape to what was many remember as happier times. The former is actually part of the creative magic that helped turned “Stranger Things” into a cultural phenomenon almost a year ago.

The Netflix series was directly inspired by ‘80s movies and plays on the familiar conspiratorial theme of a group of young kids who get caught up in some otherworldly events at a local government research facility. As the program’s co-creator Ross Duffer points out that setting proved to be a comforting nostalgia trip for many.

“When people look back at their childhood or their youth they look at it through sort of guilt where is seems like those were easier times or happier times,” Ross Duffer says. “So, I think there is a sense of it bringing people back to those times where maybe things felt a little simpler.”

NBC’s hit drama “This Is Us” is another series with its foot partially planted in the 80’s, as well as the decade prior, and that provides a consistent stream of warm fuzzies for viewers. Chronicling the lives of the Pearson family in multiple eras, creator Dan Fogelman is pleased that regardless of the timeline viewers seem to be relating to these “American “ characters in both “liberal and conservative areas.”

“It’s about good, decent, people who, yes, make loads of mistakes but are never ill-intentioned bad guys,” Fogelman says. “If anything I’m hopeful that the fact that people all over the country are relating to these type of characters, and this type of family. It gives me hope that there are more good people out there in this country than we give ourselves credit for. But who the hell knows.”

FX’s “The Americans,” yet another series set in the 1980’s, and Netflix’s “The Crown,” whose first season begins in 1947, inform contemporary events by spotlighting similar incidents in our not so distant history. That’s also the case with WGN’s “Underground,” a drama set a few years before the Civil War that tells the story of the men and women who fought to free the slaves through both political and physical means.

There have always been movies about slaves, but co-creator Joe Pokaski says the idea behind “Underground” was “to tell the story of people rising up” and the actions of those rebels can educate viewers about what’s happening in today’s society.

“I think there’s a continuity from the horrible things in our past to right now,” Polaski says. “We touched very lightly on the Know-Nothing Party which was basically racists and nationalists who were called that because they know nothing about that. And you can draw a straight line from that to Pepe the Frog. It’s hard to avoid all the continuity between all the horrible things we did back then and the things we’re still doing now.”

“Underground” co-creator and showrunner Misha Green feels that much of what they have chronicles over the series first two seasons has been brought to light by the results of the election.

“I think that a lot of what is going on in this country, and what’s insidious and wrong about this country started, you know, in [our show’s] time period,” Green says. “So, I think we were seeing the parallels and the connections even before the election.”

Television at its core, however, is a form of escapism and for “Stranger Things” other Duffer brother, Matt, it’s that feeling of wistfulness that has many viewers so enraptured so many shows set in this era.

“The best movie experiences I’ve ever had, I had when we were kids watching a lot of these films on VHS and I think that a lot of people had that same experience,” Matt says. “So, I think that for some people, watching the show makes them remember that feeling they had when they watched, you know, ‘E.T.’ for the first time. Even if it’s just a fraction of that feeling, I think that there is a lot of power in that.”

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