Paul Reiser isn’t the most identifiable ’80s figure in “Stranger Things.” The future “Mad About You” star saw solid hits during the decade in “Diner,” “My Two Dads,” and two “Beverly Hills Cop” movies, and he has been headlining another ’80s-set modern TV series for the past three years (the criminally under-appreciated “Red Oaks”). But he’s no Winona Ryder. He might even slip behind “Goonies” star Sean Astin in the Reagan-era power rankings. It’s doubtful fans were as excited about seeing Reiser as they were when his character, Dr. Sam Owens, offers Will Byers Reese’s Pieces.
Yet when it comes to homages within “Stranger Things,” few are as integral to the story as recognizing Paul Reiser as the bad guy from “Aliens.” Many have noted the superficial similarities between the characters, but it’s important to note why this casting works beyond a fun homage. It’s beneficial to the story, or at least to its interpretation.
[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers for “Stranger Things” Season 2.]
In “Aliens,” Reiser plays Carter Burke, a Weyland-Yutani representative who promises Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) they’re going to exterminate every last creature on the planet, assuming, you know, they find any. Of course when they do, Burke — a name you can’t read without hearing Ripley angrily scream it — betrays her by trying to get her impregnated by a facehugger, and it’s revealed his mission all along was to smuggle alien babies back to Earth to be turned into biological weapons.
In short, Paul Reiser is a bad dude in “Aliens,” and his character’s initial impression in “Stranger Things 2” indicates he’s a bad dude in this, too. Again, he’s a representative for a larger, mysterious organization. Again, he makes promises to eradicate the problems ignored by his predecessors. Again, he’s so earnest, so trusting, so believable that you want to believe him.
But up until that final episode, you just can’t. This is Burke from “Aliens.” He is not to be trusted, no matter what, under any circumstance. And that’s the point. That he eventually proves himself to be nothing but a kind, generous soul is secondary. Without the constant underlying suspicion directed toward him, his scenes would have been mundane: a doctor who’s just trying to help Will recover; a government employee who’s a little too eager to reveal classified information to Jonathan and Nancy; the voice on the other end of the radio as Bob tries to escape the Demodogs.
If you remember him locking Ripley in with the Aliens, that last scene is even more tense, but even if you don’t recognize Reiser from “Aliens” — like many younger viewers likely don’t — his character is taking over a position held by the series’ ultimate bad guy, Matthew Modine’s Dr. Brenner. That, too, indicates he’s untrustworthy, so the same tension exists whether you’re in on the homage or not.
Dr. Owens isn’t the first character to usurp expectations set up by the ’80s movies “Stranger Things” loves to reference. Season 1’s biggest surprise was Steve Harrington, played by Joe Keery, who started off as the classic douchebag boyfriend and became a surprise hero.
Now, Steve’s character isn’t a reference to just one movie, but he was playing against a stereotype largely founded by ’80s films. The jerk boyfriend is so popular it’s parodied in movies set in the ’80s but made much later — much like “Stranger Things”: Think about Glenn Guglia in “The Wedding Singer,” Andy in “Wet Hot American Summer,” or even Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho.” If “Stranger Things” had been an actual ’80s movie, Steve’s first season arc would’ve ended with a quick kick to the chin, losing his girl, and the audience cheering his defeat.
Instead, he came to Nancy’s rescue, preserved their relationship, and became an empathetic favorite in Season 2 after they broke up. Steve’s been beat up twice now, and both instances served as rallying points for the character. When Jonathan took him down in Season 1, that’s when Steve realized what an asshole he was being, ditched his friends, and saved the day. He actually chooses to leave the bad kids’ circle he’s leading and forces himself into a lesser role within the good guys’ group. Then, in Season 2, he steps up against Billy the Bully — and gets his ass kicked — but he still earns a ton of credit for protecting the kids.
Sometimes it can feel like “Stranger Things” gets lost in its many homages, but these two characters prove that using them as red herrings can make for a smart trick that turns into a savory treat.