– By James Powers –
It took a little while for me to jump on the Stranger Things bandwagon when the first season came out three years ago. I remember thinking the title sequence was a slam-dunk when I first saw it. With its brooding synth score and imitation optical typography, it captured the retro sci-fi vibe in a simple, beautiful way, and my inner graphic design nerd was delighted. But when the pilot episode actually started it left me relatively unimpressed. The kids were cute, the ‘80s trappings were immersive, and the pacing was brisk and entertaining; but the story itself struck me as kind of derivative and not anything I felt compelled to finish. So I watched the pilot and then pretty much forgot about it for a while.
Then somehow, weeks or maybe even months later, I ended up watching the second episode. I honestly don’t remember how that happened, but suddenly I found myself sucked in. And I’m not sure exactly what it was that hooked me. Part of it was probably that I’m just a sucker for monsters, and the freaky “upside-down” beastie made a bigger appearance in that second episode. More than that, however, I realized how likable the characters actually were, as were the actors portraying them. They had a texture that made them more than just dolls in a picturesque ‘80s diorama.
The popular pretty girl was smart and conscientious at the same time; the world-weary cop had a kind of fatherly compassion struggling to get out of him; the self-obsessed boyfriend showed signs of actually being a good guy if he would just permit himself; and the smart-alecky neighborhood kids were a potent mix of spunk and fierce loyalty and terror. They were all very Spielbergian characters with their believable everyman qualities, and that was enough to pull me in even if the spooky-sci-fi-evil-laboratory stuff felt a bit half-baked. It was less about the plot and more about the people, and I was surprised to find myself quite happy with that.
Season 2 was more uneven but still a lot of fun overall, at least in my humble opinion. In many ways it hewed close to the story template set by season 1, but also took a few risks – some of which paid off, some of which really didn’t. The much-maligned episode 7 was more or less a disaster, and a key plot point involved a critter from the Upside-Down being cute, which made the show’s evil entity more confusing than it already was. But there were also a couple of moments so awesome that, if memory serves, they literally made me cheer. The characters stayed intact while still evolving, and some great new ones were introduced (Bob Newby, forever in our hearts). There were lots of synths, slimy creatures, Eleven shoving things around with her mind and screaming, cute-awkward sparks of adolescent romance, trippy sequences of psychic sleuthing, and Sheriff Hopper just being his bad self. All in all, a pretty good time.
So now we come to Season 3. And I’ll cut to the chase here: it has me like –
Where to begin? The first few episodes of season 3 all feel like that terrible seventh episode of season 2. When I was watching them I cringed, I grimaced, I paused the stream over and over just so I could take a moment to sit back and recover from the nonsense. Set pieces are over the top, little to nothing of real consequence happens, and multiple characters are exaggerated to clownish proportions in a clunky bid for laughs. This is particularly grievous with Hopper, who plays early on like the show’s version of Fat Thor, only worse. He’s in full-blown sitcom-dad mode here, and it hurts. The eighties thing has also been cranked up to eleven (pun intended, as her outfits are a prime offender) and now feels like a candy-colored stage set rather than the authentic world of the previous seasons. With the nail in the coffin being a painfully unimaginative shopping montage set to – you’ll never guess – Madonna’s “Material Girl.” I wanted to scream when I got to that.
Not that this is the first time we’ve seen a franchise’s integrity gutted in the interest of jokes and poppy setpieces (lookin at you Thor: Ragnarok), but like… golly. I groaned about all this to a friend, and she told me to be strong and press on, that things got better in episode 4.
“Episode 4?!” I internally wailed. “That’s halfway through the season!!” She was right, however. After that halfway mark, to my relief, I found that I no longer wanted to bury myself in my couch cushions while watching. Things do indeed get better there: a plot develops, the production design eases up on its obsession with neon, and the characters become less obnoxious now that they actually have things to do.
But season 3 never gets consistently good, not at the halfway point nor, really, at any point thereafter. It just gets less bad. Somewhere around the second or third showdown between Eleven and various splattery iterations of John Carpenter Lite – er, I mean the Mind Flayer – it becomes clear that showrunners Matt and Ross Duffer really don’t have much in the way of original ideas for this season. It’s like they spend the first half on a wild bender of self-parody, and once that’s out of their system they’re left with a hangover that prevents them from doing much of anything interesting.
Not that the second half of the season is slow, per se. Plenty of things happen, some of which are entertaining enough in themselves, like my boy Hopper finally leveling up from sitcom dad and going ape on a corrupt politician; and my other boy Steve goofing off with his coworker Robin, a new character introduced by the wonderful and previously-unknown Maya Hawke. But the characters who should be the show’s dual beating hearts – Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven and Noah Schnapp’s Will – have nothing to do.
I mean sure, as mentioned above, Eleven stretches out her hands and screams a lot while engaging in psychic battle with baddies, which is fine in itself but gets real old after the sixth time. Eventually you start to wonder if the show really is just a game of D&D writ large, and a roll of the dice is all that determines whether or not she screams loud enough to drive off the monsters. For all the stuff Eleven does, little to none of it has any emotional impact or plot significance. Probably her most significant arc is learning how to have a boyfriend while still being her own person. Which, fine, is a good lesson for the teen and tween girls watching, but considering her history and all the other stuff supposedly at stake, I was definitely expecting something more substantial.
Then Will, poor dear Will, is nothing more than Harry Potter at his most useless, just standing there looking clammy and spooked whenever the plot demands that his spidey sense detect the presence of Sauron wait no Lord Voldemort ah dang it Kylo Ren UUUGH the Mind Flayer. This is especially disappointing. I’d been jazzed to see Will’s development after he had to spend not one but two seasons just being paralyzed in the thrall of the Upside Down. I thought the show might explore how he grows up in the wake of paranormal trauma, or perhaps reveal some kind of residual power granted by his earlier proximity to the enemy. But nope; apparently I need to keep waiting, as the most character development we get for him here is a rather melodramatic tiff with his friends and (spoiler alert I guess) the brief, almost throwaway suggestion that he’s gay. Thank you Netflix; much woke, very wow.
There are, again, things in this season that I like, but most all of them come with qualifiers. There’s an adorable payoff involving Dustin’s enigmatic (and possibly fictitious) girlfriend, but the writers make sure to plunk it down in a spot where it derails the action as much as possible. I guess it’s supposed to be funny but, like so many of the jokes in this season, is instead just irritating. We finally get a bit of a revelation as to what the Mind Flayer actually is, and thematically it’s pretty intriguing, but for the most part this just serves to set up a “saved by the power of love” kind of ending that veers dangerously close to saccharine. And the mall, the fricking Starcourt Mall, has a hugely significant conflict inherent within it that springs very organically from the ‘80s milieu, but this is only exploited in the most superficial and cartoony way possible (turns out the Russians, not corporate commercialization, is what terk er jerbs in Hawkins).
All in all, I just feel like this season has Stranger Things overplaying its hand in a big, big, big way; that the Duffer brothers, or at any rate their Netflix overlords, have clearly misunderstood what made the first season so special. Yes, fine, we came the first time for the ‘80s nostalgia and kids talking smack and freaky extradimensional whatever, but that’s not what makes come back. What brings us back is the characters and, more specifically, characters who are actually alive – who move and act and change, who respond to a world that’s changing around them. The world and the characters of Stranger Things don’t really change in season 3 – not substantially, not believably. They just get bigger, the same thing but more. Louder and more frequent pop montages; cartoonish smack-talk and banter; aliens that splatter and roar and melt people, rather than just splatter and roar and eat people; evil Russian scientists rather than evil American scientists.
Instead of evolving the emotions and conflicts that Joyce, Hopper, Eleven, Mike, and the others all grapple with, season 3 just kinda repeats and super-sizes them. It gets so distracted with giving the audience what it thinks they want, that it completely neglects to give them what they need – a story worth telling. The real bummer is that it’s not absolutely terrible; it’s still entertaining, at least broadly enough, that there’s no compelling reason for the Duffer brothers to not do the same thing again when season 4 rolls around. Which it inevitably will; it has to. After all, there’s no way [redacted] is actually dead. Because nobody – myself included – wants that.
About the Author
James Powers is a staff writer for the Impacting Culture Blog, currently earning his MBA in Film Producing at JPCatholic as a member of the class of 2019.
For all articles by James, click here.