Spoiler alert: plot details revealed.
Stranger Things quickly became one of Netflix’s most popular shows when it first debuted in July 2016. I’m among its many fans. Season three launched July 4 of this year and, after watching all eight episodes, I offer a few thoughts. I’ll begin with three things that I found disappointing and follow that with four things I found satisfying about the latest installment.
Three disappointing things:
- Increased Violence — The first two seasons of Stranger Things used violence to good effect. Fights were intense and monster scenes visceral (recall Bob Newby being eaten by Demo-Dogs at the end of season 2); they made us genuinely afraid while not overseasoning the meal. The pacing and timing of such unsparing scenes gives them punch, and season three lost some of its impact because the brawling, blood, and gore were a constant. I found myself getting up to drink some water or walk around during some of the fight scenes to find relief from the anxious energy the show unceasingly feeds its audience. They could dial that back down and rely more on the suspense tactics found most especially in season one.
- Weaker Writing — The writing is weaker in season three. Per the above, it relies too much on fight scenes and on the use of flashing lights to up the viewer tension. The warning displayed at the beginning of some episodes reads, “Some scenes have a strobing effect that may affect photosensitive viewers.” I suffer from post-concussion syndrome and am sensitive to fast-moving action shots and flashing lights. I found myself closing my eyes a lot and, in doing so, realizing just how often the creators employ this lighting effect — it’s a LOT. Again, moderation can be far more effective than utilizing the same classic scare tactics repeatedly. Better writing would make such restraint possible.
3. Police Chief Jim Hopper — I remember him from previous seasons as a somewhat likable grouch — the show’s attempt to create a “man’s man” who lives in a shack in the woods, drives an old Chevy Blazer, dons a thick Tom Selleck mustache, and is an emotional nitwit (an unfair stereotype for men, by the way). In season three he’s a one-dimensional jerk. (Until the very end of the final episode, it could be argued, but that felt like a sad attempt to make him likable again and pull at our heartstrings after we assume he’s died). The writers tried to get us to cheer for him to get together with Joyce Byers (played by Winona Ryder), using other characters to suggest their sexual tension was high.
The way the writers tried to make this attraction believable was to have Hopper and Joyce nag at each other and fight throughout the season (most of the nagging being Hopper poking at Joyce). Maybe that worked for Sam and Diane in Cheers a few decades back, but it falls flat in 2019 and makes Hopper seem like a patronizing boar. Joyce is lovely; I don’t want her to settle for a hot-headed dingleberry like Hopper, who told restaurant workers protesting that he was drinking directly from a wine bottle as he trod out the door something to the effect of, “Go ahead and call the police. I’m the chief of police and I do whatever I want.” Yes, this exposes the very real lack of accountability for police, but this kind of abuse of power is one of many in this season and should tell us he’d be hell to date, much less marry. Please don’t put Joyce with Hopper.
Four satisfying things:
- 80s Nostalgia — Even after three seasons I still find it fun to watch a show dripping in 80s nostalgia. I am, after all, the target demographic. The clothes, the hair, the cars, the mall, the games, the bikes, the decor, the free range roaming of the kids — all of it captures bits of my childhood in ways that make it a delight to watch. At one point, two of the characters break out in a duet of the theme song of The Neverending Story. You know I sang along. Cheesy? Yes, totally. But I love me some cheese.
- Avoiding Death Tropes — So many shows introduce the audience to characters of color and/or LGBTQ+ characters, only to kill them off. Since none of the (many) main characters died in the first seven episodes, I assumed at least one would be killed off in the eighth. My thought was, “Oh no, they’re either going to off Erica (Lucas’s little sister) or Robin.” Erica is black and Robin, in a surprising twist, came out as queer. The writers didn’t do it, and kudos to them for it. Here’s hoping Erica and Robin continue to have bigger roles in future seasons, because they are, both of them, magnificent.
- The Cast is Solid — Not many shows with this many child performers can pull off the level of acting achieved in Stranger Things. There’s not a single cast member who stands out as particularly clunky or inept. That strikes me as unusual for a story that started off with a cast of young kids, gambling that they would continue being decent actors even as they approached puberty. I’ve seen shows (i.e., Once Upon a Time) whose adorable child actors became uneven thespians as they aged. That’s not the case here, and every one of them is enjoyable to watch. Plus, there’s Winona Ryder, whose gentle acting and sensible role lend the show some of its credibility. She is Gen X royalty and I will forever love her. #winonaforever
- Evil Isn’t Just “Out There” —Just as in previous seasons, evil isn’t only “out there,” but can also affect “us.” Parts of creatures from the Upside Down dimension possess or embed themselves inside various humans. The capacity for both good and evil exist in all of us, Stranger Things tells us. At times, evil creeps inside us without our being aware of it until we manifest it in our actions — it can be both individual and communal; sometimes we’re well aware evil makes us limp and bleed and we need help cutting it out. Things To Be Feared can infest “the good humans” (like Will and El) as much as they can infest governments, commerce centers like malls, and police. The bottom line of the show tells us that the monsters around and within us can be overcome by courage and love and tenacity. There’s not a more pertinent point to be made in this time and place in history.