Things Fall Apart – Strangely

It is almost universally acknowledged that Stranger Things Season 3 is better than Season 2, and marks a return to form.

Yes, I am here to contradict that narrative.

As a story Stranger Things 3 is pretty enjoyable. It has great character moments, a lot of fun nostalgia and some killer special effects. But – and this is a big caveat – as a sequel to the previous seasons it falls very short. Yes, even as a sequel to Season 2. I’m going to assume you’ve watched the franchise and just hit the points that don’t add up to me or we’ll be here all day. Maybe someday someone will write a book breaking down the franchise, along with its plots, characters and themes. Today isn’t that day (although I may be that person). For now, let’s look at the massive holes ST3 has left in the fabric of the narrative and ask ourselves… can we really call this an improvement?

Start with the most important plot element in Season 3 – Starcourt Mall. This mall is built, is open for business and is reshaping the local economy within a year of the events of Season 2. How?

Furthermore, Russians (!) have tunneled out miles – yes miles – of underground pathways, along with a control bunker, storage rooms and living spaces for who knows how many of their personnel, and done something with all of that dirt, and they’ve done it without anyone in Hawkins noticing. The huge influx of staff is mysterious as well – I’d estimate the Russians have at least thirty, maybe as many as fifty people down in that complex. How were they smuggled into the country? Sure, they could have gotten to Hawkins as part of a work crew building the mall they’re hiding under but… seriously, it wasn’t that easy to get a Russian national into the country undetected during the Cold War.

And speaking of Russian nationals, what is with the Russian knockoff of the Terminator? I understand the joke – he’s not-Ahnold – but we watch him get hit, kicked and shot without showing any sign of pain or weakness. How is that possible?

Look, I get it. Stranger Things is a franchise about monsters from a parallel dimension. Why should I care?

I care because the entire cool factor of the franchise came from the fact that those monsters were invading a world exactly like ours. Arguably down to the U.S. government researching and producing people with psychic powers.

In ST1 and ST2 the world was painstakingly realistic, barring a few anachronisms that might annoy some 80s purists (I was very young then so I haven’t noticed any of these myself.) This enhanced the fantasy of watching people who were very much like us, as kids then and adults now, take on a creature beyond our wildest imaginations. (Well, maybe not if you’re H.R. Geiger). But adding all these questions about the Russians superhuman building, smuggling and bullet taking capacities ruins this illusion. Hawkins no longer exists in a world like ours except with monsters from the Upside Down, now it exists in a world with cartoony evil lairs under small Midwestern towns and humans who are almost as monstrous as the Demigorgon from Season 1.

It ruins so much of the show’s charm.

Worse, the franchise’s coolest concept in name, visual presentation and general execution was always the Upside Down and it’s entirely gone from this season. No one goes there save a few clairvoyance sequences with Eleven, we don’t learn any more about it and we don’t get new monsters. The Mind Flayer shows some new powers but remains basically the same as it was last season. We’re no closer to understanding why everyone is so obsessed with the Upside Down. We don’t even get any new people with psychic powers. I wasn’t a fan of Eleven’s side trip in Season 2 but at least it opened a door to new characters and powers. Too bad they’re not going to do anything with it.

The Upside Down and El’s psychic abilities is an incredibly intriguing mystery and it would have been nice to keep developing it but instead it felt like that entire part of the plot was in stasis for six hours while the cast obsessed about Russians. The Cold War is over, there’s not tension there, please put that story line to rest. The only interesting part about it was Alexei, the defector, and he’s dead.

There were other problems. The series on the whole felt less dark and oppressive, in spite of being more gory over all. We’ve already seen the Mind Flayer and, while it’s flesh shaping ways are new, in total the bodysnatcher routine was easy to spot. The people who were taken over by the Mind Flayer (other than Billy) turned into such laughable caricatures of their previous selves that I couldn’t take them seriously. And I struggled to take many of them seriously beforehand. It was very hard for the Flayer to present itself as a threat. The only time I felt legitimate tension in the story and feared for the cast was during the Sauna test. That’s about 10 minutes out of the total run time. Not really living up to the feel of the first two seasons.

Many of the characters – Hopper, Judy, Joyce and Mike are the biggest offenders – came off as more obnoxiously high strung than they have in the past. I was having a hard time mustering sympathy for their situations. And the “death” of Jim Hopper feels like a very transparent play on our emotions. I wasn’t born yesterday – I know he’s coming back next season and so do you. This was clearly just a way to encourage the cast to wander off to the four winds and make it easier to introduce new elements and drag the Russians back in next season. Because more Russians is exactly what I want from Stranger Things 4.

No, Stranger Things 3 is not a great return to the ways of the first season. It’s a decent shot at a different kind of a story in the franchise. But it’s undercut a lot of what made the show enjoyable at first and I’m not sure it brought enough to the table to counterbalance that. Will Seaons 4 fix that? Only time will tell.

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Stranger Frustrations

If you’re American and you have Netflix, odds are you’ve watched Stranger Things. And I am no exception. Most people love Stranger Things and it’s not hard to see why. The pacing in Stranger Things is intense. Most episodes whirl you through a series of slowly building stakes along two or three parallel stories culminating in a blockbuster finale that puts a cherry on top of it all. And, perhaps most impressive of all, the show does this twice.

There’s a lot to like about Stranger Things. Long time readers know this means I’m about to switch gears and tell you everything I hate about the show. So let’s get down to it.

I enjoyed my time with Stranger Things. But I also didn’t enjoy it as much as many other people I know. I didn’t count down the days until it came out and I didn’t binge the entire series as soon as it was available. Part of this is because I have a life that makes demands of my time. Most of it was because I wasn’t highly invested in watching the series. The pacing of Stranger Things is one of its strongest points hands down. By whirling the audience from one new revelation to another the Duffer brothers keep their audience breathless with excitement and anticipation, never really thinking about things that have been but rather focused on things that are coming. That’s a huge accomplishment. On top of that there’s some amazingly strong character writing and acting. Every award Stranger Things won it deserved.

Problem is when I wasn’t watching Stranger Things I was thinking about things. So, while I want to praise Stranger Things some next week, I hope you’ll indulge a bit of griping this week as we discuss the details that keep Stranger Things off my list of great TV shows – at least for now. In order to do that, though, we’re going to have to discuss

-SPOILERS- 

so please stop reading if, by some chance, you haven’t watched Stranger Things yet and that kind of thing bothers you.

Let’s start with blood.

You know, the stuff that lured the Demogorgon out when Jon and Nancy trapped it, that led it to the deer which brought Nancy into the Upside Down, that attracted it to Barb leading to her untimely demise. Stranger Things makes it seem like blood is very important to the Demogorgon somehow. Except that it’s not.

You remember Will Byers? Y’know, the kid who’s disappearance starts everything in Stranger Things season one? He isn’t bleeding when the Demogorgon attacks him. More than that, season two establishes that Demogogons in general will follow food that has no blood in it at all, like Three Musketeers candy bars or bologna. In fact, none of the Mind Flayer’s influenced entities seem to react to blood in any special way in season two.

So why the random blood imagery? The only reason I can think of is to make the viewer uncomfortable, as seeing injured people is want to do. It’s blatant emotional manipulation. Now manipulating audience emotions is the job of a writer but if you get caught doing it that’s generally bad. Worse, it makes the monster inconsistent, almost as if the Duffers are writing the monsters in whatever way they thought would be creepiest, rather than as actual menaces to the cast with their own inscrutable goals.

Season two has another case of this when Bob Newby dies. Monsters that had been vigilantly patrolling the halls, ignoring dozens of dead bodies, suddenly stop hunting active targets to devour his body after killing him. Gotta let those main characters escape, right? This makes even less sense when, a few episodes earlier, we see that the Mind Flayer can make Demodogs ignore easily available prey in favor of its own priorities when they leave the kids in the junkyard alone. Again, these inconsistencies make the emotional manipulation at work clear and make it harder to stay immersed. We watch Bob get eaten because he was a kind, caring, upstanding person and we’re supposed to be sad and angry at his death. Watching his body desecrated pushes us in that direction.

The biggest question of all is why the solution to the Mind Flayer in season two was so… simple. The original Demogorgon pulled open holes between the upside down and Hawkins on a semi regular basis. But, even with a huge presence in Hawkins and far more intelligence and power at its disposal than the Demogorgon, the Mind Flayer only ever relies on one gate to maintain its hold. Why didn’t it open at least one other gate and secure its power base that way? It managed to widen the primary door easily enough.

There are other, minor, moments of frustrating decision making on the part of the writers. In season one the only reason for Nancy to crawl under a tree into the upside down after a something that ran off with the body of a deer while she knows there’s something in town abducting people is so the story can ratchet up the tension. If Will was so sensitive to heat that Joyce had to keep the front door open why wasn’t the Mind Flayer purged from him over the summer? It routinely gets into the 90s outside. If that’s not hot enough how hot does it have to be? The human body can only take so much. Or did it just survive so we could have a second season? Again, it’s just so much disappointing and transparent audience manipulation.

Look, none of these things a dealbreakers. They don’t make Stranger Things a bad TV show. But they do kind of chip away at immersion and disappoint people who like consistency in their fiction. Stranger Things is good TV, and if you get hyped for the inevitable season three then by all means watch it. But that’s not to say the Duffers couldn’t do better on some fronts and I hope they will. But even if they don’t I’ll still check it out just because they are so good at what they do. Drop back next week and we’ll unpack that a bit more too.