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Thursday, April 30, 2020

Review: Stranger Things (Seasons 1-3), Part I

Have been involved in a couple threads about media on other blogs (frex Monsters and Manuals on “Unlikeable” Frodo and Pits Perilous on Lovecraft not being scary.) And I finally got caught up last night on Stranger Things, so I thought I’d sort of half-review, half critically examine that today.

There will probably be mild spoilers, but I don’t plan on discussing too much of the plot. Just be warned.

Stranger Things is, as others have noted, primarily driven by '80s nostalgia. It’s basically “What if we do Steven King, but go full Lovecraft, and also mix it with every '80s sci-fi/horror movie trope?” A downside to this is that it’s not really scary, more like a sci-fi themed mystery with a bit of a dark vibe. Especially because a lot of the look and plot of it is driven by elements pulled from '80s movies and even a couple late '70s movies: Alien and John Carpenter’s The Thing provide a lot of the visual design for the monsters. The character of Eleven and the government conspiracy that created the problems in the first place are mainly pulled from Firestarter and ET (with a lot of scenes echoing scenes from the latter especially.) The main characters and their relationships are patterned after The Goonies and Stand By Me. So, if you’ve seen those movies, you’re not going to be surprised by a single thing in the series, but if you love those movies, you’ll probably like the series, too, just by virtue of the Transitive Property of Nostalgia.

I’m not going to nitpick the series, because (1) there’s already too many “critics” taking that lazy man’s path to entertainment, (2) nitpicks almost always turn out to be wrong in some sense, and (3) the so-called mistakes are irrelevant if the story and presentation are strong enough to sweep up the audience and carry them along in their current. But there are some broad thematic problems with the series and some problems with its execution.

One theme that’s pretty much standard in any well-made TV series is “family”. In Stranger Things, there’s a focus on two literal families: the seemingly dysfunctional family of Will Byers that turns out to have a strong core, and the seemingly perfect family of Mike Wheeler which kind of falls apart except for Mike and his sister Nancy, who develop a stronger bond. There’s also the figurative family based on friendship, which begins with a literal D&D adventuring party and expands as the series continues. There’s also a series-long exploration of Eleven and who her family was, is, or will be, and Max’s really messed-up family, the adopted criminal family of Kali which nevertheless loves each other dearly…

Yeah, family.

And a lot of other themes that tie into family. For the first season, the main focus is on loss (the Byers and the “Party” lose Will, Nancy loses Barb, and a lot of time is spent trying to find them, either alive or dead.) The secondary focus is on trust, particularly as expressed in the slogan “Friends don’t lie.” In the second season, there’s more about loss (Will losing Eleven) and trust (Eleven and Hopper’s relationship,) but they also add jealousy and romance, especially with the addition of Max and two love triangles. There’s a lot about the strains of adding new members to a family dynamic, and grief in the beginning of the third season, and maybe a couple other themes get added as well.

But the problem, as you may have begun to guess, is that they keep adding supporting themes but not really handling them well. The family theme is always there and always strong, which is good. The first season is the strongest thematically, since there’s only two supporting themes and they each have multiple tie-ins. The second season starts getting a little muddled because of the new themes added, but not fully integrated. The third season adds new material kind of haphazardly.

And the reason why they aren’t handling the themes well is because of the fundamentally bad design behind a “TV” series that is not meant to be watched on TV, but is meant for binge-watching via a streaming service. See, a real TV series is meant to be watched in a serial fashion, one episode at a time, and you have to wait for the next episode. So, the episodes are designed to have stand-alone stories that tie into a larger story, the season arc or series arc. Each episode will have an A plot, a B plot, and possibly a very small C plot, and there will only be two themes at most in an episode. If there is a C plot, it will mirror the theme of either the A or B plot, basically acting as support. There can be more than two themes in a season, but they are only dealt with two at a time, to avoid distracting the viewer from immersion in the story.

But “Binge TV” isn’t designed like that. Instead, it’s designed as if it were one very long movie that you watch in pieces. This is because someone decided that the best way to get people hooked on streaming entertainment was to get them to watch one show in a four-to-eight-hour time block, in one or two sittings. They are thinking like network programmers, who try to use popular shows as strong lead-ins to other shows and lock viewers in to watching their network for the rest of the evening. Except, of course, since streaming services are on-demand and viewers can theoretically watch any random thing after finishing the current episode, viewers can also theoretically watch any random thing on another streaming service, or on a broadcast or cable network, as their next thing… so the only way to guarantee “ratings” is to lock the viewer into one entire show for the rest of the evening.

The consequence of that kind of thinking is that individual episodes of a streaming series aren’t very distinct. They aren’t interesting by themselves, but only in the context of the season as a whole. It’s worse for some series, where it often feels like a one- or two-hour episode of a traditional TV series that’s been padded out to run eight hours. (Side note: I think that was the real problem with Iron Fist: it wasn’t that Danny was too whiny, but that nothing was happening for long stretches of time.)

In Stranger Things, it’s not as bad as that. The story keeps happening, and there’s always stuff to pay attention to. But since none of the episodes can stand alone, none of the episodes stand out, either, except for the opening and closing episodes of each season and maybe the second season episode about Eleven in the big city. And as a result, it’s kind of hard to remember many of the details. I took so long to watch Season 3 because when it first came out, it had been a year since I’d watched the previous seasons and I’d pretty much forgotten everything. I had to find time to “re-binge” the rest of the series before binging Season 3. And I find binge-watching hard to do, because the structure of a streaming like Stranger Things is just … tiresome.

Looks like I’m going to have more to say on this, so I’ll finish up my review (and try to make it relevant to D&D) tomorrow.

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