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Thursday, April 30, 2020

Stranger Things Review, Part II

Here’s Part II of my review and analysis of Stranger Things.
Part I of the review was posted earlier. Again, there may be mild spoilers, although I think I did a reasonably good job in Part II. Still, you might want to skip this if you haven’t watched Seasons 1 to 3 yet.

I said previously that I had to re-watch Seasons 1 and 2 before watching Season 3 because I’d forgotten everything. Why?
Consider the typical episode of a one-hour drama series. Not counting commercials, it’s between 42 and 45 minutes long. The plot of the episode is set up in the first five minutes, rises through 30-some minutes, then is resolved, leaving another five minutes to wrap up (and possibly set up further episodes.) In a two-hour movie, the numbers are more like 10 to 20 minutes set-up, 90+ minutes of rising action leading to a climax and resolution, then 10+ minutes of wrap-up.

That first five or so minutes has to hook you, get you interested in the story and tell you what to look forward to. The ending is the pay-off you wait for.

For a season of Stranger Things, the episodes are about the same length as an hour-format TV drama, but the story is told over the entire season. That’s a little over six hours of drama. The set-up is the first episode. The last episode is the climax and resolution, with the last 10 to 15 minutes wrapping up any loose ends and setting up the next season. That leave the middle episodes – about four and a half hours – to tell the meat of the story.

But the pattern of a typical “middle episode” is:
  • Resolve the cliffhanger from the previous episode (about five minutes.)
  • Continue the story, usually via three points of view.
  • In the last 2-3 minutes, set up the next episode with a cliffhanger. This is where the actual “hook” is for most episodes, other than the first and last.
There’s actually little to no resolution of any main conflicts during an episode. It’s mostly a slow revelation of the facts behind the mystery, with each cliffhanger adding more to the mystery. The only conflicts resolved in episodes 2 to 7 are side conflicts, emotional conflicts between characters. Some of these emotional conflicts, like the Season 1 love triangle, would be one episode of a half-hour sitcom, if they were told separate from the supernatural thriller plotline. But the scenes of the subconflict are spread across the entire season, not one or two episodes.

In short, no one episode is a story in and of itself. The entire six-hour season is one story, both plot and subplots. You don’t feel a hook, build-up, climax, and resolution for each episode, but a stretched-out story. True, it has a relentless, driving quality to it and can keep you watching, but as I said in the previous post, it’s tiring. You keep getting hooked at the end of every episode, but nothing is resolved, and everything in the middle is presented with about the same level of intensity, so it’s emotionally exhausting.

Which means that you remember about as many moments from this entire six-hour story as you would from a one-hour episode of a typical TV drama.

There’s also that bit about the three points of view. Stranger Things follows the pattern of showing the audience a mystery at the beginning of a season, then splitting the characters up into three (or more!) groups and revealing a different slice of the mystery to each group. Once the groups have collected about as much as they can without overlap, they unite, share info, and realize the full details of what’s going on, then come up with a plan to deal with it.

That’s fine for Season 1. But then they repeat that formula for Season 2, just with different members in each group. And then they remix the groups and repeat the formula for Season 3.

And that’s not all that gets repeated. The primary group in Season 1, the one with the main characters, meets a stranger, and has to deal with interpersonal conflicts over whether she should be part of their group or not. In Season 2, the main characters meet a new stranger and have to deal with interpersonal conflicts over whether she should be part of their group. Thankfully, they don’t repeat that part of the formula exactly in Season 3, although there are a few more new characters added to the group (and minor conflict over one character we don’t actually see until the end.

Season 1’s plot revolves around one main character being missing most of the season. Season 2 has a different main character missing for most of the season. Season 3 doesn’t have any prolonged absences, but some main characters can’t find other main characters for a few episodes. It’s mostly a matter of missed connections/not being near a phone or radio, though.

In Season 2 and 3, a minor character (same one in both seasons) tells two main characters that they should hook up romantically, to resolve that romantic subplot. I mean, come on.

In Seasons 2 and 3, several themes are introduced and then quickly dropped. We get introduced to two new characters in Season 2. No mention of their family, a couple cryptic references to their relationship and their past. For a long while, I thought they were runaways, until we see the parents near the end of the season. We get enough details about them at that point that we see there could have been more of a subplot there, but we get nothing. It’s dropped.

We get a set-up for a theme of grief for one character in Season 3 … and then a few episodes later, it’s gone and forgotten. No further mention.

What I’m saying is: we’re getting lazier writing and unsatisfactory resolutions to themes and subplots as the series continues, but have to put the same amount of work in, more than a typical TV series, for these diminishing returns. It’s still entertaining. No series can be perfect. But it is a good example of why the typical streaming series leaves a lot to be desired.

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