Stranger Things 3
It’s very clear, by this point, that Stranger Things isn’t going to serve up any surprises. It’s operating according to a strict formula, one requiring the opening of the portal to the Upside Down every season and an attendant Demogorgon derivative threat to leak through, only to be stymied at the last moment by our valorous team. It’s an ’80s sequel cycle through and through, and if you’re happy with it functioning exclusively on that level, complete with a sometimes overpowering (over)dose of nostalgia references, this latest season will likely strike you as just the ticket.
I do tend to wonder, though, what might have been, had the model been harder-edged ’70s fare – think The Exorcist rather than The Goonies – so mirroring the Montauk Project origins of the premise and focussing more on obscene government experimental programmes than fantastic CGI beasts.
That said, if the beats of the supernatural invader plot are by-and-large rote, Stranger Things 3 undoubtedly scores in terms of structure. I have to assume the Duffers took that extra year between seasons to ensure this side was up to snuff, as each individual thread is finely honed, and they build in pleasing parallel fashion episode by episode. The core chapters 3-7 are often as good as this show has been, and it only really stumbles when, as in the first two chapters, it’s failing to balance the threat plotting with the nostalgia thing; I was a defender of the first season for not being as in thrall to ’80s referencing as some suggested, but that wholly fell by the wayside with the Ghostbusters fancy dress in Stranger Things 2. It’s even more pervasive this time out.
The first two episodes largely discard the Stephen King spook-stuff-happens-to-youngsters side in favour of out-and-out teen movie plotting, but with all the requisite period music and movie (Day of the Dead) nods 1985 entails… and a curious willingness to revel in really gross fates befalling rats. Are the Duffers assuming everyone hates the rodents and so don’t have a problem with their being unceremoniously mutilated? I guess so. I wasn’t overly impressed by the protracted carnage, though.
3 is so littered with references, sometimes I just wished they’d cease and desist and take a breath; let’s not forget the brothers were only a year old in 1985, so none of this is even first hand. This time, the major elements are the mall, an underground Soviet base, the public pool, and a fairground. So you’ve got The Terminator (Andrey Ivchenko’s unstoppable Soviet), Red Dawn (crudely drawn, faceless baddies, apart from the inevitable singular nice one), The Thing/ The Stuff/ Invasion of the Body Snatchers (creature taking over townsfolk who eventually dissolve into the gargantuan CGI monster and prior to that can be tested for other-ness), The Evil Dead II (creature’s maw attempting to guzzle a protagonist), Back to the Future (er, Back to the Future, basically) and perhaps most egregiously, the use of Danny Elfman’s Midnight Run theme throughout the extended road trip with Alexei (Alec Utgoff). Oh, and The Neverending Story.
Splitting the kids and adults up for very defined missions is a smart move, but as usual with these things, all plotlines aren’t created equal. The need to manufacture conflict means Hopper’s being an irascible arse and Mike (looking increasingly like Emo Phillips) a jealous dick or a just a straightforward prick. Something isn’t quite working with the Hopper/Joyce relationship, as you should want them to get together, yet the closer they get, the less you care (I was much more invested in them during the first season). And I don’t know if it’s the exposure going to her head, but Millie Bobby Brown’s performance this season much more self-conscious; it doesn’t help that Eleven is required to deliver “hero” Jedi mind control moments to the point of nausea (it’s a lazy writer’s device that needs to be used sparingly for maximum impact, rather than every time a tentacle breaks into frame).
Elsewhere, there’s a subplot involving Nancy and Jonathan working for the local paper that ends up going nowhere once their co-workers are possessed, meaning the workplace sexism theme has no payoff (and I seriously have no idea why they cast Jake Busey and waste him on a nothing jerk role, even by the standards of nothing jerk roles).
On the other hand, as per Season Two, everything involving Dustin and or Steve is pure gold. Steve’s relationship with co-worker Robin (Ethan and Uma’s daughter Maya Hawke) is a particular boon, built up as a sure-thing romance only to be undercut by her late-stage revelation (although I’m not sure about the suggestion that Robin’s the show’s first gay character; we also have the hanging “It’s not my fault you don’t like girls” directed at Will). The chemistry between Hawke and Joe Keery, wandering around a Russian base on drugs in Scoops Ahoy uniforms, is a delight to behold, with the characters’ enduring bond sealed in their post-puke toilet floor chat, Steve’s response on being let down reflecting how far he’s come from the jerk he once was. As for Dustin, Gaten Matarazzo continues to be the MVP of his teen co-stars, although even he can’t help but have his thunder stolen by junior, nerd-antagonising Erica (Priah Ferguson).
The season’s other standout relationship comes via the bromance between caustic conspiracy theorist Murray Bauman and ill-fated friendly Soviet Alexei (Alec Utgoff). Murray’s a misanthrope you love to love (“I hate children”) and Brett Gelman rises to the challenge of whoever is next on the list to antagonise him (Erica, Dustin giving him the codename Bald Eagle). Elsewhere, Max, Lucas and Will don’t make an awful lot of impact, while Billy, formerly a bad seed, is now the straight-up bad guy. He’s offered a hero’s exit via El’s empathic mining of his damaged childhood but the lack of strong prior character work rather undermines that choice. There’s also Cary Elwes, enjoying himself as an ethics-deprived mayor and the briefest of Paul Reiser cameos.
Once Chapter Eight’s largely functional monster-mash dust has settled – albeit, the reveal of the reality of Suzie (Gabriella Pizzolo), providing the correct Planck’s Constant is cutely done – the Duffer’s opt for a twenty-minute epilogue. Which is a beyond-the-pale indulgence, it has to be said, whatever merits the rest of the show has. And while there are some nice touches during this sequence (Satanic Panic), there are also slightly tiresome ones (Kevin Smith-esque video store nerd-dom). Oh, and if you don’t show a character die, they clearly haven’t; you don’t need to compound this by immediately referring to an American prisoner in a Russian gulag.
Stranger Things 3 might be Netflix’s best-packaged junk food. It knows not to outstay its welcome, doesn’t cause bloat and is disposable in mostly good ways. What it doesn’t do, and clearly won’t, post-Barb, is stray from its essentially cosy identity. Not now it has found it and repeated it to popular effect. I’m sure Stranger Things 4 and 5 will be equally entertaining, but once all is said and done, the whole series will probably merge together in the memory, into one indistinguishable and amorphous CGI blob.