by Adam M. Wilcox
Thar be spoilers ahead, you have been warned!
When it comes to milking 80’s nostalgia for dollars, Stranger Things is one of those few water cooler type conversations that is least likely to end in an argument. The fusion of Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, and John Carpenter style science fiction, and horror elements are probably some of the most fun most people have had since the original run of The X-Files. Slickly shot, and told from the perspective of a child, not too dissimilar from movies such as IT, Stand By Me, E.T., or even The Goonies, it’s commitment to being a throwback series with painstaking detail has won the hearts of critics an audiences, becoming more or less, a flagship series for Netflix’s streaming service.
It’s been a full year since we seen the kids of Hawkins Indiana. Last time it came out on Halloween. This time, we see the kids on summer break during 4th of July weekend. I have to commend the film makers for releasing these seasons around the time of year in which these episodes take place. However, it’s not all sunshine, Madonna and fireworks this time. Before I become a Buzz Killington, let me get the good stuff out of the way first.
The production budget on this season is phenomenal as it should be. Marketing for this one has been literally all over the place. All summer, every product you buy has been trying to sell Spider-Man or Stranger Things. Even going so far as to resurrect the infamous Coke II, as a product tie in. More on that later.
Special affects are incredible. Though used mostly by CG, images of a giant Mindflayer monster trying to cross into our world is a lovely throwback to the 1988 remake of The Blob. Also some of the attack scenes are very reminiscent of Aliens . The music is more of the same, that we have heard from previous seasons, and I don’t want to undercut how brilliant that John Carpenter-like score is, but it IS stuff we have heard before. The rest is, whatever 80’s song hasn’t been licensed for use in the series quite yet. One of the sets in this series is a large shopping complex called The Starcourt Mall. It is the first mall in Hawkins Indiana, and it’s brilliant. I am old enough to remember how much I miss that time in my life where everyone used to go to the mall, because it was just the thing to do. This show nailed that dynamic. Now days, if you even have a mall remotely near you, there might be a few stores still open, most of them are closed, and only open up once a year to sell you Halloween costumes, or wheels of cheese, and you might see a couple of old people walking around. This one is full of people, congregating, and socializing. I miss that period of my life, and even the show also reveals the unfortunate demise of mom and pop stores as a result, it still brought a warm feeling seeing a shopping mall full of people there for reasons other than forced Christmas shopping. Just sayin’…
The stand out performances in THIS particular season in my opinion are from Gaten Matarazzo as Dustin Henderson, and Joe Keery as Steve Harrington. Steve was more or less, the token bully, yet in an interesting enough twist, becomes a hero by the second season. In this season, the two are rather good friends who still like to take the occasional jab at each other, and they are absolutely wonderful. However, Dustin takes mostly a back seat, so that we can pair Steve up with a new character “Robin” played by Maya Hawk….and now we get into the rest of the review, which is not all bouquets and rainbows.
First off, let me be completely honest, Robin’s character sucks. Stop me if you have heard this one. She’s a band nerd, did good in school, and enjoys tormenting her co-worker Steve, while working at an ice creamery in the local mall called Scoops. She may have a crush on Steve. Steve might like her too, but is too cool to admit it to anyone, even Dustin, who keeps pressing the issue. Over 6 episodes of trying to force some kind of a relationship between these two. At a certain point, they are captured by Russians and injected a “truth serum” which makes both of them pretty high. Robin admits to Steve that she was pretty obsessed with him in high school. After several events, Steve admits to maybe having a crush and moving to the next level….it is revealed that Robin never had a crush on Steve, she was in love with a girl that sat behind him, that he paid no attention too. TADA, she’s a lesbian! All of that buildup…for THAT? At that point, any budding chemistry is gone, and she just becomes another boring character. And that brings me to my next point.
Much like the infamous Poochie episode from The Simpsons where a hip new dog is introduced to an aging Itchy and Scratchy show mid season, the character is reviled so much, that they literally remove the character from the film cell in the middle of an episode and tell the audiences that “he went back to his home planet.” Season 3 of Stranger Things suffers from way too many characters with not enough to do with all of them. Part of what made things like Stranger Things Season 1, Stand By Me, and IT all work, is the dynamic between all of the main players. A SMALL group of friends working together to try and solve a mystery, or defeat a mysterious enemy. In this season, couples are paired, groups are separated, the strong dynamic is gone, and the chemistry between these pairings most of the time simply does not work. I would have loved to seen more from Dustin and Steve, but instead they waste this stupid paring of Steve and Robin that goes absolutely no place. I am thinking Robin needs to go back to her home planet.
And speaking of annoying. Priah Ferguson returns as Erica Sinclair, a fan favorite from Season 2. In this season she has become a caricature. A meme. Her roll is to simply lip off to everyone who ever communicates with her about anything. To spout out jokes. And let’s talk about the jokes…
Season 1 had some jokes, and mostly they were put in for character development. Or to mildly ease the tension a bit to allow the audience time to breath in between intense scenes. In this season, it’s a regular joke-athon joke o’-rama! There are so many forced and unfunny jokes in this season that any tension that may have been built was virtually non existent as a result of if it. Nobody appreciates good humor more than I do, but in the right place, at the right time. This season borders on The Last Jedi levels of overused bad jokes. Now let’s talk about that plot, or lack thereof.
Thankfully Will Buyers is not just getting abducted again. This time the mind flayer has crossed into our world, and bad boy bully low rent poor decision making Rob Lowe Billy Hargrove is the first one to get possessed by the mind flayer after a botched attempt at an affair with a local desperate housewife. After Billy, several others in the town begin to get possessed as well, turning them into basically a hive mind version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers . This pseudo zombie possession thing is actually really interesting because at any point, these people are injured or hurt, the entire hive experiences the same wounds. Eventually when the body dies, they kind of turn into a REALLY AMAZING version of the 1988 Blob I mentioned before, bones parts, feet, all floating in the muck, yet not leaving so much as a trace of slime behind them. Not the worst set up for a story, however, we have to hurry up and cut back to the jokes marathon, and we have to show how Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer), and Jonathan Byers are working as interns for the local news paper which is run by misogynistic oafs who spend the day making jokes, and berating Nancy while she runs along and fetches them coffee. They even call her Nancy Drew. Nancy and Jonathan have about as much chemistry as a tube of toothpaste and a grapefruit put together. These two are a couple in real life…wow.
And while we are on boring couples, Let’s talk about Jim and Joyce (David Harbor, and Winona Ryder. David Harbor was the cool chief that figures out what’s going on in the first season, and now he has been reduced to a bumbling idiot. These two are just annoying as cat piss. They have no chemistry, unless you consider tossing oily rags into a fire as some sort of chemistry, it might sound hot on paper, but it just stinks. I swear I am getting back to the plot, but I have to tell it this way, because this is how the show makes you feel. So much fat is left on the table, that the story is forgotten…often. Too often to make room for more awkward jokes, and forced relationships. This is Stranger Singles.
Eventually Nancy Drew does figure out the plot that the mind flayer is back, but it’s the kids in the mall that “crack the code” which involves a large Russian military facility built underneath the Starcourt Mall which is there specifically to drill into the gate between Hawkins, and The Upside Down.
We sadly don’t get to see much of the upside down in this episode because we have to keep cutting back to relationships that will never pay off, and more damn jokes. The pacing is awful in this season, however at about episode 5….yes half way through the season, it does pick up, and it’s pretty exciting. Predictable as HELL, but entertaining enough. Our bad guys in this show are not good at all. For one thing, I liked the fact that we as the audience knew very little about the upside down, or the creatures that inhabit it. It adds to the aura of mystery. The term I believe is show don’t tell. This season makes the mistake of doing too much of both. The fact that the mind flayer possesses Billy, means that it can now communicate through Billy. Whenever Eleven does one of her mind tricks, Billy taunts Eleven, and reveals it’s plan is to take over the current world, and eliminate all of her friends by telling her that word for word. Great, now the mind flayer is a Bond villain….but hey…stay tuned for more jokes! Speaking of jokes, we get a new henchman which is a very poor attempt at making a large Russian hit-man look as much like Arnold’s 1984 Terminator as humanly possible right down to the finger less gloves, and the spike haircut. It could have been cool, but it comes off as too cheesy for even this show. Nods to 80’s nostalgia can be good, but effort has to be made.
Eventually the Scoops kids, Dustin, and Erica do finally break into the Russian base, while copying as many lines and scenes from Die Hard as humanly possible. Without having to type out the entire synopsis of the season, the idea is to shut down the drill that is opening the gate, and the mind flayer will be stopped. Unfortunately the final two who have the two keys to do this wind up being Winona Ryder, and David Arbor. David has a scuffle that winds up with him throwing Dollar General Terminator into the drill, and Ryder has to turn both keys, and somehow Arbor goes missing. The mind flayer is destroyed with fireworks, Eleven brings back Billy from the dead long enough to sacrifice himself to the mind flayer as the kids throw fireworks at it in the food court. Once the gate is closed, the mind flayer finally dies.
We cut to a really sad ending that involves news report showing scandal in Hawkins. Then we see Ryder packing up Will, Jonathan, and Eleven, and selling the house and moving away after the entire cast has long tear filled goodbyes. Then there is a post credits scene that takes us to a base in Moscow. We see some Russians dragging somebody out of a jail cell, but “not the American”, down to a basement where apparently they have a demi-gorgon locked up like an animal, and they feed the prisoner to it! Season 4!!! Is the American David Harbor? Well I would certainly hope so, because Hellboy was a flop that won’t be seeing any sequels any time soon!
It sounds like a rant, I mean it’s not the worst show I have seen, but it IS a bit of a disappointment. Especially coming off the heals of the two really great seasons! I realize that not all shows can have perfect seasons all of the time, but I feel like this one had too many check boxes to tick. Stretching of story, blatant product placement for Coke II, diversity, inclusion, representation became front and center, while the fun horror, sci-fi story took a back seat. It’s not that anyone has any objection to characters coming out as gay or straight, but for the first time, I feel like this show that has been so committed to being a throw back series, has broken character by forcing agendas that do nothing for the story. Robin wants to come out as a Lesbian, fine, but it really removed the dynamic between her and Steve which they spent almost an entire season building up. It is also implied that Will “doesn’t like girls”. Now this could mean that he just simply has not hit puberty yet, or that he might eventually be coming out of the closet. At either rate, these are NOT topics that would have been explored in any 1980s horror or sci-fi film that this show is trying to emulate. I realize that you are trying to attract a diverse audience, but you are breaking character in the process, and ruining your own show. I feel like this show was originally meant to conclude after 3 or 4 seasons, but since Netflix is having a really bad summer with the stock market, and the streaming war, the push to keep this show running as long as possible is hurting the product overall. If I had to slap a rating on this, I would say 2 out of 5 cheese curds. Not the worst thing I have seen, but season 4 really needs to be better than this one for this show to last. Unfortunately it’s going to take more than ticking check boxes to get me to come back for further seasons.