Note: This review contains spoilers for Stranger Things Seasons 1-3
Stranger Things was exactly that to a whole generation of viewers; something cognizant, inspired and reminiscent of wondrous 80’s era-filmmaking and significantly so without being derivative. And then it started to become derivative of itself.
That’s not to say that later Stranger Things is bad, far from it; it’s still some of the most rewarding television out there. The first season, riffing off ET, The Goonies et al mirrored some of the quintessential iconography without resting or relying on nostalgia or knowing winks; instead pivoting to an original plot staged with modern production values simply subsisting within a welcome 80’s milieu. Rather than attempting to recreate that specific to the success of other narratives the Duffer Brothers surprised everyone by relaying story stylings rather than idiosyncrasies to create a tale for which you don’t have to have seen anything else to appreciate it’s accomplishments.
And you know what, season one, it’s even better than ET and The Goonies. The main characters are more memorable and each share a distinct dynamic, while introducing the wider world to the scope of former bit character actor David Harbour, giving Winona Ryder the best role of her career and permitting Millie Bobby Brown such a canvas. Brown, still the most compulsive element of this series and the performer herein with the widest range, in large part made season one for fulfilling the typical villain focus.
No she’s not the bad guy and yes we had the Demogorgon and those most excellent shady Government-types (Cary Elwes, wasted as Hawkins’ very generic corrupt Mayor, just pales in comparison), yet our introduction to Eleven and how her character played out then, that which motivated her still unclear, is alike and too an inversion of how we might be treated to a new big bad. Such a focus on her or any other character being bereft from ensuing seasons, in no small part due to bringing in several more fairly excellent gang members, the scariest things in seasons two and three sadly don’t build at all on season one’s Demogorgon.
Sure we are treated to more of them, but Aliens, Alien 3 etc, as entertaining as they were, never bore the contemplative horror of the original; so similar to that lifeblood which first made this show such a hit and which the Duffer Brothers with but allusions thereof here evidently hoped would sustain Stranger Things. With the pivot to repetitive action, many or bigger monsters and that increasingly theatrical without being very new, none of the numerous Demogorgon-esque encounters and finales Eleven later faces are nearly so memorable as that penultimate, eerie face-off in season one absolutely billowing with character and apparent symbolism rather than just, well, gore.
Further to the matter of derivation, there’s no better place to start than that finale which is now the first of three ‘we have to close the rift I wonder if we will all get out alive’ cliffhangers. Yeah we all kind of knew Eleven would come back but given how well it was staged it remains the last time in this series where it felt as if main characters could actually be expended. A year later when she literally just walked back into the room, we figured our main crew won’t be going anywhere. The death of Sean Astin’s Bob (strangely similar to the death of Astin’s character in season five of 24), sad as it was, was that of a minor character only recently introduced. And no this author has not forgotten Barb, but Shannon Purser got more screen time in her minor role in Riverdale than she ever got in Hawkins.
This brings us to Hopper’s ‘death.’ Not only do we never see him die, but the setup is near identical to Eleven’s apparent demise at the end of season one and will leave most viewers with a Jon Snow level of suspense. It’s not too terrible to hang things on a faux tragedy yet it is moreover when we and the characters are subjected to a letter, by Hopper, affirming that ‘hurt is good’ and we need such hurt in our lives to ‘grow as people.’ This author welcomes being proven wrong and the series following through on its conclusion, though too given Harbour’s popularity this is unlikely to happen. The post-credits sequence, far from a concrete clue as to Hopper’s return, is very entertaining and should not be skipped over.
On the matter of Hopper, much of his exceptional and very sincere characterisation in the first two seasons is sacrificed, as Brett Gelman’s character (what is he even doing here) annoyingly points out, so petty feuding, passing gags and outlandishly outsized jokes can transpire. Hopper’s final moments in this season, had they otherwise been grounded in a consistent treatment of his character, might have had that much more impact.
Dacre Montgomery’s Billy gets a bit of a redemption arc but not one that nearly so accounts for nor emerges resonant in light of his pretty brutal characterisation in season two. A lot of mainstays here have had a rough go of it, most didn’t turn out like Billy. To this end his depiction as the season’s primary sex symbol is not mildly discomforting.
The team members meld beautifully and reliably so, with Gaten Matarazzo and Joe Keery joyously getting an eight-episode stretch to play off each other and share the Farrah Fawcett spray after the Producers realised their dynamic, and Steve’s excellent here continuing character arc, were the best things about season two. Maya Hawke, the finest new addition by far, has a most exceptional future ahead of her. Amidst it all, Andrey Ivchenko – well, had Arnold Schwarzenegger been at all convincing in Red Heat we might there have too ended up with something like this.
Abounding this time around with references to undead classics, Jurassic Park, Goldeneye and, quietly, Tomorrow Never Dies, it will take deserved repeat watches to unpack every tid-bit of what is despite its flaws and a drop in quality in later seasons still, given its cast and storytelling bona fides, one of the very best things on TV right now.
Stranger Things is now streaming on Netflix