Television/Streaming Series Review: STRANGER THINGS (Seasons One Through Four, 2016-2022)

I can see why the Netflix series STRANGER THINGS is so popular, particularly the first two seasons. I enjoyed how it takes place in a small city/town (fictional Hawkins, IN) in the early 1980s, culturally similar to where I was growing up at that time, which was Grass Valley, Northern CA. The writers clearly have Gen Xers, such as myself, very much in mind.

Both season one and two had powerful endings, culminations of tightly written plot lines. What great writing, a balanced mix of tender, funny, dramatic, creepy, and suspenseful. I can’t remember the last time I saw so many lovable, compelling characters, most of them misfits and outsiders, like myself, all in one movie or series. Each kid in the friendship group of nerdy middle schoolers was adorable, initially bonding around playing Dungeons and Dragons. I was left feeling warm fuzzies, which I wasn’t at all expecting.

This show is unabashedly derivative, which is how even a certain young character in a scene aptly describes the whole bizarre situation the main cast finds itself in: “derivative.” But, the way the recycled ideas are written into such tight, creative scripts in the show’s first two seasons is impressive. It comes across like the best elements of 1980s sci-fi and horror movies and television shows, plus terrific music from that period (including the Clash’s wonderful “Should I Stay or Should I Go”), got selected, thoughtfully put together, and then more deeply explored in places.

In the third season of STRANGER THINGS, the initial focus seemed to be more on the characters with their friendships and/or romantic relationships than the slowly unfolding plot line of a monster causing trouble in Hawkins, yet again from a neighboring dark dimension. We the audience spend a lot of time hanging out with them and meeting a few new people introduced on the show. There is definitely less eerie intrigue and intensity to the plot compared to the first two seasons. That felt okay with me, since I like most of the ensemble cast a lot and the small-town setting in the 1980s is pleasantly nostalgic. Clearly, though, this season was not as good as the two preceding ones. The main storyline involving Soviet Russians interfacing with the evil from a parallel dimension was weaker, less focused, even ridiculous in places. And there was far less mystique about this dark world itself, given that it had already been slowly introduced in the first season and then further explored in the second. But, compared to the previous seasons, there seemed to be more dialogue written for laughs and warm fuzzy moments between characters. With the exception of a few newcomers, the writers emphasized having established characters deepen their bonds with each other wherever possible, which some viewers might find annoying, perhaps feeling it siphons off energy for action scenes and plot intrigue. Frankly, I didn’t mind this because the players got to be fleshed out a bit more as people. And what other worthwhile and intriguing sci-fi plot can unfold in a small Midwestern municipality anyway? I think the writers were scraping at the bottom of the barrel for coherent, compelling story ideas by this season. (No wonder why the fourth season took place in other locations in addition to Hawkins, IN.) Hence, more focus on relationships and character development, I guess. Towards the end, there were some overt saccharine moments between two individuals to lighten the tension of suspense a bit, which seemed ridiculously, unnecessarily drawn out. But, most of the writing was pretty even overall.

Several scenes took place in a shopping mall, which aptly represented a lot of 1980s youth culture and its being replicated, hyper-commodified, at the expense of uniqueness on both individual and regional levels. The dark economic effects of burgeoning shopping mall development on American culture were explored in the third season somewhat. This added a bit of thoughtful depth next to all the humorous dialogue and campy imagery of slimy monsters and over-the-top Soviet villains. I was tickled to find myself remembering that I had seen every movie listed on the theater marquee in fictional Hawkins’ indoor mall (built by the Soviets and including a secret underground facility— rather funny), which is set in the summer of 1985. The frequent verbal and visual references to TV shows and films from that period piled on the already substantive nostalgia for me. It’s interesting to know that the Duffer Brothers, twins who created this show, are actually Millennials, not Gen Xers like I and the teenagers in the series are. They seem to have a fascination with 1980s Americana, which is pleasantly fine with me.

The fourth season of this Netflix series left me largely unimpressed. For one thing, the story arc was spread way too thin compared to the relatively tight narratives of the earlier seasons, especially the first two. By the seventh episode or “chapter,” the series “jumped the shark,” as is often said when TV shows go precipitously downhill, by becoming conveniently contrived and absurd. There’s creatively campy overdone and then there’s way overdone, which this season devolved into being. I find the latter of the two styles tiring and annoying on one hand and laughably ridiculous on the other. That all said, I continued watching due to being invested in the characters. I felt both for them and the actors playing them. Hence, I watched ‘til the careening end of this bloated up season, the ninth and final “chapter” lasting over two hours. Five of the episodes averaged around seventy-plus minutes in length, three far longer than that, all a bit too long. I wonder if the writers, producers, and, perhaps, even some or much of the crew and cast took drugs to get through this exhausting latest season. Any traces of the series’ initial eerie tone and intriguing, tight writing were long gone. I will say here, though, that the end decently came together, finally, after so much mind-numbing drama. The many moments of characters bonding through heart-felt dialogue, like in the third season, did continue to occur somewhat in the fourth set of chapters. But, these were often in between tiresomely drawn-out scenes of action and over-stuffed displays of pretentious, contrived/tacked on back story exposition. Also, some of the dialogue was pat and sappy in places more than I recall in earlier seasons, even season three. And we the audience never find out how a certain dynamic character manages to return from the first season. I may have missed some quick explanation, but I don’t think so. That seemed to be a blatant plot hole. Messy.

In the fourth season, which has a supernatural and haunted house story arc, the arch villain Vecna comes across as a mix of Freddy Krueger, a creature from the Predator franchise, a bit of monster influence from the Alien movies (such as in skin color and texture), some vague elements from the 1980s Poltergeist movies, and surely other source influences I can’t consciously recall right now. Perhaps I’m jaded because I felt like I’d seen this guy elsewhere before, a lot. His presence and his antics were blatant, in your face, devoid of mystery or intrigue, and all-too-familiar feeling. This particular derivative aspect of the series felt tired.

Season four was very uneven. Besides being overdone and spread thin, as described above, it was sincere and heart-felt in places, but periodically silly and childish in tone in others. To sum up the fourth season of STRANGER THINGS in brief, it was often tiring and contained tired elements. This is what seems to eventually happen for a series or movie franchise when its creators try to continue to appeal to a wide audience and go beyond their interesting original, though inevitably limited, story idea and its settings. The order eventually grows too tall to fill, or one that’s simply run out of substance. Time to generate another idea and different kind of narrative altogether.

The acting was generally excellent across the board, even after the ensemble cast was given increasingly less quality material to work with after the first two seasons. However, Argyle (Eduardo Franco), was introduced in the fourth season, to my extreme irritation. This long-haired, bright colors wearing, perpetual pot smoker remained two dimensional throughout. Talk about over-acting a stereotype of 1980s California youth. I’m sure he was written in for comic relief and as a convenient device to help a handful of the veteran characters achieve their collective purpose in one of the subplots. But, he did not mesh well with the other comparatively fleshed out players, instead standing out like a poorly drawn cartoon within a world of live action. I waited for Argyle to fall in a hole or get lost in a smoky haze from one of his lit up joints, never to be seen again. No such luck, so his screen presence continued to drain focus and energy from me, the viewer. More unevenness.

Millie Bobby Brown was notably compelling in her role as STRANGER THINGS’ linchpin character Eleven/Jane (“El”), a girl with telekinetic and clairvoyant abilities who was secretly institutionalized and experimented on during the first twelve or so years of her life. We meet her early on when she has newly escaped from her strange prison, an ominous government facility on the outskirts of Hawkins. The actress clearly put much thought into portraying El, pausing often when speaking and only verbalizing simple words and sentences. She believably came across as a child raised in extreme isolation. I can see why Ms. Brown has received much praise for her work here.

Talented, ruggedly handsome actor David Harbour was my favorite person to watch through the whole series (as it exists thus far). He plays Jim Hopper, the Hawkins chief of police. Exhibiting a brutal exterior, Chief Hopper endured intense loss in his past. Although the child actors physically changed through the series due to naturally growing up, Mr. Harbour’s changes in appearance and demeanor are the most dramatic. He eventually lost an incredible amount of weight for the part while also having Hopper grow into being a more introspective and compassionate human. Remarkable. I applaud David’s dedication to the role, which appeared very challenging to play. I’ve actually seen him in a fair amount of movies and TV shows over the years. He can portray both dark villains and caring heroes well. He’s admirably versatile. No doubt, we will continue to see more of Mr. Harbour in assorted productions. I’m a new fan of his.

A few vintage songs stood out for me on STRANGER THINGS. The fourth season made wonderful use of Kate Bush’s song “Running Up That Hill,” first released in her native UK in 1985 and growing popular among Progressive Rock genre fans in the United States by 1986. This song was basically a personal anthem for a certain troubled character Max Mayfield (played by the adorable red-haired Sadie Sink), who used it to get herself through an arduous psychic confrontation with Vecna while he exploited parts of her painful past in an attempt to kill her. This was excellent use of an established, cool artist’s music, and an introduction to a new generation of listeners. I’m glad for Ms. Bush.

The other song I appreciated was Siouxsie and the Banshees’ 1981 recording of “Spellbound.” It was perfectly placed at the very end of the final episode in STRANGER THINGS’ fourth season, continuing as the credits roll. I’ve always dug Siouxsie and the Banshees with their haunting, elegant sound. The foreboding music closed the series as the main main cast and the rest of Hawkins face more ominous challenges on the horizon, literally.

I can’t imagine what turn of events await in the fifth and final season of STRANGER THINGS, due out sometime next year (2024). Will some of the youths actually, finally look and seem too old for their roles? Will the writers even out the show again with consistently good dialogue and more focused, original plot development? I somehow doubt it with this latter wondering. But, I’ll be there watching anyway because I’m committed to this universe of mostly endearing people in Hawkins, IN even if you, the reader, need not be, particularly after the first two seasons when this series steadily went off the rails.

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