I love Stranger Things. It’s a great show. For me it was Stranger Things that sold Netflix’s vision of what television could be. I don’t buy the shirts or eat Eggos all day, but I’ve seen every episode multiple times and I’m very fond of the style of story-telling and characters that the Duffer brothers have created. The upcoming season has just recently released a new trailer, and it looks fun. It looks like everything everyone wanted. The boys are growing up, there’s some new monsters, and there’s a shopping mall. Wow. Yet, I’ve had some major concerns about the health of the franchise for some time now. I’m worried that there’s going to be a time where people aren’t satisfied with the show, and I’m worried that’s going to happen sooner than later.
I think season two was way worse than season one. That’s really the main reason I’m writing this. Most of what I saw that season brought out the cynical side of me. They kept trotting out eighties iconography, they emphasized certain beats that became memes of the show (thank goodness they did not bring back Barb though), and went to the same creative wells. People didn’t mind it, everybody is still loving it, but I saw the cracks in the foundation then. The magic of season one wasn’t there in season two no matter how much I wanted it.
The town of Hawkins has an innate appeal for the creative vision of the show. It’s like Twin Peaks: a small town with a lot of secrets. That Twin Peaks format has a Stephen King lens of boyhood and creative darkness. Perfect recipe.
Yet somehow the secrets seem to remain the same between the seasons. It’s just trading in one kid battling the secret laboratory government for another. There’s way less uncovering mystery. The Upside Down has been explained efficiently enough to now not be scary, no matter how many monsters they make. Eleven is eating her Eggos, the boys try to make sense of everything through Dungeons and Dragons analogies. I get the feeling people are watching the show because they love the characters not the mysteries they’re in. That’s a good testament to the show, but it’s possible to have your cake and eat it too here.
So what mysteries do we see in this coming season? We even see a monster in full appearance within the first major trailer for this thing. Maybe they even know this criticism and that’s why all we really see is the kids doing stuff. The other mystery, and one that seems promising for me, is that the missing person aspect of the show seems to be returning at least with the lifeguard.
I can already tell they’re going to bottle the season in the mall. The mall is prevalent in the trailers, Steve works there, and multiple episode titles point towards the location as important. It’s going to be the location of the final episode. That’s efficient, but not creative. The most creative it might get is a Chopping Mall (1986) reference (please please please). I can’t live on a diet of references. It’s not sustainable. There’s going to be a day when like season five rolls out and everybody’s just wondering why the show just keeps spinning the same wheels.
Treatment: The Spice of Life
But what did I like about season two? I like the fact that they were able to do a great job in introducing characters and adding depth to previously underdeveloped ones. Steve is probably the clearest example of this. He went from a very unlikable and cliche character to becoming one of the most endearing in the entire show. They paired Eleven with Hopper, creating a relationship where both characters’ needs are completely filled in an organic way. I wasn’t even mad when they dedicated an entire episode to a weird spin-off idea that was never going to happen. I was actually thankful for it. Bravo.
So considering their strength seems to be in characterization and maintaining the same feel, I feel more strongly than ever this series could be close to an anthology series. Don’t bring out your pitchforks just yet; I don’t actually mean it. I’m not crazy, I have a twitter (@broganchattin), I know people want to keep with the status quo. If they can consistently nail characters and feel, they should concentrate on a varied plot. People like the supporting and ancillary characters, so they should make more. Even when they miss, people are quick to forgive and it’s very easy for them to fix mistakes. The children should lose focus, they hit a happy ending already. Now there’s going to be some steps walked back for conflict, when conflict can always be present in a small town. New plot threads unrelated to government conspiracies or the Upside Down can show up when the mysteries aren’t about Eleven or Will. I’m not saying throw away everything you’ve worked for, I’m just saying that for this show to be truly great it’s going to need to capture some magic again. Yet, I think that might be the downfall of Netflix programming: how much magic can you make from statistics?