Stranger Things, my rambling review

Mainly about Stranger Things 3

Image: A scene from Stranger Things season 3

©2019 Netflix. Used without express permission. Please don't sue me.

(Spoilers up to the end of season three. But this isn’t a review to recommend anything, it’s the kind of thing you read to find out if you weren’t alone in hating what everyone else seems to like.)

One time, a million years ago, I saw Back to the Future in the theatre with my dad. I remember him talking in the car ride home about how weird it was to see the era of his youth, the 1950s, presented as this time in history where things were so different that it made a strange world for a hero to explore.

I understood what he meant on a purely rational level, but it was only after watching Stranger Things season 3 that I can really feel how he must have felt. It’s weird seeing the time I grew up turned into this fetishized caricature of what it really was.

The eighties didn’t look like that. Like all stereotypes, they pull elements from reality, so I can’t deny the eighties also did kind of look like that. Except it didn’t.

Just as an aside, if you want to know what the eighties genuinely looked like, watch The Americans. That show nails the vibe of the eighties. It’s also a pretty cool show, I recommend it.

According to Netflix, over 64 million people watched Stranger Things season 3 in the first month of its release. Sounds like it was a success, but I was one of those 64 million, and I hated it, so, it raises interesting questions about what a success is. I had to watch it to know what I thought about it, so I wonder if number of viewers is the best metric. I think that number says more about seasons one and two than season three.

“Hated” is a strong word, I guess. I didn’t hate it. But I did resent it for constantly jerking off in my face with all the reference porn.

Image: Two characters beside an aisle of cereal boxes

©2019 Netflix. Used without express permission. Please don't sue me.

There’s a scene where main team kids number 2 and 4, whatever their names are, are in a super market, and they run down an aisle with cereal on either side of them. I’m a cereal guy, so I noticed the cereal brands on display. And I don’t think that’s being overly detail oriented, because clearly the brands were designed to be noticed. I can say that because every single box was some kind of limited edition brand of cereal that are valued for their rarity. It was like these kids were running through the private collection of a cereal connoisseur. Mr Ts, ET cereal, Ghost Busters cereal…

That’s how this whole show is. It’s constantly nudging you in the ribs with “remember this?” and “heard of that?” Every movie poster in a kid’s room is exactly the movies that later became remembered and revered. Every pop culture reference is the perfect emblematic symbol of the times. The clothes they wear…

Wow, the clothes. So, Eleven and her friend decide to go shopping, and Eleven buys this outfit that is so loud it’s practically part of the soundtrack. There were clothes like that back in the day, but you generally saw them in music videos or sitcoms, not on people in real life. If someone had come to my high school wearing a shirt like the one Eleven was wearing… I mean, no one would actually do anything, real life people aren’t that dramatic, but they would think it was kind of tacky.

When the nostalgia dial is turned up to 11 for everything, then it’s just pornography. I wanted a story.

Unfortunately, the story wasn’t there underneath all the references. They went for this kind of cartoonish reality, and I think that was a huge mistake. Of course, I’m just sitting here writing shitty reviews that no one reads while the Duffer Brothers are getting a multi year contract with Netflix, so clearly I know fuck all. But, still, I have my reasons for what I’m saying.

What I mean by the cartoonish reality is that for example, in this season, there are Russian agents who are in town, making their own attempt to explore and exploit “The Upside Down,” the dimension from which all the monsters come from. As a premise to start from, it’s fine.

But, the Russians haven’t just shown up with some scientists and agents. No, they’ve somehow built a massive underground lair, the scale of which is hard to convey. I could go into all the ways it’s huge and staffed by dozens if not hundreds of people, and how for some reason these Russians are wearing full Russian military uniforms when you’d think plain clothes would be the thing to do when you’re running a covert operation… But anyway, just take my word for it that everything about this Russian base can be summed up by saying, “completely unrealistic.” It’s cartoonish.

What is that bad? After all, isn’t this whole thing kind of a kid’s adventure story? We have monsters from another dimension and a kid with super powers, so, aren’t we past realism?

What makes the monsters cool, and scary, is their supernatural contrast to us, and the heroes of the story that we experience this world through. If the four or five main kid characters are just kids, then when they manage to trick some adults and sneak into places they shouldn’t get to, it’s a huge win. If they end up in the Upside Down, it’s scary because it’s so unlike our world. Eleven had an interesting place in the story because, in a way, she was just as alien to the normal kids as the Upside Down monsters, so there was an air of the unknown around her, even though we were rooting for her. Bottom line, we know how our world works, the other world that the monsters and Eleven come from works differently, and it’s that comparison that drives the sense of fear and excitement.

I’m really just explaining another angle of something I think Isaac Asimov said, which is that good science fiction supposes one fantastic thing, and then makes everything around it as realistic as possible. If you don’t do that, if everything everywhere is all just unrealistic so that whatever needs to happen can happen, then there are no stakes. If the Russians can build this insane secret base the size of the Pentagon under a small American town with no one noticing in the space of a year at most, and populate it with dozens or maybe even hundreds of full uniform wearing Russian military, then I don’t know if our world has any grounding of reality on which to evaluate anyone’s actions. When the kids sneak in there, there’s no tension for me, because there’s no objective standard to what makes it dangerous. Everyone can do whatever.

If you can run around a theme park fighting a Russian agent doing everything a Terminator robot does without anyone noticing… what can’t you do?

And if the real world is full of crazy unrealism, where everyone can do everything, then what makes the Upside Down a threat? Beats me.

I think the first season held the contrast so much better. The monsters were scary because the kids and the city were normal. My only gripe with the first season was the ending was anti climactic. Eleven just stared at the monster hard enough until it exploded, done and done. But the journey there was really satisfying, and Winona Ryder really brought home the character of a crazy mom without getting so loopy we couldn’t empathize. I think season one was so good that it’s what’s keeping subsequent seasons going.

Season two started to lose it for me. I barely remember it, except for the dynamic between Eleven and Sheriff Hopper, where Hopper had to deal with raising a girl on the verge of puberty, but with super powers. That was endearing, they really hit the emotional balance between the two. Again, anti climactic ending, all Eleven did was wave her arm and close the gateway to the Upside Down, done and done. And that one episode in Chicago… we won’t speak of it.

Season three jumped the shark for me. Everything felt off from the start. I don’t buy at all that Eleven and main team kid number 1 are a couple. Trust me when I say you don’t go from Dungeons & Dragons to making out with the door closed just overnight. Having Eleven, an attractive and intriguing mysterious girl, become the girlfriend of the chief nerd because she doesn’t seem to know many other people smacks of an uncomfortable incel fantasy built out of Stockholm syndrome.

From Hopper’s overly deliberate Magnum PI shirt, to the cartoonishly sexist staff at the local paper, everything was too much. The fact that Eleven is a human who can defy known physics seems to just get lost in a world that isn’t a period piece, it’s a Saturday morning cartoon.

And the main monster. The thing about Lovecraftian horror is that it thrives when you keep it in the shadows, because it is so horrific you can’t even describe it. The only people who ever see the monsters clearly, if they make it out alive, are forever insane and unable to clearly say what they saw. At least, that’s how Lovecraft did it, and his works are respected a hundred years later in spite of his racism, so there’s probably something to that approach that works. There’s no way to show something indescribable on screen, so you have to work with being indirect and letting the audience’s imagination take over. In previous seasons, when we saw the big bad monster obscured by red coloured clouds, that was very effective.

If you show the main monster in the middle of a brightly lit mall, and it turns out that it just looks like some kind of giant gangly turd dinosaur, it can only be a let down. Mildly icky to look at, but not at all terrifying on a Cthulhu level of mind bending horror.

Meh. Maybe for 63,999,999 other people it worked, but this isn’t my kind of porn.