Welcome to “Progress Report”, a spin on my standard review format, in which I observe TV and internet shows that are still a work in progress. Today’s candidate is the thriller that pulled a whole slew of unlikely audiences and is now arguably Netflix’s most popular show: Stranger Things. The first season premiered fully on Netflix on July 15, 2016, its second season premiered in full on October 27, 2017, and the show’s directors have confirmed a third season with the intent to conclude the show with a fourth and final season.
I, however, am going to make an argument for why the show works better with just one season. It’s a hard argument to make without spoilers, but I’ll give you a head’s up when we get there.
When Stranger Things first came out, it turned the internet upside down. The show created an immediate audience despite wielding a series of somewhat underwhelming tools: Generic 1980’s nostalgic setting, stock/derivative one dimensional characters, and unequal power balance of the story’s several conflicts. What makes Stranger Things a great show, however, is how it flips the identity of its weak points into powerful assets, and in the process constructs a compelling narrative. I enjoy Stranger Things because it spotlights the strongest part of some of storytelling’s weakest elements.
For example, the 1980s inspired world should feel dated and unoriginal. Pick pretty much any major movie from the 80’s, and it’s likely Stranger Things replicates their core elements or creates identically staged shots at some point in the show. By those accounts, it should feel like the show relies too heavily on nostalgia. Instead, Stranger Things uses the 80’s environment to masterfully ground and create serious advantage for the story. As an 80’s period piece, the story benefits from relatively limited technology and a simpler world. They create interesting challenges for the characters, and allow them to shine instead of the world itself. Stranger Things should feel strangled by its pastiche to the 80’s era of filmmaking, but instead benefits from integrating the shot language of an entire decade with a story that’s new. The setting is not a strong one by default, but Stranger Things makes it work. That’s just one element of the show, but it’s on a number of these fronts that Stranger Things lays its familiar but effective narrative and style.
Another example comes in the form of the soundtrack. It’s is comprised of numerous memorable songs from the 80’s, which should feel a bit trite, but it’s offset excellently with an original score that thrives on subdued melodies and synthesizer tones. The result is a permeating feeling of both familiarity and mystery, which is perfect for this show. Then you have the mostly stereotypical characters: nerdy kids that get picked on by bullies, teenagers with popularity hierarchy, completely useless law enforcers, and a few others that similarly ring shallow. The scenario starts out exactly as you’d imagine and the cast follows suit, but what’s fascinating is how that scenario twists and essentially forces the hand of the cast, breaking all of them out of those stereotypes and forcing them to dig deeper. When the world fails to operate the way the characters expect, it’s refreshing to see them rise to the occasion in a way that both delves into and breaks their archetypical limitations. Even the story, which is fairly straightforward by design, is loaded with tons of intriguing plot and unique methods of approach.
Individually, each season of Stranger Things is sterling. Like any mystery show, there’s a natural favoring of the first season while the iron is hot, its brand unrecognizable, but the show as a whole succeeds for the reasons I’ve mentioned plus a collection of excellent performances from the entire cast, the kids especially.
But, if you’re asking for a recommendation, mine is conditional. I would absolutely encourage viewing the first season (preferably in 1-2 sittings), but I wouldn’t recommend the second season UNTIL the third comes out. To go further requires spoilers, but at base level I can state the core issue: Season 2 is bigger, but somehow offers far less.
In most stories, shows included, there’s a beatmap structure. A beatmap structure is an outline of events, or beats, that a story needs to hit in order to be told effectively. Each episode of Stranger Things has its own beatmap, but the show as a whole has a larger scale map that charts the direction of the show.
One troubling thing I noticed is that the first and second season have a ton of overlapping beats: Kids start doing nerd stuff; something goes wrong with Will; Sheriff Hopper initially skeptical about problems with town; troublesome new girl enters town, does things boys can’t believe; Nancy gets drunk and makes a poor decision; Joyce remodels house to communicate with Will; Hopper digs way too deep and stumbles on dangerous secret; one of the kids has trust issues with the new girl which causes a conflict; Nancy and Jonathan try to chase down a lead by themselves and open up to one another; there’s nowhere left to run, so all main characters group up together; Government loses control of the Upside Down; characters split into three groups to solve individual problems; Will is saved by a group involving his mother; Eleven saves the day by pushing her limits; one month later everything returns to normal...or does it?
Okay, so that breakdown is admittedly simple, but it’s also not wrong. Plus, there are other repeating narrative elements, including the development of Eleven’s history through her interactions when she’s alone, and nearly all the parents other than Joyce being fairly useless and detached from the circumstances of their children. While the circumstances are slightly different, Season 1 and Season 2 both follow a beatmap structure that is awfully similar. I also forgot to mention that, relative to episode and point in the timeline, most of these beats happens around the same time in the story as well. This is the heart of why I’m not especially supportive of Season 2: it’s pretty much the same as Season 1.
I mean, sure, there are some new elements: Dustin raises a small creature, unaware it’s a Demogorgon; Maxine is a welcome addition to the cast and sparks an awkward love triangle between herself, Dustin and Lucas; Joyce has a relationship with a tech savvy nice guy named Billy (played by “Samwise Gamgee” actor Sean Astin); and I guess Eleven has a sister with her own unique gifts, which also leads to the most unique if somewhat jarring episode in the series. However, none of these elements have an especially large impact on the immediate narrative, seeming to favor future seasons and plot threads rather than current ones. In a way, Season 2 feels like it was constructed solely for the sake of Season 3, rather than for its own merits. If Season 1 was The Avengers, Season 2 would be Age of Ultron.
So what exactly does Season 2 offer? Well, everything is bigger. The monster is bigger, the threat is bigger, the cast is bigger, the stakes are bigger. I mean, it’s all the same stuff, there’s just more of it.
At the start of Season 2, there was an opportunity to really expand the scope of what Stranger Things could be. Season 1 ended ambiguously, the problems were resolved but in its place were a number of narrative possibilities: “What did the government force Hopper to do? Is Eleven still alive? Is Will contaminated from the Upside Down?” Season 1 burned a magnificent pyre, and left a satisfying ember in its wake. Season 2 had enormous potential going forward, and it actually started very strong, but instead of starting a new fire it exhausted the remains of the last one. The questions I bring forth are all answered pretty much immediately, but without having a meaty follow-up: the answers are “Keep things quiet; Yes, don’t ask how;” and “Yes, but only a little”. Season 2 completely quenches whatever flame Season 1 left without laying down something substantial in return.
Season 1 did a fantastic job laying down a post narrative bridge, whereas by the end of Season 2, there’s nothing left to talk about with the current elements: the concept of the Upside Down has been thoroughly swept, all the characters have been sufficiently developed (outside of Eleven’s sister and other possible psychics), and all the remaining plot holes of Season 1 have been resolved, replaced with some new Season 2 plot holes that will likely never be solved (seriously, why is Eleven still alive?).
Fortunately, there’s an upside to this. Due to this complete resolution of meaningful elements, Season 3 will be forced to explore new ground and should result in an overall stronger show.
SPOILERS END HERE
At the end of the day, the best stories are the ones that understand just how long they’re needed. Stranger Things is an amazing eight episode burst of narrative wrapped in a wonderful setting with excellent characters, acting, music and all around atmosphere, departing with its best foot forward and asking little in return. With Season 2’s nine episode extension, there’s an effort to grow the stakes and circumstance, but they fail to meaningfully expand it. There’s a severe lack of newly charted space with Season 2 outside of simply adding more characters. And, unlike the fantastic if slightly bitter finish Season 1 left, Season 2 leaves a far too familiar aftertaste but presents it as bold and new. It’s great that Season 3 is confirmed, and I truly hope it will force the story to explore new ideas and spaces, but I’m left wondering if the entire show could ever be better than just watching Season 1 and letting the rest shamble away into the cover of darkness.