Friday, July 19, 2019
Netflix Watch: Stranger Things Season 3
In some ways I'm amazed I haven't totally turned on this show. It can be twee, it's a lot too precious in some scenes, and the "look, we're doing the 1980's!" while getting a lot of details wrong should have pushed me over the ledge.*
Sometimes I wish they'd just turn to David Harbour and Winona Ryder and ask "is this actually right? As someone who was a young person in 1985, is this accurate?" Because it works *better* for those of us who were around this age when the show is on. And it is on *a lot*. But when it's off, it takes you right out.
The horror was more or less abstracted to a general horror-movie sort of problem this season, giving the characters less specific rules-sorting to do, which I support. At times the visual and filmic references to other things was so heavy handed, though, the show almost folded in on itself.
Still, somehow, the show works. I still really enjoyed it, and I know why.
Really, I think the fact the show - like many shows - loves its characters more than a plot that's super-tight is a strength, and the saving grace is that they somehow managed to find just an amazing array of young talent to realize those characters. And - if the characters are getting a bit "annoying" as I saw here and there online - it's because the characters actually react like kids a lot of time - especially when you're talking about non-Upside Down-related stuff.
There's risk here: while none of us wanted another season of Will being slowly tortured, you need to continue to feel like there's risk involved in a high-stakes sci-fi/ horror premise. This isn't quite Ghostbusters where it would feel odd if, say, they bumped off Ray. I don't want the kids dead, but the incredibly dark first season gave way to a sort of Scooby-Doo vibe this season where it no longer felt like anyone was actually at risk.** Losing characters we never met before or who were assholes (hello, perfectly cast Jake Busey), isn't as big a deal as losing, say, Barb.
This season upped the product placement and brought back namebrand storefronts from the 1980's, but... here's the thing - In no way was that too much. That's kind of how I remember this era. The mid-80's were when I hit 10 years old, and within two years I'd be wearing a Coca-Cola branded shirt and I was a chubby, greedy little kid who wanted to hit the Orange Julius at the mall - which is where I wanted to be (to hit the comics spinner racks at the two name-brand bookstores, the arcade, the record shop, Spencer's, etc...).
For as thin as I felt the villainous plot of the Mindflayer might be, it was still a good one for our heroes to combat - especially with the introduction of the Russians. I mean, 9 in 10 movies of the era referenced our Cold War foes, and while it may not entirely make sense that Russia would build a mall to cover their tracks when any heavy industry concern would do - or the discovery that apparently a construction company capable of building multi-story underground layers is working and alive in the US without anyone noticing... I mean... maybe? Whatever. I went with it.
But, yeah, the Russian villains felt lifted from any of a dozen PG action films of the era, the one guy was clearly supposed to be a Terminator homage, and I can't tell you how many sweet-natured Russians died in films in the 1980's just as they were about to switch sides. The Mindflayer's scheme echoed everything from Invasion of the Bodysnatchers to The Thing to an infinite number of other Soviet-era horror films. There was just a lot of "oh, seen that before", right up to the dual key system sequence, used in everything from War Games to Superman III.
Some folks found Mike annoying this season - but you know what's painful and awkward? Adolescents trying to sort out love. And of course it was painful and awkward to watch, that's what made it hilarious. Especially with the very recognizable roles kids play at that age, from the guy who has dated giving bad advice to the kid who has no reference yet (and may be gay), watching from the outside as guys peel off to pursue girls. Frankly, I would have been fine with a whole show about the characters dealing with their romantic foibles when one of the kids is a mutant. That's quality stuff.
Steve and Dustin's dynamic duo expanding to include Robin (Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman's daughter!) and Erica was a huge surprise - I'd expected that to dry up and fold back into the kid cast, but I dug what they did as all four expanded who they were. If anyone got short shrift, it was Jonathan, who mostly got to stand around and admire Nancy.
I've always appreciated the adults on this show, and no more so than this season. Clearly the show is turning Harbour into a star as "not as dumb as you'd expect and actually a bit of an ass-kicker, Jim Hopper". I mean, just by routinely *not* making Hopper an ineffective adult male, the show is kind of novel. Despite her mania, Joyce's character arc continues to flourish, and her PTSD around losing Bob is more than understandable.
While, yes, actress Cara Buono is stunning, I do feel like they really want to do something with that character and utilize her significant talents (she's been good in other things I've seen, such as Mad Men), but Stranger Things may not have room for the tale of an Indiana housewife's ennui - unless it fits in with The Upside Down, I guess. There's enough going on.
It does feel like we're headed for a turning point and into the "endgame" as it were. I don't know how long they can keep the core cast, and this does feel like a show that needs to wrap up for a bit, even if they come back in ten years and re-do all of this in the 90's with the cast older and able to drive. Go for the whole It thing, I suppose.
I didn't dislike last season, but I'm not 100% sure Eleven's ride around the countryside produced the necessary results, other than possibly setting up some stuff for the end. I do wonder where the edgy 80's X-Men character went in favor of the Mall Rat we got this season (and I totally dug her finding a friend in Max). This season felt tighter, and while I miss that darker 80's edge, it was still a joy to get through. Even if kids were wearing shirts that more or less just wouldn't have existed in the 1980's.
If I have one gripe: I am in the camp for thinking "The Neverending Story sequence" was very badly timed. And made me hate Suzie right out of the gate.*** There's no reason that couldn't have happened at a different point, and it seemed to project to the audience "we know you're invested in this, but here's a joke we thought up and we're refusing to kill our darlings". It yanked me completely out of the sequence, broke the tone, and undercut everything that came afterwards (and the likelihood that everyone wouldn't kind of hate Dustin for that in the aftermath would be pretty low). I like the movie of Neverending Story, too. I even kind of like that dumb song.
That was a bad decision.
Also - those bowl cuts were out by 1985. Even awkward kids were getting trimmed down by 1985, including crew cuts. But the rest of the looks at the mall and beyond - amazing.
Anyway - Season 3.
Looking forward to Season 4.
*Look, in 1985, a middle-school boy without a little sister didn't know anything about My Little Pony other than it was a toy line aimed at little kids - especially little girls. I'll argue that even the nerdy among us had only an inkling of an idea there was a mythology around My Little Pony pre-2000's relaunch until they started talking about it on the show.
Gen-X may have brought content and characters previously considered content for adolescents along with them to adulthood, but I'd argue that My Little Pony revival taking off with young men was a separate and unintended part of a relaunch of a moribund brand for little children, just as the original toys were intended (and heavily coded as "being for girls").
**and (SPOILERS) if Hopper is actually dead, I'll eat my Magnum PI shirt.
***ya suck, Suzie