The first two seasons of the Netflix sci-fi drama Stranger Things are among the finest television ever produced. Few shows manage to weave together multiple complex strands of compelling drama, juggle numerous captivating character types, and tell a deeply rewarding story quite like Stranger Things did in its early years. That it did so while saturating itself with a rich yet rather subtle vein of 1980s nostalgia made it all the more impressive. It is easy to make a hackneyed throwback feature; it is harder to make a worthwhile movie or television show that also just happens to be a throwback. Stranger Things did it.
Unfortunately, in season three the show has squandered this considerable legacy with a succession of cheap thrills, screwball antics, corny one-liners, and chaotic, disorienting storylines. One gets the vague sense that the showrunners, attempting to get into the spirit of the season’s 1985 backdrop, ingested a considerable quantity of cocaine before writing the scripts. None of it makes sense, either on its own or in the context of the show’s first two slam-dunk seasons.
One of the things that made Stranger Things so compelling to watch when it first came out was that its terrific cast of characters always felt slightly in over their heads. In season one we watched as a disparate group of close friends, loners, popular kids, single parents, mysterious orphans, and alcoholic cops stumbled around a small town (and eventually into each other) trying to get a grasp on the horror unfolding there. There is a dark, desperate, lonely quality to those episodes. Season two featured a more unified front of characters, yet they were still driven apart by factors ranging from the mundane to the horrifying: lies, duplicity, abuse, violence, possession, abandonment, torture, murder, monsters.
Season three has done away with such high stakes. At no point does anything feel very much out of anyone’s control. People solve mysteries and puzzles with shocking celerity. One character somehow learns rudimentary Russian in a matter of hours. Another correctly intuits that a bunch of de-magnetized magnets are a critical mystery that needs solving. Some others make an incredibly quick and fortuitous discovery involving the song “Daisy Bell.” A young journalist just happens to pick up on a hot tip that leads her directly into the heart of the action. Rarely if ever does anyone seem stumped or even moderately distressed. Everything flows smoothly.
One might be able to forgive such sloppy storytelling if the characters themselves were worth it. But the show has also kneecapped itself with scene after scene of insufferable cornball humor.
The relationship between Joyce Byers and Jim Hopper has suffered the most. Whereas before the two characters shared a simmering sexual tension while playing beautifully off each other’s iron wills, now they have been reduced to goofy, bickering caricatures, desperately trying to wring every last drop of unfunny humor from every scene. Why it’s necessary for Hopper to comically shout and/or theatrically growl nearly every one of his lines is unclear, but he does, and it’s awful.
The relationship between Dustin and Steve — praised last season for its sweet, organic, slightly awkward buddy chemistry — has also become a parody of itself, a fast-talking zinger machine that can’t produce any funny zingers.
But suffering the most this season is probably Eleven. Previously the beating heart of the show, a tragic yet beautiful embodiment of friendship, loyalty, and principle, El has been reduced to something of a flat, bitchy archetype, goaded on by Mad Max, an interesting character the writers treat with similar artistic contempt. (The compelling cast of young men — the guys who, mind you, just a year or so earlier helped save the world along with Eleven — have likewise been relegated mostly to an uninteresting, unfunny parade of hormonal and angsty teenage dunderheads.)
It would all be slightly more tolerable if any of it were entertaining or touching. None of it is. Instead, it’s frenetic and bewildering where the first two seasons were slow, careful, and rewarding in crafting their plots. Season three, as the commentator Stephen Miller has pointed out, goes from “shock horror like The Thing to goofy flirting like Fast Times at Ridgemont High to buddy cop comedy like 48 Hrs in back to back to back scenes.” There is no tonal coherence to any of it. You are never quite sure what kind of show you’re watching.
This is something of a modern-day artistic tragedy. Stranger Things had built up a considerable amount of deserved good will over the past few years, producing as it did a deft and seamless mash-up of Millennial nostalgia and captivatingly original storytelling. It can be hard to live up to hype like that, and plenty of shows fall short of it, either by sticking to tired old formulas or by straying too far from what made them great in the first place. But the sweet spot between doing what works and keeping things fresh was well within this show’s grasp, and the showrunners missed the mark.
At one point during season three, one character asks another: “Isn’t it time you died?” If its latest missteps are the beginning of a trend, we might soon ask be asking the same of Stranger Things.