This weekend I started season three of the Netflix original series “Stranger Things,” the supernatural adventure series set in 1980s America. And though I haven’t finished the latest season yet, I’ve seen enough to say something I’ve been feeling for quite some time — “Stranger Things” should have ended after one season.
I thought season one of the show, while not without flaws, was a fun and mostly well-executed coming-of-age story and adventure romp that paid homage to family movies of the 1980s like “E.T.”
However, after a season two I felt seriously regressed, and a third season which seems to be regressing even further, I can’t help but feel the charm of the show is wearing incredibly thin.
Part of the reason the show wears thin, in my opinion, is the lack of any interesting usage of the time period it’s set in.
Much has been said about the setting of “Stranger Things,” as its main appeal or gimmick has been the time period. However, the show isn’t a period piece that makes any sort of statement about the era it’s set in. The show only ever uses the time period to say, “Hey, remember when Coca-Cola changed its flavor? That was fun,” or “Hey, remember when the Atari came out?” or “Hey, remember Ghostbusters?”
The 1980s was an important decade with a lot of big social, political and cultural changes, yet the writers are either unwilling or incapable of doing anything more interesting than the most surface-level nods to the period’s pop culture.
One of the things that made season one such an enjoyable viewing experience for me was the sense of foreboding and mystery. And unfortunately, that is now completely absent.
In season one, the characters and the viewers were on equal footing trying to figure out just what was going on. What was the deal with Eleven? What was the government’s role, exactly, in all this? What were those crazy monsters? And what actually did happen to Will Byers?
The protagonists and viewers had the same amount of information, and season one ended on a neat little cliffhanger.
Our imaginations ran amok with the cliffhanger, wondering about the implications of Will unwittingly bringing a monster back from the underworld. What it amounted to in season two, though was nothing interesting.
Plenty of great stories, such as many Stephen King novels, end on cliffhangers that indicate all was not resolved in the story’s world. And that would’ve been entirely preferred over a season two that just seemed like a slightly altered retread of the first season.
The main difference between seasons one and two is that, in “Stranger Things” season one, none of the main characters really know what’s going on. In season two, everyone knows exactly what’s going on, and it’s just a matter of stopping it. The mystery is gone.
Gone too is not just the mystery, but also the scariness. Season one had some moments of genuine horror, where the tension was palpable and what wasn’t seen, but implied, was enough to make your blood run cold. The prevailing idea in the later seasons has mostly been to cram as many CGI monsters into each episode as possible. And when monsters become a dime a dozen, they stop being scary.