Have the Duffers become victims of their own intentions?

I remember my disappointment with Stranger Things 3, and saying to a friend: “It’s curious that as the kids are growing more mature, the show is becoming less mature.” A lot of that had to do with the farcical comedy of season 3, but it may also have owed to the paradox of kids less able to transcend themselves when age robs them of the gift. And that, believe it or not, has a lot to do with why the Duffers made Stranger Things to begin with.

What made Stranger Things 1 and 2 so special was that kids were the focus in an adult series — and that’s why studios kept rejecting it:

“The biggest complaint from studios was that Stranger Things is a horror show that focuses on a group of children as the main characters. Executives said that the Duffers should either (a) change the tone of the show to make it more kid-friendly, or else (b) shift the focus to the teen or adult characters. The Duffers said doing that would ‘lose everything interesting about the show.'”

I’m sure those execs are kicking themselves for their incompetence, and it reminds me how Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings project kept getting rejected because studios were afraid to commit to three films over three hours long a piece. Hindsight is 20/20 and a real bitch.

But to use the Duffers’ own words against them: if focusing on teens and adults would rob Stranger Things of “everything interesting about the show”, then Stranger Things 3 and beyond were all but doomed. And I think this is where Stranger Things 4, despite its overall excellence, fails to measure up. I realize that’s not the fairest criticism — kids do have to grow — but fair or not, the fact is that there’s a certain magic to the show that was lost once the kids graduated from middle school. Puberty is a real bitch too, and in the case of Stranger Things it killed the series’ uniqueness. Teen horror has been around for decades.

That being said, I think the fourth season (unlike the third) was amazing and actually gave us some better content than anything seen in the first two. But it also had its problems (on which see below), and because the kids are no longer kids, it seems that the show needs to become even more adult — characterwise, more deep and mature. That’s the approach I took in writing my fanfiction novels, when I imagined the kids in their later years.

Anyway, here’s my ranking of the seasons to date, with a hopeful prediction for season 5.

#1. Season Two. The sophomore season gives us the most to care about. All the main characters are alienated, whether from others or themselves. Eleven is isolated in a cabin, torn between her new father Hopper and a mother she wants to find; Mike is a shell, believing his girlfriend dead but not letting go; Will is possessed and becomes a proxy murderer for the Mind Flayer; Nancy suffers guilt over Barb; Dustin can only find acceptance in a dangerous shadow-pet (Dart). It took nerve for the Duffers to treat their characters this honestly, and especially to emasculate its lead character Mike while keeping El out of reach until the final episode. The chemistry between El and Hopper is sublime. This is what sequels should be like, and for me it’s the height of the series, not only in terms of the tone and atmosphere (it’s much darker than season 1), but the emotional ride. It all comes together in a dramatic payoff: Mike and El’s tearful reunion, El closing the Gate, and the best scene of the series, the Snow Ball. Season 2 is best because it’s so immersive and doesn’t flinch from the cost of what went on before. Rating: 10/10.

#2. Season One. The premiere season is so meticulously crafted that not a single scene feels wasted. Even the quietest character moments advance the story. In this sense it’s the most polished season. As with season 2, there’s a lonely feel to it that makes Stranger Things more than just a science fiction show about other-dimensional aliens. We invest in the characters for their real-world problems. There’s abuse (Eleven’s at the hands of Dr. Brenner), grief (Hopper’s for Sara, the kids thinking Will is dead), bullying (from Troy), torture (of Eleven in the lab, and of the animals she is required to torture in turn), and parental dysfunction (Ted and Karen Wheeler). This is “Stand by Me” squared, showing kids at an age when they’re old enough to know real danger, but still young enough to believe that friendship has infinite power. A season without fault or blemish; I rank it at #2 not because it’s deficient in any way, only because season 2 takes things even higher and deeper. Rating: 10/10.

#3. Season Four. What it gets right, it gets so right that on first viewing I thought it was actually my favorite. There’s a return to season-1 Stockholm drama, with Eleven and her abusive Papa; the Silo Lab arc from episodes 5-8 is my favorite arc in the whole series. As in season 2, friends are down and distant. Max is guilt-ridden and suicidal; El is miserable, bullied by peers in the present and past; Lucas is into sports and less into Mike and Dustin’s ideas of fun. The emotionally vulnerable die as they daydream. Vecna’s killings, sadistic as they are, are but a means to an end — to create enough gates to start the apocalypse. El and Max deliver fabulous performances. There is, however, some annoying season-3ish comedy that creates a tone problem (especially with Murray and Joyce, though also Argyle and Robin), and contrived plotting that makes the Russia story line up too conveniently with the events in Hawkins. If not for the overall excellence — and for some of the best content ever seen in the series — those elements would reduce the rating to an 8, but it’s no less than 9. Rating: 9/10.

#4. Season Five (?). I hope the Duffers will go out like Breaking Bad — with a fifth season so epic that it sets a new bar — but I expect that it will be about as good as season 4, give or take. We know that it will focus on the characters from season 1 and that Will has a critical role to play, which sounds promising. While it was nice in season 4 to see the core group — Mike, Will, Lucas, Dustin, El, Hopper, Joyce, Nancy, Steve, Jonathan — split up across the world and painted into corners, for the final showdown we need them back and tight where it all began, with less spotlight on latecomers (and lamecomers) like Robin, Erica, and Murray. I’m expecting that Will’s return will be very bad for him; that he may become Vecna’s instrument in destroying the world; and that Max, if she wakes at all, will be greatly diminished. Here’s praying for a full eradication of post-season 2 comedy and more depth of character. Predicted rating: 8-9/10.

#5. Season Three. The steaming misfire. The Duffers wanted a “summer blockbuster” with the campy tone of Jurassic Park, and they went off the cliff with comedy. Compared to the trials of Will (seasons 1 and 2) and the nightmares of Vecna (seasons 4 and 5), the horror is more silly than menacing. The best part is getting to see Eleven kick ass like never before (against Billy in the sauna, and the Flayed creature at Hopper’s cabin) before she loses her powers. And the final episode is admittedly a staggering piece of cinema. Aside from that, it’s hard to believe how bad this season is. The characters are cartoon versions of themselves, especially Hopper. The plotting is so lazy and contrived you’d think it was scripted by a teenager, and adding to the lazy feel is the fact that the overall plot is just a repeat of season 2 (the Mind Flayer is using a human host, and a gate needs closing to defeat it). Some scenes are downright painful to watch; they seem intended to mock the series and piss off fans, and they completely succeeded. Rating: 4/10.

For the dirty details on my rankings, see here.

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