As I’d mentioned many times before, I wasn’t a fan of Netflix’s corporate board. They’d said some things in media interviews that led me to understand that they were rapidly anti-American (a real shame as a good portion of their business comes from the United States), so I just wasn’t going to give them a second look. After a time – and the build-up of entertainment properties I genuinely wanted to explore – I softened my stance and gave them a closer look. Eventually, I subscribed, and the rest – as they say – is water under the bridge.
But I’d actually seen the first two seasons on DVD when they were released (limited, I believe) in the U.S. on DVD at Target. Though I wasn’t ‘gaga’ over the show like so many, I’ll concede that it clearly had many of the things audiences look to in a quality genre enterprise: a solid premise, exceptional effects, some moments of tension intercut with great levity, and a winning cast. The youngsters made it easy to forgive any of the show’s lesser moments; they all bring an honest enthusiasm to the material, and it certainly helps that they crew brings a great screen chemistry with them each time they’re enlisted for another season.
However … I still didn’t find the show as pitch perfect as did the larger swath of mankind.
Season One? Oh, yes. A winner. I recall having a few misgivings with some of the side characters, but – all-in-all – it was a pretty stellar introduction into this world that wasn’t quite Science Fiction, wasn’t quite Fantasy, wasn’t quite Horror but instead combined the elements in a thrilling concoction while effectively recreating the vibe of 1980’s storytelling sensibilities. It tapped into something, became a bona fide global phenomenon, and we were off to the races.
Season Two? Again, another pretty solid experience, though the gloss – in my opinion – had worn just a bit. It’s hard to recreate the magic of an all-new event, but the Duffer Brothers were familiar enough with their material to bring it to life again. A couple of the storylines felt a bit consequential and not as organic as the first season; and yet because it was all so well done it was easy to forgive a blemish here and there. Like I said, another great thrill ride.
Season Three? Meh. I really had a hard time with this one mostly because I just didn’t feel the overall arc of this crop of episodes was doing anything more than trying to sustain something already done vastly better in Season 1 and Season 2. The freshness of their ideas and situations was gone – this was the third assortment, after all – and the kids started looking a bit too old to handle some of the required ‘wide-eyed responses’ to the frights. They’d seen it before, you know, and – like them – I kept thinking “this isn’t our first rodeo” … so I found much of it just uneven … not uninteresting, mind you … just uneven.
Which brings us to the Season Four, Part 1 …
The writers have kinda/sorta come to terms with their growing cast, finally putting them in a set of circumstances and situations befitting their wizened years and experience. Like it or not, they’ve become a modern incarnation of the Ghostbusters; and the truth of engaging in such exploits is that – over time and gained familiarity – that job gets a bit less scary for them. That’s where they are – they’ve done this before – and their reactions are definitely a bit more in line with where they should be.
See, we’ve watched them grow up in these extraordinary times, and now we – as an audience – are looking to them to right these wrongs. They’re rising to the challenges quicker and with greater confidence – as they should – and the show has evolved a bit from what it was only a few years ago. It’s more nuanced, and it’s definitely more intelligence. While they might have a wide-eyed moment of pure dread here and there, we’re able to see the maturity of what they’ve endured much more strongly than ever before … and I, personally, think that’s why I’m finding this season on par with the first. It’s almost like Seasons 1 and 4 are bookends to a saga, even though we know there’s a fifth season on the horizon.
Also, there’s been plenty written about Season 4’s obvious similarities to the Freddy Krueger saga. In no small way, there are bits and pieces that feel ‘lifted’ (inspired?) by the whole A Nightmare On Elm Street series of flicks – a very good property to ‘steal’ from, if you’re gonna steal – and I think the Duffer Brothers have taken great pains to position the supernatural villainy above where the kids could handle a few seasons ago up to what they’re capable of facing as young adults. It’s some genius work, really, and I hope these cast, crew, and show are rewarded come award season.
A last reflection that happened across my brain the other day bears a bit of mention.
As a young’un, I grew up watching the old serials of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers on Saturday morning television. (No, kids, I’m not so old I saw them in theaters first run. Give me some credit!) There was a local station out of Chicago that would play them in rotation every so often – honestly, it felt like it happened once a year – and I’d always tune in when I could find them. Take this for what it’s worth, but the opening half of Stranger Things Season 4 feels very similar to what audiences were originally treated to back in the day – an ongoing serialized adventure that ran in a loose chronological fashion. Every chapter ended on a cliffhanger that’d be picked up next time, and this effect produces the desired result of drawing you deeper and deeper in the franchise’s magic and mystery.
There’s a meme somewhere online (I believe it’s based on a comedian’s joke) about how a studio executive is pitching a new idea. He says, “I want to make a ten-hour movie,” and – of course – the reaction is in the negative. It’ll never sell. No one will come to watch that. It’s stupid. We’ll go bankrupt. Those are the typical answers. So to counter the downside, he suggests, “OK, then let’s make a ten-hour series,” to which everyone enthusiastically agrees and starts throwing money at the suit.
See what I mean?
This is where Stranger Things is right now: it’s reinvented the classic movie serial … a format that I’d argue has never gone out of style … it just comes and goes until some creative type gives it a bit of a makeover … and audiences are hooked again.
So thank you, Duffer Brothers, for a return to prominence of the best kind of long-form storytelling ever invented. You’ve done it proud this season.