Stranger Things 2 (Serialization v. Episodic Television)

I’m going to be freely talking about Season 2 of Stranger Things here, or, as the Duffer Brothers would have it, Stranger Things 2. So, you know, if you didn’t consume it all in one sitting proceed with care.

Maybe I’ve told this story on this blog before, but it’s one that sticks with me. Near the very end of my experience studying screenwriting in Prague our professor, Jan Fleischer, took us out to drinks. We (extremely informally) reflected on the program and screenwriting in general. My buddy Frank commented that he didn’t have any experience writing screenplays up until he arrived in Prague, and that his experience writing poetry was probably the furthest thing from screenplays. Jan shook his head. “Poems are the closest to films,” he explained. “A poem is about one thing. It’s a ‘look here’. So is a film.”

Jan’s point was that poetry and films are one variation on one theme, because with only a few lines or two hours you simply don’t have time to delve into different variations of themes. Books and their filmic counterpart television, however, have the time to explore a series of interconnected themes, stories, meanings, etc.

The distinction between films and television gets messier as we get into streaming. There’s been probably a zillion articles about it, but it’s still worth discussing as I recover from my Stranger Things 2 three day long viewing haze. I’ll be upfront and say I didn’t love the first season of Stranger Things. The genre throwbacks are just too… I don’t want to say too callous, because I think they’re legitimate. Too hollow? They don’t mean anything on their own. But the show was fun, and some of the moments, the ones that did stand on their own without being a reference to anything aka the moments between characters, were generally strong if occasionally uneven. But mostly it was fun. Lots of fun. I was excited to watch Stranger Things 2.

It’s important that the Duffer Brothers have hunkered down so hard on the “2”, the title of a sequel to a movie as opposed to another season of television. They want this story to be about one thing, want you to view it as one long movie, one “look here”. In some ways it succeeds, using the entirety of the season to focus on the trauma and fallout of the first season. This is a good move, I think – it’s something that realistically felt like it had to be addressed, and it’s something all the characters share, making multiple disparate plotlines feel like they belong under the same seasonal roof.

But the Duffer Brothers can’t quite get out of the mindset of television, insisting, equally, that they call their individual episodes “chapters”. Maybe the terminology is meant to straddle the line. They aren’t quite episodes, as each “chapter” of Stranger Things 2 doesn’t necessarily have a cohesive theme and can’t be watched as a standalone installment. (I’ll note here that prestige drama is also an offender in the slow serialization of television, though shows like Mad Men and BoJack, where episodes function well as standalone installments as well as servicing the overarching story, prove it doesn’t have to be that way).

At the end of the day when it comes down to it there’s a reason movies are 2 hours long and television is episodic. 9 hours on one theme is monotonous. Television and movies seem to be converging from both ends of the spectrum, but not learning the lessons they should from each other. When I wrote about the Marvel Movies I highlighted the bizarre convergence from the movie end of things. They feel the pressure of featuring everyone in every “episode” but still feel the pressure to make the movie work as a movie by giving every big name character a storyline. They want to be connected but not episodic, and therefore don’t feel like movies and don’t feel like television.

Stranger Things 2 suffers a sort of opposite problem. It wants to be a movie so badly it ditches smaller stories. Each character, it reasons, can only be one thing – we don’t have time for anything else. If you follow me on Twitter you may have noticed my rallying cry this weekend. Why do Nancy and Mike, a brother and sister who are sworn to a government enforced secrecy pact, both of whom believe they’ve lost a friend of the Upside Down, both of whom have lived in a house together for a year, never ever share a scene? Mike escapes from a lab filled with monsters and runs directly into Nancy and she doesn’t even get a moment to say “hey, glad you’re okay”. That’s ludicrous! How did the writers not think that through?

In the end the answer is simple. Mike and Nancy are only siblings on paper, but because the show views itself as a movie and not episodic they can only explore one thing. Nancy is only in a love triangle colored by Barb’s death. That’s it. Close the book on Nancy. Mike is given an even shorter end of the stick. He misses Eleven. Again, close the book on him. No other exploration needed or even allowed. This interpretation also offers an explanation for his missing presence this season. In the previous season Mike was one of the most central characters, this season he seemed to mostly fill space.

It’s too bad that serialization has taken such a dominant grip over television. I understand it, especially with a streaming service, but it’s blowing up a strength without replacing it with a different strength. Episodic television doesn’t preclude season arcs. It just gives us a wider scope through which to understand them. As recently as last week I lamented how spectacle without foundation is boring spectacle, and Stranger Things 2 nearly falls into that trap. Think about how much more affecting scenes near the end of the season would be if we saw Nancy and Mike have a heart-to-heart early on.

Some of you might argue stuff like that kills momentum, and Stranger Things 2, in its movie mirroring, is all about momentum. I think you’d be right in saying it requires momentum to work as well as it does, but the character beats actually add to the stakes and weight, which add to the momentum. I’d turn your attention to what may be the best season of television in my life time: Season 3 of Legend of Korra. Midway through the season we stop the proceedings for an episode “Old Wounds”. Lin, a minor leading character, works out her issues with her sister Su, a character we just met. The episode doesn’t lean heavily on its main cast, and lets the two sisters work their issues out in full – by the time the episode ends the conflict is largely resolved – you’ve seen them go from angry to peace and so it stands the test of standalone episode.

Six episodes later, in “Enter the Void” Lin and Su are pinned down by a powerful foe. Lin decides to sacrifice herself to save her sister, simply saying “I love you,” before jogging out from behind cover to draw their enemy’s fire. It, again, is a self-contained episode, but we spent twenty minutes earlier in the season giving that “I love you,” weight. In truth, slowing down to tell a self-contained episode is more economic because you can use it with greater force later. If we had no context for their relationship, no understanding of the bonds they just repaired, the “I love you,” wouldn’t matter to us. Spending time in that moment to reiterate their relationship from scratch would kill the momentum. But doing the work upfront allows the showrunners to sidestep that issue entirely. It even has continued returns: from there on in Lin and Su always have a growing weight of past experiences, and the showrunners can use increasing shorthand to summon all those previous moments, that web of individual closed stories, up.

Imagine a Stranger Things 2 where Nancy and Mike did have that heart-to-heart. Running out of the lab, watching her brother survive where her other friend died, Nancy could simply say “I thought I lost you too.” She could just give a goddamn relieved look. That’d have weight. But instead she does nothing and I’m left sitting here thinking about how these characters don’t know each other at all, and if Mike’s own sister doesn’t care about his safety then why the hell should I? Let the CGI buggers eat him. Who cares?

Which is a whole lot of ragging for a show I really enjoyed. Go watch it! Nancy goes on a great drunken tirade and later burns Will Byers with a poker and it’s great. Brett Gelman is in this season. There is a shadow monster! Check it out. I want to talk to someone about it. Oh, and happy halloween!

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