In case you have been living in a bubble over the last week, season 3 of Stranger Things dropped on Netflix on July 4. Yes, it became the cultural sweeping event the other two seasons have been, but Season 3 was also a return to form after a stuttering sophomore effort. Stranger Things 3 succeeded by simply getting back to basics and focusing on what we all loved in the first place… the characters.
Yes, the Netflix Original has plenty going for it, but likeable characters and nostalgia are its trump cards. Stranger Things reminds us of a simpler time, while ironically being delivered through an online streaming service in a world of YouTube, casino online options, Spotify, and social media networks.
Netflix is boasting Stranger Things had 40.7 million viewers (separate accounts) through the first four days of release. Yes, that’s hugely impressive, making the show the most popular streaming TV offering and possibly the most popular TV show available today, period. However, season 2 had a similar success rate and while it had enough things going for it to keep it interesting, it was largely seen as a dip in quality from season 1
That’s because Stranger Things creators, the Duffer Brothers, either misunderstood or ignored what made the show popular in the first place. Viewers fell head over heels for the characters. Brash but vulnerable police chief Jim Hopper, four geeky preteens (Mike, Dustin, Lucas, and Will) with a love of Dungeons and Dragons, and of course the telekinetically gifted Eleven (El).
Season 1 of Stranger Things provided its share of spectacle, but it was largely a character driven show where the personalities were put ahead of the plot. That’s not to say there was not a visible story arc, just that the characters were more important than it. In the second season, the Duffers became ambitious and upped the ante to create a convoluted plot that treated the characters relatively poorly.
Again, season 2 was not an outright miss, but it was notable that the increase in intricate plot details harmed the overall development of the characters. A key example is keeping El away from Mike, Dustin, Will, and Lucas for most of the season, despite these five child characters being a driving force behind the initial success of Stranger Things.
In season 3, the Duffer Brothers returned to the character first model of the show. All characters were where they should be and mostly who they should be with. Scenes were focused on character development and reminding us why these people are so darn likeable. Yes, there was an interesting plot and plenty of spectacle (more than ever, in fact), but it was not what the new season was about.
It’s a trick Marvel has made the staple of its MCU movies, putting the characters at the forefront of the experience. Heroes such as Captain America and Iron Man were bigger than the movies in which they lived, bigger than the plot, and even bigger than the villains (often the villains stand out in movies more than protagonists, something the MCU has reversed).
While fans are rabid about finding or avoiding spoilers surrounding these properties, what happens to the characters in a Marvel movie is mostly understood before entering the cinema. At least we know beforehand that superheroes are not going to die. Ok, there are exceptions (has enough time passed to mourn Tony Stark without it being considered a spoiler?), but the mystery in an MCU movie is not whether Thor is going to perish.
Now, moviegoers are attending these movies to go along with the ride alongside characters they love, through the ups and the downs. It’s the same with Stranger Things, where audiences want to head back to Hawkins, Indiana every year and catch up with a gang of familiar faces as they go about their adventures. It’s a recipe that makes Stranger Things one of the most binge-worthy shows ever made.