'Stranger Things' Episodes Have No Business Being This Long
The show has given in to streaming's biggest problem: dreaded Netflix bloat.
This piece contains mild and vague spoilers for Stranger Things.
A week ahead of its fourth season's premiere, Stranger Things made news headlines not for anything specific or notable in its plot, cast, or release schedule, but for the supersized length of its next batch of episodes. All seven episodes of Stranger Things 4 Volume 1 are more than an hour, with the seventh installment clocking in at over 90 minutes. The final two, collectively called Volume 2 and debuting later in July, follow suit—the ninth episode is a full two hours and 30 minutes. Fans (are there still fans?) may have rejoiced, but critics poured themselves a couple of stiff ones and buckled in.
I enjoyed the first season of Stranger Things, a sleeper hit that debuted in the middle of summer 2016 and whose oversaturated pop-culture nostalgia read as charming instead of the symptom of an industry so out of fresh ideas it's begun eating its own tail. At that point, Netflix and show co-creators Matt and Ross Duffer had no clue how big of a smash the show would become and were still planning for it to be an anthology. But once the Millie Bobby Brown Funko POPs started selling out, they realized their goose had a few more golden eggs to lay. Since then, the show has flailed around in search of reasons to keep existing. With every new season, the eight- or nine-episode story lines feel a little more forced than the last.
Because I've kept up with it for this long, and because I was genuinely interested to see what the deal was with these mega-episodes, I decided to watch the new ones. The broad strokes of the plot this time around are thus: Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) is now living in a California suburb with the Byers family, struggling to fit in at school and unable to use her telepathic superpowers. Former police chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) has been left for dead in Soviet Russia, but he's alive and imprisoned in some snowy Siberian wasteland. Those left behind in Hawkins barely get a moment of rest before a new villainous resident of the Upside Down called Vecna, for some reason, starts taking over people's minds and horrifically killing them. It doesn't take Eleven long to realize she needs to find a way back to her X-Man powers so she can save the world yet again. The Dungeons & Dragons Satanic Panic of the 1980s roils in the background.
The show currently boasts an ensemble of 13 main characters: three adults, seven children (now teens), and four older teen counterparts. This season adds two more teens, another adult ally in the form of an imprisoned Russian soldier (Game of Thrones' Tom Wlaschiha), and two (eventually three) antagonists, bringing the grand total of key characters to 20. You would think that, with all these tokens on the board, so to speak, the show would need double-length episodes just to fit in all the story elements without feeling rushed. You would be wrong! There is so much empty space in this extravagant, sprawling, indulgent season that entire episodes feel like they exist merely to churn water while waiting for their own climax so everyone can move on to the real thing happening in the next episode. The ensemble is (mercifully) split into about six distinct groups, each with their own arcs to follow, which in theory is a good way to break up the complicated plot into bite-sized chunks, but in practice means that things just take so long to happen you've forgotten what the point of any of it was even before you get to the resolution.
None of it is bad, and a lot of it is mostly fine. Those who have stuck with it for this long will probably find plenty to enjoy. They'll just be sitting there for 13 hours watching a story unfold that could have been done in half that time, a self-referential ouroboros where every aspect of a thing is just a clumsy simulacrum of another earlier, better thing. In the first sentence of the opening paragraph of this essay, I used the word "batch" to refer to a season's worth of television episodes, since that's what new installments of any of our many ongoing franchises have started to feel like—a product crafted on an assembly line to be quickly consumed and digested to make room for the next ones. Netflix doesn't care how you watch something as long as you jolt awake every hour-and-change to click "yes" when asked, "Are you still watching?"
Maybe the only truly bad thing about this show is it no longer has the charm of a story centered on a group of nerdy kids using their knowledge of fantasy games and pop culture to fight off a bad guy worthy of a 1980s sci-fi movie. I was struck by how everyone is so miserable (it's about trauma, you see) for pretty much the entire running time. There is one scene early in the season that feels like the freewheeling, childlike joy of the show's origins, where a group of kids get together to play and win a session of Dungeons & Dragons, the camera zooming in on huddled faces, D20 dice rolling in agonizing slow motion. It has very little to do with the rest of the show, and is quickly forgotten as the plot moves on, a placeholder to remind us how we should be feeling while we watch something we used to like.