TV: Stranger Things (season three), Veronica Mars (season four)
Stranger Things (season three)
This is the latest season of the 1980s-set sci-fi thriller about a group of kids taking on otherworldly threats to their small midwestern town.
I was surprisingly on board for season three.
I say "surprisingly", because I was genuinely surprised at how well they've corrected for problems I've had with earlier seasons.
For example, at the start, they were not great at introducing new characters. Hell, Hopper first shows up "waking up next to an empty bottle in a filthy bedroom", which is the dustiest of old clichés. And the four kids, for much of season one, were rather indistinguishable w/r/t personality.
But I think the Duffer Brothers are scarily good at watching their dailies. They are excellent at seeing how their characters are taking shape, where the actors are going with them, and then either course-correcting the current season, or tucking notes away for the following ones. And so, over time, they've improved their characterization. Blandness gives way to specificity. Clichés give way to originals. I can't think of any other showrunners who would turn their classic John Hughes villain into a sardonic, warmhearted friend to the kids — and on top of that, have an audience convinced 100% that this was the right move.
So here in season three, they're finally starting with a full cast of well-realized characters, and I'm ecstatic to hang out with them again.¹ For example, I love where they've gone with Joyce. Her edge-of-madness determination was purely a plot move in season one; it was that Joyce *had* to have that one trait so that everyone could wonder (somewhat misogynistically), "Whuh, is she on to something or is she just crazy?" And they've let that mature into a fiercely affectionate character who, if they think something bad is happening to someone they care about, will shout and rip the walls down to make it stop.
I could easily see a lesser showrunner "resetting" Joyce. i.e., "Now that she doesn't have to go searching for Will, she just returns to 'normal'," and she's blandly neutral from then on.
The kids, too, have been allowed to grow into real characters. Lucas, whose role in season one was basically "say no to every plan" (yeah, *that* was fun </s>) has become the voice of worldly experience for the group, which the actor plays with aplomb. They lean into Dustin's nerdiness, and Will's haunted caution, and Mike's lingering anger. They give El a chance to show what she's like when she's carefree and out in the world and dating, after years of very serious monster-fighting. I only hope that in season four, they embrace that their youngest character, Will, is now a literal giant — I would adore it if the gentlest of them to be the one who could likely beat everyone up.
(And circling back to Steve, I love that his character is allowed to respond to the weird turns his story has taken. He's keenly aware that, for reasons beyond his understanding, let alone control, now nobody respects him, and he works in an ice cream shop, and his friends are a group of dweebish tweens. Well, okay then.)
And I feel like their introduction of new characters for season three was solid as well. They continue to moneyball hiring great 80s actors with Cary Elwes as the mayor of Hawkins — although they don't give him much to do besides chew the scenery and be vaguely corrupt. Robin and Alexei are much better newbies. With Alexei they go a long way with just a few brushstrokes of characterization (Russian scientist, likes cartoons).
With Robin they do great at drawing from the other half of the "Freaks and Geeks" split — okay, we've seen what the shy, small, D&D enthusiasts were doing, but what about the older kids who were getting high and arguing about Led Zeppelin? So of course Robin is a band geek who's obsessed with Kurosawa and is a hair's breadth away from moving to Chicago and starting a local-music zine. It's not a home run — for much of the series, the script gives her nothing to do but make fun of Steve — but they watch their dailies, they see where the character is headed, and they add facets to the characterization.
All of which is to say, Hopper is season three is just (the second time I'm using this phrase today) a bizarre own-goal. I understand what they were going for: El is growing up, and he's scared of losing his daughter, and so he acts out. I know this because they literally tell me this towards the end of the season. Nothing within the performance or how it's written even hints at this — it's just relentless sneering and shouting. It's out of character for Hopper, both in that he's always been more clumsy than hostile, and he's never been this... one-note and boring. He always seemed too respectful to his friends to act this creepily possessive, too. And the out-of-character behavior for Hopper led to out-of-character behavior from the people accommodating him: I mean, talk like that to Joyce, and that woman will put you in the ground, son. But instead they have to 'banter'.
Anyway, more on this in a bit. For now, I'll just say it's a bizarre exception to a show with much stronger characters than it had at the beginning.
They've also gotten better at how they depict the eighties. On the one hand, the world they create does feel genuinely more accurate to the time period. For example, Nancy and Jonathan finally have a truly horrible beater station wagon, and the show both creates a spectacularly on-point mall for Hawkins, and depicts the economic stagnation it inflicts on downtown. Yes, many things are still a little too clean, and a little too shiny, but it's no longer off-putting the way it was in season one.
But more importantly, this is a season that 'calls its shot' much more clearly: this is a show that is not set in the 80s. This is a show that is set in the genre movies of the 80s. Yes, the producers (and the show's ardent defenders) have said this was the case since the beginning, but I will now play my "Death of the Author" card and say that this wasn't clearly on display in seasons one or two. It just felt like they aimed for the 80s and missed, in the way that you might expect enthusiastic millennials to consistently bungle certain details.
But now, there are Russian spy operations. And these are not in the same universe as The Americans — this is a bunch of rooms of blinkenlights and an enforcer who looks like they X-24'd the Terminator. It's far enough over the top that I can say, okay, yes, there are clearly visible quote marks around "the 80s" in this show, and I am okay with that. By the time they hit their much-discussed Neverending Story nod, I feel like it doesn't break the show, but revels in its not-quite-reality.
Really, to me the only downside of season three is the monster.
Now let's be clear: this was a great 'next step' to go with the monsters they've had before. If there is a mind-flayer, and it's formerly taken control of Will Byers, it totally makes sense to go into "invasion of the body snatchers" territory. The Cronenberg body-horror nods are right in the pocket of the 80s-horror world they're exploring.
And yet. And yet.
When you're doing genre fiction on TV, you usually want to play the classic Mutant Enemy game of "here's what the show's about" and "here's what the show's *really* about". The supernatural threat reflects something you reckon with in reality. This Buffy episode is nominally about Angel losing his soul, but it's *really* about feeling betrayed after a teenage boyfriend gets laid and then vanishes. Ideally, you make it so that taking on the monster requires addresses some unacknowledged problem in your own life. Take ST:TNG — ample numbers of Holodeck problems came down to Barclay owning up to how he was using it for creepy escapism.
And meanwhile, the mind-flayer is just... there. It doesn't represent anything — it's just a creepy monster. It doesn't force people to work through personal issues — they just have to fight the creepy monster. It does an excellent job of ginning up plot moves: it gives Nancy a strange case to investigate; it gives El some things to explore in her "black water-floor" world; it provides some amazing special effects and (spoilers) destroys a very on-point mall. And it creates a steady engine for the plot: more people are taken over by the mind flayer, and they can reliably end an episode with "ooh look, the monster is *even stronger* now".
But it doesn't mean anything. It's just moves.
So honestly I was ecstatic with the start of the show, which felt like a fanfic AU predicated on "What if Hawkins but no monsters?", and explored the characters' lives a la Freaks and Geeks. And I teared up at the end of the season, watching these characters move on to the next chapter of their lives. But I was usually a little bit annoyed at having to attend to the monster in between, no matter how exciting the action scenes were.
(Side note: this is probably why the show's body count feels so off-putting. Granted, with Barb in season 1 that may have been the classic "your party is obsessed with the one NPC you created to be monster fodder", but as the show goes on, the steady death count from the mind-flayer and his minions just feels... odd. If the monster never really means anything, it feels like we just sacrificed a big chunk of the town to a plot device.)
But even then, the show wasn't bad, merely average.
I do love that this world they depict is warmer and kinder than what I remember of growing up in the 80s in a small midwestern town. I'll tread lightly because of spoilers, but the season's coming-out scene made me cry. It broke my heart that I knew, deep down, that people at that time and in that place *wouldn't* be that supportive. Hell, I knew people would be aghast at a black tween dating the white girl from California. But it made me feel irrationally happy to know that it could have been better — that it could have been like this.
I'm still processing my feelings about that.
I know that, at the far end of this behavior, there are (say) the people at tourist-trap plantations talking about how happy and well-treated the slaves were there — people willfully ignoring the wrongs of the past so they can justify wrongs in the present. But this show's revisionism might be healthy — just asking what it might have been like if we all had known more then about how to be good. Maybe it's reassuring us that we can do better for the next band of misfit tweens.
In any case, I'm glad they've got an end in sight, and I'm keen to see what they do with their last season. After that, I'm sure netflix will give the Duffer Brothers infinite money to do whatever they dream of next, and they'll build some wildly different world, with obsessive mise-en-scène and an improvisor's eye for adjusting the story on the fly.
On balance, I was more than happy with season three.
Veronica Mars (season four)
This is the hulu revival season of the CW teen-detective noir show set in the deeply divided and corrupt (and fictional) seaside town of Neptune, California. This new season focuses on solving a series of bombings during spring break, loosely inspired by recent events here in Austin.
Has there ever been a revival where the creative team didn't really get along, they never had that great of a fanbase, but by *god* there were more stories they had to tell in this world? Where something tripped and suddenly, jesus, this property is more relevant than ever, and the stories hinted at in our original ending just have to see the light of day? Let's put aside our differences and *get the band back together*, team!
No? Okay, then.
I joke. Revivals are odd beasts, because all the forces bringing the property back to life are *outside* the story. The team wants to work together again. The fans want to see more of that thing they love. But the story, itself, doesn't need more chapters.
And inevitably, this throws a weird tension into the revival itself. The story wants to go one way, whatever is the next chapter for this world. The people with money want some close copy of the familiar tropes from the original run. The core team just wants to work together again. The fans just want to spend a little more time with their beloved characters.
So it is with this fourth season of Veronica Mars.
There is a mystery story. And honestly, I rather liked it. They use the streaming, "binge-able" format to go all-out with a story arc — unlike the three "normal" seasons, season four has no "case of the week" A-stories. And they use this to good effect — several critics have compared this to Fargo, but I wonder if the game Fiasco might be a more apt comparison. We have about five different groups of people, all of them different variations on the classic "grand ambitions and poor impulse control", all colliding around a serial bombing case in Neptune.
For the most part, this is not a story of a fiendish mastermind committing the perfect crime and forcing the hero through an elaborate logic puzzle. Instead, there are so many people, committing so many crimes, telling so many lies, that it takes very sharp-eyed detective work to pick out what's going on. (I'll tread lightly here: eventually it *does* turn into "fiendish genius who is always three steps ahead, with a lucky streak every project manager would envy", and I flat-out hated that.)
Also, the crime story itself feels like it's *about* something. It may not be very relevant to the central characters, but it *is* a good story about what this world of "you're a millionaire or you work for millionaires" world of Neptune would turn into in 2019: the millionaires and billionaires relentlessly squeezing everyone, and everything, out of their city, leaving nothing but luxury condos and little shops of overpriced ephemera for the lazily rich.
And really, that's a running theme in film noir, which Veronica Mars aims to be. When this crime story veers into a real-estate conspiracy, it feels like the most noir move it could pull.²
And yet. And yet, this story has *nothing* to do with our core cast. You can see the scripts sweating to find ways to weave in Dick Casablancas, and Wallace Fennel, and Logan Echolls, and Weevil Navarro, and Cliff MacCormack, but for the most part, there's just no way to square the circle: the story belongs to the guest stars.
And the show is strongest, for me, when it sticks to the core cast.
The best thing a revival has going for it is the sense that this world, and these relationships, have been around for *decades*. Yes, you can have the scene in A New Hope where Obi-Wan and Darth Vader meet, and you've been told they've known each other for years. Intellectually, you know that means something. But that's nothing compared to the lump in your throat when you hear Yoda's ghost affectionately chirp "Young Skywalker" in The Last Jedi. It's just different when these characters have been around, and together, for a large chunk of your life. It imbues everything with weight and meaning. So even a throwaway scene with Logan and Veronica having dinner with Wallace and his family *feels* like something, in a way that the crime stories, no matter how expertly woven they are, never do.
And that's the thing that kept bugging me throughout the season — the way these two approaches kept warring with each other. There's the story of Veronica unraveling a crime caper gone very, very wrong; and there's the story of revisiting these core characters, and seeing where they are in their lives fifteen years after the series ended. And those stories, in this season, are at cross-purposes.
The crime story doesn't 'want' to include the core cast. And when it does, grudgingly, it often feels like it needs to freeze the characters in place. Veronica has to be on the beat, solving crimes, just like she's done for most of her life. The relationship with her dad is wonderful, but somewhat weirdly unaltered. She still has the same friends. They're still doing the same things. The crime story needs all the pieces in the same positions on the board so it can take all that as given and focus on the new criminals.
And then there's the story of the characters — of what happened to these people. There's the story of Logan getting his shit together, coming to terms with his subterranean coal fire of rage³, and then discovering that Veronica didn't *want* that. There's Veronica seeing another young, sharp girl going through unimaginable trauma, and realizing she can help someone navigate through a hell that she uniquely understands. The natural places for these character to go are valid, affecting stories. But they don't fit into solving a crazy crime.
And I guess that's the best way to sum up the bulk of the season for me: there were two storylines that I genuinely liked, but they seemed to get in each other's way. In the end, I liked what I got, but they both felt like stunted versions of stories that could have been given free rein.
Ten minutes from the end, the story came to its conclusion.
The crime was solved. The character arcs concluded. And at this point I paused the video, and I said to my empty living room, "Okay. My headcanon for the show will end here."
Next up, I will talk about those last ten minutes. Spoilers ahoy.
I've enjoyed Veronica Mars. I really dug all three seasons. I contributed to the movie kickstarter, and I was satisfied with the result. I vaguely remember liking The Ten Thousand Dollar Tan Line. And like I said, I liked a lot of things about this "revival season" on hulu.
The end of season four... it made me very happy I *wasn't* a die-hard fan. I didn't get my heart ripped out by the ending. Instead, I watched, as if from a distance. I noted the choices. In a way, it was like watching an AI glitch — you watch the soldier that's been relentlessly tracking your character suddenly turn around, walk into a wall, drop a grenade, and die.
Okay, so let's talk about "Explogan", shall we?
I flat-out laughed during this scene.
On the surface, it's a scene that is indistinguishable from an SNL digital-short parody of the scene. It relies on massive amounts of coincidence, and it pushes the soap-opera tragedy tone so hard that the scene kind of... breaks. Suddenly you're not watching people going through an increasingly terrifying crime caper. Instead, you're watching a bunch of actors do their best with the story of a random genius bad guy who's been taunting people with... limericks? And yes, I know the show's first three seasons were filled with over-the-top tragedy, but this scene broke the spell.
I disagree with this ending on every level. And I say this as one who never shipped this show at all. I thought Logan was fun character, and I sort of left it at that. I still think the manner in which they killed him off was a clumsy own-goal.
First, I hate, hate, hate the notion that you can't tell interesting stories about romantic leads after they get together. This idea is story-cancer, and we should kill it, kill it, kill it with fire. For the last goddamn time, loudly for the idiots in the back: yes, Moonlighting sucked when Dave and Maddie got together — because that was when they fired their showrunner. I thought *everyone* knew this. I thought, with comedies like Community and You're the Worst and literally every family sitcom ever made — with dramas centered on married couples like Friday Night Lights and The Americans — I thought we were over that old, tired canard. Being married does not imply uneventful bliss, especially when the couple involved gives you that twitchy sense of "aaah these people have a lot of stuff to work through still".
And frankly, if your franchise has spent twenty years asking "Oooh, will Veronica find True Love?", then maybe it's time to shift on to other material. Again, we can't show these characters just stuck in the same gear forever, or it becomes sad.
There's also the defense that you couldn't do a Fargo-style anthology series with Veronica married. Just the notion of "you have to be single to solve mysteries" is... baffling. And it is also yikes. I mean, hell, in season one of Fargo, Molly Solverson is, yes, a married woman solving a mystery. And married couples solving mysteries is a thing, back to the Golden Age of Detective Fiction — Tommy and Tuppence, Nick and Nora, Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane.
And there's the defense that noir can't have a happy ending.
This is the defense that interests me the most — not least because I actually agree: yes, noir stories do not end happily. But let's look closer at this. Specifically, let's use a handy tool from rhetoric: "facts, claims, and warrants". In rhetoric, a "claim" is a thing you're trying to prove. A "fact" is a piece of evidence that all parties agree is true. And the "warrant" is your assertion about *how the fact supports the claim.* So here: the claim is "explogan was good." The fact is "noir stories don't have happy endings".
It's the *warrant* that I dispute. I don't believe "noir stories don't have happy endings" proves that *this* ending was good.
And that's because noirs don't just have *unhappy* endings — they have a particular *kind* of unhappy ending. It isn't just that "something bad happens". It's that you did something bad and it caught up with you. You made some shady compromise, something your corrupt world was more than happy to offer you, and that you weren't *quite* moral enough to refuse. And in the end, it got you. Noir is where you can never escape the vice around you, and you categorically can't escape the past.
If a movie ends with you getting struck by lightning and killed, it's not noir unless, in act one, you cut a bad deal with Thor.
On a deeper level: noir endings are not *surprises*. Yes, the exact mechanism of how it plays out may surprise you, but tonally, it doesn't feel like a surprise. It doesn't explode (sad heh) out of nowhere. It's the thing that you knew was coming. Hell, it's a common trope to begin your noir story with the ending, and just map out, over the course of a film, how you get there. (Think of the body in the pool at the *start* of Sunset Boulevard.) Foreshadowing is your friend throughout. And the heroes' dreams have a wistful quality, like they themselves know those dreams will slip away from them forever, in the end.
I'm reminded of, of all things, a quote about dirty limericks: "the poem is not funny *because* it ends with a bad word; it's funny because it has no *choice* but to end with a bad word."
You can make an analogous point about noir: it doesn't hurt because the ending is sad; it hurts because it couldn't end any other way.
But we can step back from the point about whether it fits noir or not — because really, we don't care whether the ending is noir, but whether it's effective.
I keep wondering if Veronica Mars *should* be noir at this point, or at least noir in the same way. I feel like the unique opportunity you get here is to tell a story about a group of friends, an extended family, really, who lived through almost insufferable trauma fifteen years ago. In a way, the noir tropes write themselves: there are bad things in your past, and try as you might, you never quite outrun them. We've all made mistakes, and in a noir world, they haunt us forever.
To me, it comes back to that basic conflict: the crime story versus the character story. The crime story wants to give us the same show that we know: a complicated case to solve, a noir environment, the beats we expect. The character story wants to move forward: it's *not* going to be the same stories we saw fifteen years ago, because everyone has grown up, and the stories of our lives don't just spin in place forever. The very *desire* to make this traditional noir indicates... an allegiance is to repeating the formula. Giving us what we had before. Not letting us follow the characters to wherever they might be now.
And here's the weirdest thing: they gave us an ending that wasn't noir *and* didn't fit the character story, either. It was, if anything, just the writers clearing the decks so that they could continue Veronica Mars as a different sort of show: more of an anthology, with Veronica coming to a new town, solving a new case — maybe with Maddy solving crimes in her high school, a carbon copy of what Ms. Mars did decades ago.
So really, it doesn't matter if you wanted more of the same, or you wanted to follow the character journeys: in the end, none of us get what we want.
Maybe *that's* noir, in a meta sort of way.
But it's a hell of a stretch.
For next week: Black Swan is my next DVD. I just watched season one of Agent Carter, and I'm watching season one of Dark. I also read Between the World and Me. I'm reading some Spanish-language Marvel comics and listening to another audiocourse about medicine.
¹ In my notes:
"I am 100% there for just the kids hanging out and leading their kid lives."
"ZOMG MIKE AND 11 ARE TOGETHER AND THEY'RE ADORABLE"
² And it winds up being the *second* way that the show winds up unnervingly reflecting recent events in Austin.
³ And yes, I'm small enough and petty enough to take some delight in a second (third?) generation Scientologist having to play a character who is getting his life together via psychotherapy.
Mood: contemplative · Music: none