Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Endings And Beginnings: A (Pretty Much) Spoiler-Free Spot-Take On Stranger Things Season Four And Umbrella Academy Season Three

Last night I watched the Season Four finale of Stranger Things. The night before I watched the Season Three finale of Umbrella Academy. Netflix chose to release both seasons as a package, although for Stranger Things they split the season in two, for either aesthetic or commercial reasons, depending who you ask.

I chose to watch both shows on my own schedule, one episode per evening, giving me just enough time to process each instalment and still be able to remember the plot. Seriously, with shows that release one episode a week I can barely remember what happened the last time. How we all managed back in the bad old days of broadcast TV I can hardly imagine. Or remember, obviously.

The reviews for both series that I've seen mostly fall into the "good but not great" category, with everyone liking Stranger Things but critics being happier with Umbrella Academy than audiences. As you'd expect, a lot of the commentary tends to be comparative, not so much with other shows as with each's own previous seasons.

On a snap rating, I'd give both shows a high mark on their latest outings but therein lies a problem. My unconsidered opinion is of limited value. I've said before that I'm easily pleased and it's no exaggeration. If I like something enough to bother with it at all, there's a strong chance I'll like it a lot, or at least I'll believe I do. 

I tend to get drawn in quickly and easily and not to notice flaws on a first viewing. It's why I follow the Rule of Three: once for the experience, twice to compare, third time to decide.

Only who has the time? I'm pretty sure the finale of Stranger Things is the longest single episode of a serialized TV show I've ever seen: two hours and nineteen minutes. Although it could have been even longer

When it comes to putting particular seasons or episodes in some kind of qualitative order within the context of the life of the show, I run into a different problem. Or perhaps I should say a different iteration of the same old one: I struggle to remember something I watched weeks, months or years ago.

Perhaps I ought to clarify that. I realize I'm starting to make it sound as though I have some kind of clinical condition. It's not that I can't or don't remember what I've seen or heard at all; it's more that I need a trigger for the memories to fire.

With TV shows, when I write posts like this, I usually begin by looking at a clip or two. Once I've watched a few seconds it all comes flooding back. Well, some of it does. Usually. If nothing comes it probably means I didn't really watch it properly in the first place.

As I write this, I haven't rewatched a single scene from the earlier seasons of Stranger Things or Umbrella Academy, so I can't in good conscience comment on which is better, worse or about the same. All I can do is say how I felt about them in the moment, as I watched, and now, a fw days later, as I look back.

Of the two, it surprises me to say I think I may have enjoyed Umbrella Academy more. If I was going to develop a full-blown critique of the two shows, which I am not, I'm fairly sure I'd come down on the side of Stranger Things being better-structured, conceived and realized but I don't think it could be described as more fun to watch, not least because the first ninety minutes or so of the show I watched last night was one of the tensest TV experiences of my life.

Asmiroth posted an excellent review of Umbrella Academy in which he makes a whole raft of observations that make complete sense to me, most of which I also noticed while I was watching. I commented on the post to say as much. 

Something I was thinking then but forgot to mention was how, despite the overall tone of Asmiroth's post coming over as unsatisfied or disappointed in some undefined fashion, almost all the specifics are positive. 

That makes sense. Umbrella Academy as a show can sometimes feel less than the sum of its parts. It's bursting with distinctive, interesting characters played by excellent, engaging actors, delivering smart, funny dialog, while doing exciting and surprising things.  

It's fast, supple, sparky and almost effortlessly entertaining, all of which makes it a great watch as you're watching it. It doesn't always make a great deal of sense when you think about it afterwards, though, and not just because the whole thing is predicated on time travel, which never makes any kind of sense.

Seriously, I don't believe I'm exaggerating a whit when I say that there has never been and will never be a time-travel narrative of any kind in any medium that holds up to even the mildest, most casual scrutiny. Time travel itself may or not exist - physicists seem to be divided on the theoretical possibilities - but the human mind is simply incapable of processing the concept without analogizing or metaphoring or anecdotalizing and once any of that begins you're already lost. 

I have a super-simple rule with all time-travel tales. I completely ignore anything that gets in the way of the plot. In the case of Umbrella Academy there's a lot to ignore but I can ignore six impossible things before breakfast and still feel satisfied so that doesn't bother me at all.

Poor character development does. Like Asmiroth I was not a fan of Alison's character arc in UA Season Three. In fact, I was so not a fan I may have yelled at the screen a couple of times. I also had a bit of a suspension of disbelief problem over the sequence where Klaus plays in traffic so he can be killed enough times to refine his powers, something which seemed to me to have certain practical impracticalities, not least what the hell anyone driving the vehicles might have thought about it.

Overall, though, I loved Season Three of Umbrella Academy. I really hope there's another because the way this one ends isn't an ending at all, it's a beginning. But that's what you get with time-travel stories.

The end of Stranger Things Season Four also ends with an obvious lead-in to the next but we already know there's going to be a fifth. Netflix could hardly afford for there not to be and the Duffer Brothers have already told us the have it in hand. Millie Bobby Brown, the show's superhero as the iconic Eleven, would like it to be a bloodbath, as would her onscreen boyfriend, Will, but I agree with the Duffers; that wouldn't be Stranger Things.

Above all, Stranger Things is cosy. It started out as a love letter to the lost 1980s, invoking the spirit of Spielberg, The Goonies and Stand By Me. Every season has seen that comfortable setting further questioned, challenged, threatened and yet even as the gates of Hell open beneath Hawkins, Indiana somehow the cosiness has never really scraped away.

It can't. It's no veneer. Stranger Things is cosy through and through. Even a flower-faced devil dog gnawing through the opened ribcage of a fresh killed corpse somehow contrives to look almost cute doing it. The whole show is wholesome. It's like a Twilight Zone version of The Waltons.

That's a compliment, by the way. I loved The Waltons. I watched the entire series, all nine seasons; more than two hundred episodes. I watched them twice, once when they were new in the 1970s and then again when they were repeated in the '80s. I watched them on broadcast TV, when you had to be there when they showed it, not just whenever you felt like watching. Yep, it's a compliment alright.

Millie Bobby Brown complains about how many characters there are. "It’s way too big. Last night, we couldn’t even take one group picture because there was like 50 of us." It's true but it's also kind of the point. 

Eleven and her friends are like a snowball of goodness rolling downhill, bouncing over the evil rocks and picking up more goodness wherever they land. It's one of those series, like Roswell (I love Roswell so much...), where you want more and more people to get in on the secret because everyone who does just gets better as a human being. 

Steve says as much in his heartfelt speech to Nancy, right before they head off on yet another stupid, suicidal adventure and he should know. He's pretty much the poster child for self-actualization.

Stranger Things is a better show than Umbrella Academy. It's a more important show with more important things to say and it says those things more convincingly. I like many more characters in Stranger Things than I do characters in Umbrella Academy. The plot makes more sense, the events it describes have more weight, everything seems to matter more.

Umbrella Academy is more fun though and the characters would be way cooler to hang out with. And it's funnier. It's almost a sitcom at times. Most characters are funny most of the time uinless they're having a moment. Even Victor gets a few one-liners. Alison doesn't, which is why her character is the one that rarely works, this time.

Stranger Things is funny, too, but the funny parts and the serious parts almost feel like different shows. In fact, certain characters in STS4 are funny all the time, like clowns. They seem to have been added to the cast for that specific purpose because characters who used to be the funny ones in earlier seasons have undergone character development and can't just make jokes all the time. (Hi, Erica!).

As I write ths post the thing that always happens is happening. Those occluded memories are coming back, faster and thicker. I don't always need to watch old clips to pull the trigger. Putting words down on paper does it too.

It means I'd better stop before things get out of hand. All I really wanted to do was acknowledge the moment. I thoroughly enjoyed both seasons of both shows. I feel priviliged to be living in a time when such visions are being brought to screen. 

We're very lucky. 

Now, what's next?


  1. The movie everyone cites as the most thought-through time travel movie is the convoluted Primer. I haven't watched it, so cannot confirm.

    1. The Wikipedia plot of Primer summary is very hard to follow. The movie sounds interesting though. It's on a free UK streaming channel so I might try to find time to watch it. About all you can really hope for from any time travel story is internal consistency. Objective accuracy is not an option.

  2. The only good time travel fiction I know is 'Universal War 1' a french comic (Bande dessinée) that use one of the two solutions of time travel - see spoiler at the end.
    The comic has been released by Marvel in english in 2009. It is very good science fiction, mixing global scale and individual relation, while trying to stay coherent with current science - and a light exploration of the moral consequence of time travel.
    /* Spoiler alert for the 2nd half of the story*/
    Time is a constant, so if time travel exist, it has always existed and you cannot 'modify' the past or the future : all even always happens, and has always happened.
    The comic explore lightly the philosophical consequence of this on freedom and moral responsability.


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