Three is a magic number. At least that’s what De La Soul kept telling me back in ’89. But are the third seasons magic for these two one-time critical Netflix darlings? When their brilliant first seasons came out, I’m sure Netflix thought they had properties they could rely on forever. Alas, both of their sophomore efforts suffered from the laziest writing and, hence, waning anticipation for a next season. How did they screw the pooch? Well…
“Jessica Jones” completely forgot what made it zing…a terrifying or brilliantly played antagonist. All the Netflix-Marvel shows need someone you love to hate, since we’re supposed to believe the heroes are simply regular folk, burdened with their powers. The exception being “Iron Fist”. That hairball could have had Ian McKellan as the bad guy and it still would have been more fun to clip my toenails. Janet McTeer is a terrific actor…but it’s hard to root against mom…or maybe we just can’t watch a hero not decide what to do about her terrible mother for eleven episodes. Thus, the second season was an exercise in tedium.
Likewise, the second season of “Stranger Things” misplaced it’s grounding attraction…THE EIGHTIES! Well acted, a good story, and more than a little suspenseful. But…I can get that in one 45-minute episode of “Black Mirror”. That’s NOT what makes us all love “Stranger Things”. Yes, the characters are a large piece of the pie, but their tasks don’t really work in a universal time period. They need to be nostalgic for us…so we can remember what it felt like to be that age, in that time period, with that much wonder…worrying about what was REALLY around the corner, or under the bed. It’s like ordering a chicken salad sandwich and then telling the server to “hold the chicken salad”…but WITHOUT the excitement of the rest of that quote (“Five Easy Pieces”…c’mon people!)
“Stranger Things” – Season 3 (Netflix
Created by The Duffer Brothers
I’m overjoyed to report that “Stranger Things” nailed it this time around. While the story is in many ways a rehash, the setting, the struggles, the grossout-ness and the relationships are so deliciously heightened by the non-stop barrage of eighties references. There is a lighter tone in general, even as the stakes are higher than in season two. Everything is no longer the most important thing that ever happened, even if it is to the kids. As for those kids…we’ve moved up to teenage years. “Oh no,” you say, “I loved them as kids”! But in this environment, with writing this good, they play the universal awkwardness of moving in to adolescence with all the angst, discomfort, and hilarity you would expect from our heroes.
And, to be sure, there are no holes in the performances. I’m not one hundred percent behind the path they’ve given David Harbour…and if you go right from season two to season three, it will take some getting used to. However, once you get comfortable with it, you’ll find it fits the story and surroundings quite well. It’s just a tad goofy. On the other hand, Winona Ryder bursts through the door and let’s us have it. Whiny in season two, here she is an experienced vet of the crazy. Our older teens are also on it. Natalia Dyer and Charlie Heaton (Nancy and Jonathon) are not utilized quite as often, but their relationship grows immeasurably in both its own connection and in our interest in it…a joy to watch. But Joe Keery (Harrington), Maya Hawke (Robin), who is our teen newcomer to this season, and the best thing from last season, Dacre Montgomery (Billy), steal the season from their age group. Joe Keery, especially, takes his comedy chops to a new level, yet always keeps them squarely pegged to the reality of the situation. I must mention the brilliant work of Cara Buono. Her Mrs. Wheeler sums up the loneliness of being stuck in a decidedly boring marriage in a matter of three or four pitch-perfect scenes.
So, the kids…what can I say? They’re all great. Well, if I’m being honest, Millie Bobbie Brown seems just a little too grown up for what she’s experiencing. Of course, she IS, in many ways, just that given what she went through in season two. And Noah Schnapp (Will), as the kid in no hurry to grow up, has grown up…in ways that just don’t match the physicality you’d expect from his age. His haircut alone is about as creepy as anything in the show. But he manages to make the most of it. The rest of the kids are perfect. Caleb McLaughlin (Lucas) gets the best lines…as does Priah Ferguson (Erica – Lucas’ little sister). Ferguson is particularly strong…a force of nature, actually. And simply hilarious. Finn Wolfhard (Mike), while the most serious of the bunch, encapsulates the stupidity of a boy’s adolescent journey into relationships very well. And, besides, he was always the most serious of the bunch. Huge props to Gaten Matarazzo. Utterly sick of his shtick in season two, here he is delightful, earnest, optimistic and utterly believable. He’s also smarter…so his feigned knowledge of all things is a great writing touch. And, finally, Sadie Sink adds a welcome addition of what would have been called “grrl power” not too long after the era of the show.
But I think we owe as much of the season’s success to the Duffer Brothers letting their production artists go eighties wild. Thanks to cinematographers, Tim Ives and Lachlan Milne, as well as art director, Sean Brennan, the look of this season is specific, purposeful and pretty glorious. Also, a nod to set decorator, Jess Royal, who must have welcomed the return to 1984 with open arms. Finally a word about the amazing music from Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein. Emulating, while not copying, the Tangerine Dream tracks from the past (and the first two seasons), their compositions keep us firmly rooted in both time and place. Amazing stuff.
So…to sum up…job well done! And if you just can’t stomach plowing through season two just to get to season three, you’ll be fine watching the last episode of season two. Really.
“Jessica Jones” – Season 3 (Netflix)
Created by Melissa Rosenberg
Alas, “Jessica Jones” did NOT stick its landing. No…it got stuck in the muck and mire of melancholic heaviness. It feels long, there are too many scenes that consist of talking heads, and the “my powers are a burden” thing is simply boring, when all is said and done. And worst of all, our bad guy feels a lot more like someone Dexter would have targeted than a super-villain. And it takes a few episodes just to meet him. What happens in the meantime? A lot of Jessica drinking, arguing with Trish and her mom (Rachel Taylor and Rebecca deMornay), and pretending to not give a shit about anything. FUN! She does start a really well-written relationship however, which is nice. But the side plots involving next-door-neighbour/former employee, Malcolm (Eka Darville) and the constant Netflix-Marvel presence, Carrie-Anne Moss, are actually much more interesting, if ultimately not believable. The whole endeavor just sort of sits there..and sits there…and just about the time you inhale so as to scream, “BRING BACK DAVID TENNANT!”, something good happens…and then it’s gone. And we’re back in a bar. Listen, I’m probably being overly harsh…maybe. I DO care about Jessica’s character…I actually root for her to find some sense of normalcy…even in this meandering third season. But caring about a character is different than caring about a show. “Daredevil” was smart enough to bring back Vincent D’Onofrio for it’s third and final season. “Jessica Jones” missed that boat.
I think we have to blame Melissa Rosenberg. In the months before completing pre-production, she signed an 8-figure deal with Warner TV. I’m going to assume that, like ballplayers who sign enormous contracts and then don’t live up to them, Rosenberg and her staff of writers had one foot out the door. It sure feels like it. But, then again, season two was even worse, so…maybe they just couldn’t figure out a way to ride the momentum of season one.
The problem is certainly not the acting. Krysten Ritter is a worthy hero. She wears her annoyance on her sleeve and has throughout the series’ existence (we’ll just pretend “The Defenders” never happened). What makes her so interesting is how much she doesn’t want to care. It’s almost as if the bad guy is the part of her that gives a shit. It’s a terrific character and she should be very proud of how she kept the show honest…even if the writers forgot how. Rachel Taylor, who I’ve seen be REALLY bad in other shows, remains at least wholly committed to a specific character here. I don’t particularly like her character, but, again, it’s not her fault. In fact, de Mornay, as her stage mom, is MUCH more interesting, and well-rounded. The more they gave Darville to do, the better he became. Watching his inner turmoil is one of the show’s highlights…especially in the later scenes with the BRILLIANT Jamie Neumann (who was also exceptional in “The Tower”). And, while the act has become VERY stale, the fight against mortality portrayed by Carrie-Anne Moss is certainly committed. As is her attempt to reconnect with her ex-partner, played…in a strange manner…by Sarita Choudhury. Oh…and please, please, please do not have a character (Choudhury’s) play solo cello in a seduction/love scene when it is quite evident that person is not playing and has never picked up a bow until about ten minutes before the cameras roll. It was painfully comical at a moment when both actors deserved beauty and passion. Just awful. But, truly, the brightest spot of the season was the character introduced by Benjamin Walker. Charming, real, mysterious, and possessing a very odd power, he’s easily the freshest breath of air in what had become a stale and musty office.
While their vision won’t be confused with the world of “The Deuce”, cinematographer Manuel Billeter and production designer Toni Barton do a pretty good job of showing us a NYC that actually exists. It’s certainly not a look that brings out any particular emotion…like “Daredevil” or “The Punisher” did, but at least it approximates what everyday humans experience in Manhattan in their passages to and fro. And for a show that’s about how much special folk wish they weren’t, that’s very appropriate.
Ah well. Season 3 is a wrap for “Jessica Jones”, in fact, it was the last Marvel offering we’ll see on Netflix as it all now moves to Disney. Of the entities, I was most enthralled by the first seasons of “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones”. They were the first superhero productions that encapsulated a dramatic realism, in spite of their powered antics. And while, in the main, I won’t miss them, I WILL miss the character of Jessica Jones more than any of the others. She was a worthy figment of our fictional imagery, even if the show ultimately couldn’t live up to that.
Stranger Things Season 3 Trailer
Jessica Jones Season 3 Trailer