As Netflix crawls further into debt, and continues its larger push into original programming, it means there’s a lot more pressure on its flagship shows to succeed. Stranger Things‘ first season hit a nostalgic vein, and made a huge impact on social media and general conversation with its many references to science fiction and adventure films of the 80s. For as many things as it borrowed, it contributed new ideas as well.
My fear going into Stranger Things 2 was whether or not the series’ formula of essentially delivering a best of the 80s mixtape would be successful a second time around. I had no idea the Duffer Brothers would just literally do that.
Stranger Things 2
Air Date: October 27, 2017 (Netflix)
The town of Hawkins has resumed normal life with a bit of blow back after the craziness a year ago. Mike (Finn Wolfhard) has been in a funk and trying to come to grips with the fact that the telekinetic girl Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) is gone, Sheriff Hopper (David Harbour) has been secretly hiding someone, Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) is dating this adorable lug Bob (Sean Astin), Nancy (Natalia Dyer), Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), and Steve (Joe Keery) are struggling with their teen feelings (and coping with the death of the apparently important Barb from the first season), a new girl Max (Sadie Sink) and her aggressive brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery) move into town. But all the while Will (Noah Schnapp) has been struggling. After his stint in the Upside Down, he’s been having visions of an even greater threat approaching.
The first season often made references to the 80s in passing. There were some noticeable shoutouts to technology and the like spread out over the first season, but for some reason, Stranger Things 2 seems to be shouting “this is the 80s” in you face at all times. Overt references to (now) popular films like Ghostbusters (and that’s not even dissecting how the “nerd” scene oddly fits into the series’ timeline), almost too many songs of that era playing throughout with little impact (rather than use the soundtrack as a way to enhance scenes like how The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go” was used last season), and even cramming a KFC commercial into the first episode’s dialogue. The over-reliance on nostalgia this time around, in lieu of mining the emotions of that nostalgia, is more of a crutch here.
The over-reliance on nostalgia not only feels anachronistic, but also amplifies the negatives coming from the series’ reliance on tropes, rather than character. When the first season borrowed elements of the past, I tended to forgive its unoriginal aspects because they were all in service of an original story overall. It’s sort of how reboot culture works where you’ll forgive a film retreading similar grounds as one that came before as long as it has its own voice. I’d never argue Stranger Things lacks its own voice, but its certainly been diluted in the second season. For example, the newest characters this season all have a predictable trajectory and never quite branch out of those set paths.
The new brother and sister characters, for instance, are the new latchkey girl that checks the “one girl in a group of boys” kid adventure box and most cartoonish 80s bully ever. I’m not sure whether or not I enjoy Dacre Montgomery’s performance, but he’s such an amalgamation of every 80s bad guy, it sort of works? Either way he’s written bluntly and cartoonishly (where he even lifts weights while smoking for a minute), and is only one sore thumb of an example of a litany of these similar issues.
Speaking of cartoons, you’ll notice Stranger Things 2 is one episode longer than the previous season. Episode seven is essentially an episode where Eleven discovers more about her origin, and it’s the most cartoonish tone the series has delivered yet. Not only does it underserve Eleven as a character, as she doesn’t really evolve beyond her previous enlightenment from the first season, but it’s also a blemish of a tonal shift, which ends up feeling like filler since it carries very little consequence into the rest of the series.
Ultimately, that seems to be the problem with Stranger Things 2 overall. While well produced and acted, nothing really matters. Since the characters here all seem to coast on what was built last season for each of them, especially the young boy gang, it often feels like a retread of what was done before. Not to mention each of these characters comes with their own set of plot armors which negate all sense of tension. There could potentially be an emotional investment carried over from season one, but don’t expect to suddenly appreciate these characters if you hadn’t felt that way earlier.
Winona Ryder and David Harbour thankfully serve as great anchors for the season, but not even they can outshine the greater problems at hand. Stranger Things 2 is serviceable, and sure it could unquestionably be worse, but this season really only highlights how the series became successful due to the bubble it was released in.