In a recent post and podcast, we admitted that we found the critical and viewer reactions to the first season of Stranger Things to be more than a little bit overblown. We wrote a positive but critical review fairly early after the first season dropped – and then watched as everyone else seemed to go completely gaga for the series over the rest of the summer. Our critiques weren’t singular, however. Lots of other critics made most of the same points or had most of the same criticisms that we did. To us, season one of Stranger Things was a fun and entertaining pastiche of ’80s horror and sci-fi films, anchored by an astonishingly talented cast of child actors, but … that’s all it was. The references were fun to spot and the story chugged along efficiently, keeping us engaged through the entire weekend it took to binge-watch it, but in the end, the results struck us as a little hollow. It was impressively devoted to recreating a certain type of ’80s genre film, but unlike some of the best horror and sci-fi films from that decade, it had very little underlying meaning or thematic coherence. As we wrote at the time:
“With Stranger Things, there’s no attempt to make a comment about the period, only a clearly considerable effort to accurately recreating one particular aspect of it. It looks just like 1983 … but it doesn’t seem to have anything to say about it – except for maybe “There sure were some cool movies back then, right?”
The bad news is, Stranger Things came back for season 2 defiantly unchanged. It is still loaded to the rafters with references, but fairly shallow in terms of themes or meaning. It still feels like an old movie rather than a period piece trying to contextualize or comment upon the period. The good news is, it’s still great fun – and the kids are even more talented actors than we realized. The even better news, it improved upon itself in ways we weren’t expecting.
And now, a couple of lists, because it’s easier than writing bridge paragraphs (get your transparency in blogging right here).
Stranger Things 2, The Good Parts (according to us):
It felt like a true sequel, with all that entails. The story progressed naturally from the events of the first season instead of trying to get cute or even trying to complicate the mythology. All of the main cast was almost exactly as we left them, except they were dealing with the fallout of the events we last saw them deal with. The writers did this by focusing on the clear post-traumatic stress being suffered by Will, the clear anxiety disorder taking over Joyce, the growing feelings Mike has for Eleven as he mourns her absence, and the untenable situation Hopper has found himself in as Eleven’s de facto guardian in exile. This not only felt right and emotionally true, it set up most of the main cast for the ways in which the story was about to progress. It was good, tight writing at the start. At the start.
It kept the focus on the main cast and played to their strengths. While there were new character introductions (see below), the creators were smart to keep things fairly tightly focused on the four boys, Eleven, Nancy, Jonathan, Steve, Joyce and Hopper. It may have frustrated fans that some of the peripheral characters were relegated to cameos, but again, we enjoyed the way everything was kept unfussy and seemed to follow naturally from the first season. Of course all the people who know the truth of what happened in Hawkins the year before would still be obsessed with it. How could they not?
It leaned in hard on those five kids. Not to be snotty about it, but we were watching The Gifted on FX the other night (a not totally bad show, since we keep coming back to it) and after suffering through one too many halting, whispered scenes between young actors, Tom turned to Lorenzo and said “It really becomes obvious how insanely talented those Stranger Things kids are when you watch other teenage actors doing similar material so badly.” Millie Bobby Brown came out of season one as something of a budding superstar due to her nuanced performance, but in round 2, it was Noah Schnapp’s Will who served as the MVP. Who knew this kid had it in him to so effectively portray post-traumatic stress, sheer terror, and skin-crawling evil? Of all the homages the show has done to previous material, Will’s Exorcism turn may just have outdone Linda Blair’s OG in terms of acting. Which isn’t to take away from Gaten Mattarazzo’s deft comic timing or Caleb McLaughlin’s charismatic hero turn, both of which stood out brightly.
It managed the impossible for a sequel: New characters to love. While we’d quibble a bit with some of the gender politics of how she was handled and integrated, Max turned out to be a really great addition to the group and Sadie Sink showed herself to be up to the task of her acting peers. She may not have had the high impact of Eleven’s introduction, but she was instantly likable (in a not-trying-AT ALL-to-be-liked kind of way), served to provide some group conflict, came with her own back story (more on that below) and simply felt like she fit, right from the jump. Similarly, Sean Astin’s Bob, while not the most nuanced or surprising character in the world (he was either going to turn out to be evil or remain goodhearted, but die; there were clearly no other story options in store for him), was enjoyable and felt like a well-deserved salve on poor Joyce’s perpetually frayed nerves. Even though his death wasn’t remotely surprising and came at the exact moment we expected it to, it was nonetheless well-rendered and surprisingly emotional. And if Bob was perhaps a bit too predictable, credit must be given to Paul Reiser, for essentially playing a version of his Aliens character, except with a twist at the end: he’s genuinely a good guy. We honestly didn’t see that coming but found it completely believable when it did.
It delivered a killer finale. The last two hours of the season were as good or better than any big budget thriller of the past several years. We’d rate the simultaneous attack on the labs and the battle in the junkyard to be on par with some of the very best Game of Thrones action sequences. And the season ended with a fairly clear map of where the story – and larger mythology – is going to go from here. The battle against the lords of the Upside Down isn’t over and Eleven/Jane has some … family issues left unresolved.
Okay, enough sweet-talking. On to the bitching.
Stranger Things 2: The Bad Parts (according to us):
It felt like a sequel, with all that entails. Yes, that’s both a good and bad thing. We noted the good parts above. The bad part: that thing where all the returning characters got fan-service moments that reminded you of the first season, from the fetishization of Steve’s bat to Joyce running around her house like a crazy women plastering stuff all over the walls. It just felt a little too on the nose and familiar at times. A little too much of a wink at the audience. Even the Eggos thing started to feel overplayed.
It kept characters apart for too long. Mike really doesn’t have much to do without Eleven in the same scene with him, and it really showed. While their reunion was emotional and felt earned, it still came too late in the season and left them with too few moments together overall. Sequels tend to break up groups in new combinations and this one was no different. While the Steve/Dustin partnership was surprising fun, there were still too many long stretches where the boys weren’t together or Joyce was too far removed from the action or Nancy and Jonathan basically just went off and had a boring story of their own.
Billy was fun and campy, but a total waste of time. We get that Dacre Montgomery was doing a fairly pitch-perfect take on the classic ’80s bully character, but his introduction and first few scenes set him up as some sort of major problem, only to have him fizzle out and just sort of fade from the story. The salutes to ’80s teen flick homoeroticism were on point and pretty funny, though.
That episode with Eleven in Chicago. Here’s where a pastiche really shows itself to be weak: it can’t get the history right because it’s too caught up in the references. Punks didn’t look like that. Punks on network TV and in mainstream movies looked like that. And sure, that’s part of the whole pastiche thing, but a big reason why that episode got such a negative reaction on social media is because Kali and her band of misfits looked kind of silly to modern eyes. We get that there’s a setup here for Eleven/Jane to seek out other “sisters” and possible brothers who were part of the experiments at the lab, but there were better, more efficient ways of getting that across. This whole hour just felt like a “very special episode” from the eighties.
The story dragged for a good portion in the middle. Netflix bloat. It’s a thing. Pretty much everything from episodes 2 to 6 could have been condensed into one third the time.
We could start getting really nitpicky here about certain scenes and interactions (like that utterly bizarre scene with Nancy, Jonathan, and the middle-aged reporter plying them with vodka and encouraging them to have sex in his apartment – WTF?), but we’re going to jump into the big complaint we have about the series overall and how it became even more pronounced in season 2:
IT’S NOT SCARY. For a series making so many direct references and homages to Aliens, The Exorcist, The Thing, The Fog, Poltergeist, The Goonies, Gremlins, and It – there just aren’t that many heart-in-your-throat/can’t-breathe moments being served up here. The Duffer brothers are good at tension and sometimes really good at action scenes, but by the mid-point of the season, it seemed pretty obvious that none of the main characters were going to die, except the one new character who basically had a sign on his back that said “GONNA DIE SOON.” And while we get that there’s a heavy Spielberg influence here, even he offered up more shocks and even gore in films of the period like Poltergeist and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. All the horror in this story just feels kind of tame. The Demo-Dogs were like something out of Ghostbusters – which is fine, since it fits in with the pastiche, but except for Will’s exorcism, there really weren’t any truly scary moments to be found. For a show that’s all about referencing classic horror stories from the eighties – many of which were characterized by buckets of blood and gore, even when they starred children – it all starts feeling a bit sanitized to us. Bottom line: someone in the main, core cast of characters should have died. It was fairly obvious that a good deal of them were wearing plot armor because the fans and the creators may just love these characters a bit too much.
As we said, the season was fun overall, just like the first season was. But since they’re clearly marking out a mythology for taking the story forward, we hope the Duffers do a couple of things for season 3. First, give poor Joyce more to do in the story than be scared or wigging out. Her rescue of Hopper from the Upside Down was the best part of her scenes this season. More of that decisive, take-no-shit Joyce. Second, keep the kids together as much as possible. The strength of the show is in the relationships of those characters and the performances of the actors. Third, if you’re going to introduce more “siblings” for Eleven, please make them as cool as Eleven. Kali wasn’t bad; just a little lame. Fourth: KILL SOMEONE. Sorry, but there it is. The stakes need to be raised and fans need to have their hearts ripped out in season three. Duffers? Pick one of your darlings and say goodbye to them.