Stranger Things 2 Re-View
Most of the problems with Stranger Things can be summarised by the title of its second season. “Stranger Things 2”. That’s how you label a film, not a television season. The creators of this show work in film and are inspired by films. The first season was noted for seeming like a single movie that was stretched out nearly to destruction.
Stranger Things 2 shares many of these issues. It doesn’t have enough story for 9 episodes. The character arcs are very simple. Background characters don’t get complete arcs even when they’re afforded the screen time to finish a plotline. However, where Stranger Things 1 (heh) felt like 2 hours of material stretched to 8, Stranger Things 2 feels more like 6 hours of material stretched to 9. That’s a step up. The episodes are also more individualised. It’s not proper episodic plotting by any means, but at least the characters of the show have a different objective or set of challenges every episode.
The show also manages to look and sound even better than the first time around. Stranger Things 2 has glorious production values without compromising a “unique” aesthetic. It’s been said that Stranger Things relies too much on nostalgia. It is clearly a mix of Stephen King, Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter. However those things when mixed, however obviously, do create something genuinely unique. We never got Spielbergian child protagonists in a Kingian town fighting Carpenterian monsters before Stranger Things. 2 furthers the cocktail by throwing in some healthy references to Aliens and Lovecraftian tropes and imagery. And it works. (There’s also some Goonies referencing in some dialogue and the casting, but it doesn’t really affect any of the actual tone or proceedings more than it did in season 1.)
We get a different flavour of threat. There are ‘demo-dogs’ and creepy demonic caves. The upside down has a gleaming red sky. The show also pulls a trick unique to TV too: mixing up character interactions. Steve Harrington buddies up with Dustin. Hopper is raising Eleven very badly. Jonathan and Nancy hang out with a conspiracy theorist. Will Byers gets a lot more screen time too. Then there are welcome new additions such as Bob, Max and Dr Owens.
Stranger Things 2 essentially functions in a way the first season didn’t. It changes up the formula whilst widening the mythology of the world and taking the characters to new places. However it does do this very awkwardly often. Episode-to-episode divisions still feel inconsequential despite more individualised episodic storytelling. Except in the jarring case of the transition in-and-out of episode 7.
Episode 7 is already infamous. Essentially Eleven leaves Hawkins and hangs with some deliberately hammy archetypal ‘80s “MTV punks”. They’re not amazingly cast and whilst the episode gives Eleven some much needed development, there isn’t enough time on the clock to let any developments breath. Nothing is earned in the episode and all the characters are annoying. In theory this could have been a classic, but the execution was rushed. The episode also fell between a big cliff-hanger. It essentially occurred in a moment when the show was really homageing Aliens. The reason Aliens is such a tense ride is because it is relentless. You can’t have relentless tension with a 50 minute cutaway in between the action.
Eleven’s leaving the show for a time to only return to save the day didn’t feel that great either. Eleven’s powers are something of a ‘win button’ for the protagonists. She seems to leave the main story so the other characters can get in trouble convincingly, before she returns to save them easily.
Generally speaking this season dropped the ball in other minor ways that are hard to fit in anywhere in a review, so here (MASSIVE SPOILERS) they are:
- Dr Owens is set up as the seemingly well meaning scientist who’s clearly a slimey bastard behind that. They even cast the slimey corporate bastard from Aliens to suggest this. The twist is that he’s actually a decent enough and caring bloke. Except the show never really pays off this ‘twist’ in a particular moment. One just realises he never turned or did anything exceptional.
- Bob gets killed. He’s killed in a very odd way. He’s treated to a genuinely tense sequence of hiding from the vicious demo-dogs wherein a camera close up reveals he left his gun behind. Then he is chased by some of them, but too many to shoot, and shuts a door to hold them off. Then he spots girlfriend Joyce Byers and smiles at her. Rather than being inspired to hold the door shut so she can escape, he just stands there and smiles. Then the demo-dogs burst through the door and rip him to shreds. The close up of the gun means nothing as Hopper is there with an M16 that does nothing. On a character level Bob should either hold the doors shut for Joyce, or run like a coward. Why would he stare at her? And why would the show set up a forgotten pistol for circumstances where a pistol would be meaningless?
All that being said, the season ends very, very well. The audience is treated to an extended ‘Snow Ball’ sequence with the kids all having their first dance. A few long gestating romances are paid off (with some behind-the-scenes creepiness). There’s some overwhelming tear-jerky moments. It makes one realise how loveable all these characters really are.
At its heart Stranger Things is a show about the minutiae of small town living in ‘80s America. We follow the lives of these quirky and boring people. Hawkins just happens to be a town that’s also a gateway to a hell dimension. The show is gentle, soft and nostalgic. It’s not remotely as good or deep as it could be, but it’s funny, looks and sounds good and you care. It’s basically an off-brand Werther’s Original that wants to be an éclair. This time around they got a lot closer to that ideal.