Stranger Things 2 (Netflix)
Written by Matt Duffer, Ross Duffer, Justin Doble, Jessie Nickson-Lopez, Paul Dichter, Jessica Mecklenburg, Alison Tatlock, and Kate Trefry
Directed by Matt Duffer, Ross Duffer, Shawn Levy, Andrew Stanton, and Rebecca Thomas
It’s almost been a year since the events of Season One that took place in Hawkins, Indiana. Will Byers is settling back into routine everyday kid life with one caveat, he routinely visits with a doctor working at the Hawkins Laboratory. This is part of the agreement Sheriff Hopper made with the lab offscreen at the end of the last season. Hopper also has a significant secret he’s keeping from everyone else. For the last few months, he has been the caretaker of Eleven. After she destroyed the Demogorgon, Eleven found herself in the Upside Down but managed to quickly breach one of the membranes between worlds and return. Hopper eventually finds her, and she becomes a surrogate daughter for the one he lost years ago. In the background of all of this looms a potent threat the dwells in the Upside Down. This many-tentacled shadow entity is moving closer and closer to opening the gate and doing to Hawkins what he has done to the other world.
The phenomena surrounding the first season of Stranger Things seems surprising but on closer inspection actually, goes with trends in pop culture at the moment. The 1980s nostalgia kick can be directly related to the fact that the kids from that era are now the primary adults in charge of the film and television industry. It’s the same thing that happened in the 1990s with 1960s nostalgia or in the 2000s with a look back at the 1970s (see The Ice Storm, Studio 54, etc.). While nostalgia in media will always have a wide swath, which means something like Mad Men will also exist in the 2000s, there will still be an era that is more deeply saturated at the moment than others. Stranger Things manages to handle that nostalgia a bit better than most, mainly by refraining from constant brand name dropping of the era. There is just enough (the boys’ Ghostbuster costumes for Halloween for example) that it feels genuine. What is more affecting than dropping the names of movies or toys is fashion and the costume design department is excellent at finding period specific clothing that resonates with its audience.
The character dynamics felt different from the start with this batch of nine episodes. Finn Wolfhard (Mike) was not nearly as prominent a player this season as last. He’s around, typically in the background, and has some great character moments, especially in the last two episodes. However, when it comes to the boys, Lucas, Dustin, and Will were given much more material. Will, in particular, is a more present character than last season and I was incredibly impressed by the acting chops of Noah Schnapp. There are some profoundly harrowing moments for Will this season and lot of chances to play the character in unexpected ways. At every turn, Schnapp is able to meet this with a strong, heartbreaking emotional performance. The writers are also smart enough to play to the strengths of Dustin and Lucas by giving them subplots that highlight their established personalities. There’s a beautiful moment in the latter half of the season where Dustin really takes on the know it all nerd persona without becoming annoying or losing the charm of his character.
Millie Bobby Brown continues her run as Eleven without missing a beat. The character grows as she learns more about the world beyond Hawkins and her own past. Even when the series feels like it is meandering or making missteps, Brown still exudes confidence in her performance so that she can never be seen as a weak point. We also got to see her playing off of David Harbour a lot this season. The two of them have some great back and forths early on, and they are both formidable actors. Winona Ryder sort of continues what she was doing in season one which was fine. Natalia Dyer and Charlie Heaton are paired up for the majority of the season and were the least interesting to me. Heaton especially is such an unremarkable bore, and it really shows when he tries to play an emotional scene with Noah Schnapp who is much better at it than him.
The best character transformation for me was Joe Keery as Steve. Steve is one of the show’s best examples of playing with the audience’s expectations. Introduced in season one as an 80s douchebag trope, the character has managed to thoroughly challenge and reverse that idea. By the end of this season, Steve resembles a role more like Josh Brolin in The Goonies or Elisabeth Shue from Adventures in Babysitting.
However, Stranger Things is not that deep of show. Beyond the enjoyable performances of the actors, there is much less focus on a singular plot and not much depth to what is presented. In season one the search for Will Byers acted as the catalyst to propel every character through the story. In season two there are some plot lines, and they connect to each other very lightly in some instances. A subplot is introduced with a conspiracy theorist which then ties into Nancy and Jonathan and never feels like it has much substance or strong connections with what is going on to Eleven or Will. In a year that gave us The Leftovers Season 3 and Twin Peaks: The Return, the simplicity of Stranger Things, while enjoyable, feels like it lacks a lot of substance. The show works great as something fun and deep for older children or teens, but as an adult, I find there is very little meat on the bones of the piece.
Stranger Things is entertaining, but beyond that, there isn’t much. Other than Steve, I wasn’t surprised by any character beats or arcs. There are definite stakes, and they are resolved with little cost. Yes, a new character bites it, and I did enjoy that addition to the cast, but I didn’t feel the emotion I wanted to at that moment of loss. Stranger Things does an excellent job of recreating what it felt like to watch a Spielberg film or read certain Stephen King novels. However, I don’t see myself ever choosing to come back to it and rewatch, the same way I feel compelled to do so with Twin Peaks, The Leftovers, Mad Men, or many other contemporary dramas.