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This time the danger’s amped up to… twelve?

by Thom Yee

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Stranger Things 2 images courtesy of Netflix

The first time I fully realized that nostalgia was a real and powerful thing and, more importantly, a definite consumer force was in the early 2000s when my mind started drifting back to childhood, I first started to remember how cool the Transformers were, and I went out to buy an anniversary edition of Optimus Prime, a toy I never owned in my youth.  Of course, I’m a little too young to have been there for the beginning of The Transformers, missing out on the show during its original TV run and not seeing (Naziing?) the 1986 movie until the early ‘90s, but I definitely felt its presence in each of its Saturday morning cartoon/toy/commercial successors, from M.A.S.K. to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to COPS.  Remember COPS?  The Central Organization of Police Specialists?  Every cop had some cybernetic gimmick?  “It’s Crime Fighting Time?”  No?

Ahh, there it is.  Y’know, even to this day I don’t know if there’s any greater nostalgia than ‘80s nostalgia and that’s in spite of the competition from the ‘70s nostalgia that naturally preceded it and the ever-present threat of ‘90s nostalgia that’s always trying to follow it.  There are a lot of reasons for that, I think, with the commercial era of the ‘80s bringing us many firsts in terms of selling us things:

  • Special effects that could finally match the high-concepts the movies were trying to tell;
  • Pure entertainment appeals that often dismissed if not outright rejected the notion of any deeper meanings; and
  • The emergence of synergies that successfully sold us the toys as we watched the shows.

Okay, so maybe that’s only three reasons, but they’re strong reasons nonetheless, reasons so strong and somehow so singular that our nostalgia for the ‘80s has by and large been a far superior sales force than our nostalgia for the ‘90s (see:  The Transformers’ movie grosses vs. Power Rangers’ movie grosses).  No matter what the era, nostalgia is a powerful force in most of our lives because it’s nearly impossible not to look back with fondness at simpler times (as long as you didn’t, like, grow up in some sort of prison camp or under a kidnapped/Room-type scenario or something), but the thing that sets ‘80s nostalgia apart from all the others is that there are so many cool things to buy from that period but they hadn’t yet evolved to the point that they reeked of corporate guidance and cynicism.

That’s probably why one of the first thing you’re likely to hear about Stranger Things is its many references to the ‘80s.  It’s a series set in the ‘80s, obviously, in a world where you’ll find posters of John Carpenter’s The Thing on the walls, where the kids trade X-Men comics from the classic Claremont/Byrne run, and where James Cameron’s The Terminator is playing in local theatres, but calling Stranger Things merely an ‘80s nostalgia show is a bit reductive.  Massively reductive actually, because Stranger Things is also the one other thing from the ‘80s that we all love:  It’s actually good.

What’s it about?

One year later, after the disappearance of Will Byers into another dimension and all of the craziness and death and kids-save-the-day-while-parents-have-no-idea-what’s-going-on shenanigans that followed, things have settled down a bit in the little town of Hawkins, Indiana, but Mike, Will, Dustin, Lucas, Nancy, Jonathan, Steve, Joyce, and Hopper are about to learn that whatever doesn’t kill you simply makes you… stranger… things!  Y’know.  Like the title.

It’s hard to remember now, but less than a year and a half ago Stranger Things wasn’t a thing at all in the public consciousness.  “Eleven.”  “The Upside Down.”  “Eggos.”  None of those things meant anything in early 2016, but as we approached the year’s end people were dressing up in terrible blonde wigs and tacky pink dresses for Halloween, making oblique but understood references to things and places gone wrong, and some of us even gave those frozen waffles another chance in our morning meal rotations (before remembering how horrible they are and going back to our usual nothing for breakfast).  Over the course of last summer, Stranger Things, in its first season, grew quickly from being something nobody had heard of featuring the return of actress Winona Ryder from the oblivion that was her 2001 shoplifting arrest to the show everyone was talking about, and even now, a year later after the release of its second season, nobody seems to hate it.  It’s one of the biggest shows in the world, on the tips of everybody’s entertainment-starved tongues, and it easily overshadowed this past October’s disappointing movie box office (in a year that’s become known for disappointing box office performances).  And we all still seem to love it.  No backlash at all.  Isn’t that, for lack of a better word, stra— weird?

Of course, as with every Netflix show, the familiar question of whether or not you should binge watch Stranger Things 2 rears its head, with many of you out there having, no doubt, already finished the second season long ago.  While I’m never going to suggest that either doling out this second season’s episodes over the course of days or weeks, appreciating and savouring each as they slide down into your consciousness, or devouring each, one after the other, in a mad dash to be first past the post is a superior approach, for me the thing that sets Stranger Things 2 apart from every other show on Netflix, even this past summer’s Defenders, is that there was never any doubt in my mind how I was going to watch it.  I didn’t have to think about it or consider the merits of one approach against the other.  I was just going to watch it.  All at once.  In one go.  There was just no way I would have anything better to do.

Is it any good?

It’s funny answering the question of whether or not Stranger Things 2 is any good because, to me, Stranger Things is good.  Not as a value judgment, it’s more like a synonym.  Stranger Things and “good” are one and the same — synonymous.stranger-things-2-ghostbusters.jpg

Where last year’s Stranger Things had the, in many ways, easier job of establishing this world though, Stranger Things 2 has the much less enviable task of being just one part of the middle.  It’s easy to think that the job of a sequel is simpler because it skips the establishing steps and heads straight for the action, but what tends to happen even in the best cases with sequels is that much of the enthusiasm and creativity of the original is instead replaced with less energizing factors like meeting fan expectations and contractual obligations, and so the first thing you should know about Stranger Things 2 is that it’s good, and there was never any doubt that it would be, but compared to season one?  It’s not quite there.

stranger-things-2-max-elevenIn terms of the Netflix shows we’ve reviewed here, which has really only been Marvel shows so far, Stranger Things 2 has, by far, been the hardest one to figure out what to discuss for our review.  There are things that I wanted to say about ______ and his new relationship with ______ that would spoil things for you, things I’d like to express about ____ and _____ and ________ that would give things away, and things I want to say about the kids, how ____ and ______ spend too much time apart or how I wish that ______ could somehow have kept his pet _______ despite everything else happening, but if I filled in those blanks before you’d watched the season you wouldn’t be able to experience the show in the way it was intended, and those specific experiences are what the show’s all about.  For fear of giving away spoilers, I’ll mostly be discussing more general thoughts and feelings, but here are some of my specific thoughts upfront:

I liked…

  • That there’s a genuine attempt early on to open up the world a bit to things larger than just Hawkins, just Eleven, and just a monster from another world. There are real attempts at building the world of Stranger Things into something much bigger than what happened in season one that still fit very naturally with what’s been established.
  • That Hopper gets a little bit of a reprieve from his tragic(ish) past with his new duties.
  • That Joyce gets more to do than just be shrill and hysterical and she seems to have actually grown into a more well-rounded adult.
  • That Max is a good addition to the kids’ group of friends that changes the overall dynamic significantly without being overtly disruptive.
  • That, along with many emotionally resonant moments, Stranger Things 2 had some scenes that are really heartbreaking and quite a bit more awful than those in season one.

stranger-things-2-hopper.jpgI loved…

  • The additions of Paul Reiser as Dr. Owens and Sean Astin as Joyce’s new boyfriend Bob because of how well the writers play with our expectations of who these characters will be based on each of the actors’ backgrounds in classic ‘80s cinema.
  • That the parents (and we’ve now met all of the kid’s’ parents) are still completely out of the loop, and this time they play a little bit more with how out of it the adults really are.
  • That there isn’t justice but at least closure for Barb.

stranger-things-2-bob.jpg I didn’t like…

  • Billy, the new bully, because I wish there was more to the character.
  • That it takes a long time to get the gang back together. It’s a valid and structurally sound approach, but it means season two is missing a little of what made season one special.
  • The many more places the story was trying to go because it lacked a clear driving force like Will going missing.

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The things I like best about Stranger Things in both seasons so far are somewhat ephemeral, not a collection of points, facts, or occurrences but more of a general feeling.  Watching Stranger Things is like coming home after a long day of work to your favourite dinner or tucking in to a blanket warm enough that you forget you’re just a momentary speck in a cold, indifferent universe.  There’s something comforting about it, something more than just recalling a simpler age, something that’s almost telling you that no matter what’s going on in your life or the world around you that watching Stranger Things, here, now, later, or whenever is the right thing to do.  It’s visuals are vintage sci-fi, its themes are classic coming of age, its score is soothing and peaceful while being spooky and provocative, and it’s a horror-adventure story but it’s never, ever scary in a way that makes you shudder or pull back.  For a variety of reasons it’s incredibly inviting and familiar, centering even, while being vital and energetic and of the moment.  What the Duffer Brothers have done with Stranger Things in both of its seasons is perhaps most remarkable because it just feels right.stranger-things-2-will.jpg

As opposed to the first season and its inciting scenario, Will Byers gets a starring role in the second as a boy caught between our world and the Upside Down, and that was a nice thing to see both because the young actor, Noah Schnapp, pulls off the role well and because… well, he kind of got ripped off compared to the rest of the cast of kids last year, not having anywhere near as much screen time.  Weirdly though, and in almost direct opposition, Mike’s role, again by virtue of how the plot of this season unfolds, feels severely reduced.  He goes from, basically, main character in season one to supporting in season two, and it’s to the point that I wonder if Mike actor Finn Wolfhard’s role in IT cut down on his availability.  I can’t say that’s bad or good and I certainly wouldn’t say it’s wrong for the story, but it’s different, and it’s those kinds of differences that make season two just feel not quite as fun or right as season one.

Each of the main characters gets a significant role to play this year — Hopper, Will, Joyce, and Bob with Dr. Owens at the plant; Steve with Nancy and then the kids; Nancy with Steve and Jonathan — and though that’s a good thing and surprisingly well balanced for everyone when you think about it, I didn’t get enough of the kids off on their own in season two.  Not all together at least, not in the same way as season one, and that’s one of the defining of traits of these types of stories, giving the kids agency in the overall plot of a story where everything’s getting out of the control of the sinister adults.  This time around there’s just a little too much left to the adults for my tastes, and the kids’ final part in taking down the monster(s) this year felt sort of tacked on.  That said, I loved Steve’s role with the kids in season two as it’s a big departure for the character that really lets him grow, and, at this point, Steve Harrington is easily my favourite character.  I love that, instead of having him run off like almost every other bully in almost every other story of this type in the last episode of season one, he went back in the house and proved himself a better person, and I love that that arc is taken even further this year.stranger-things-2-steve-dustin.jpg

If there’s one departure that’s divided viewers so far this year though, it’s the Eleven-centric episode that expanded on the character in the weirdest way possible for this show — taking her some place we’d never previously imagined, and not in the trans-dimensional sense.  Without getting specific, for me that episode was mostly a miss, the entire thing feeling like an episode of Heroes or a backdoor pilot for an X-Men-type Stranger Things spinoff.  We learn more about who Eleven is, what sort of forces have shaped her to this point, and maybe even gain an understanding of this show’s expanding stakes, but, like everything I haven’t liked in Stranger Things, it just didn’t sit right.

So should I see it?

Look, I know it probably doesn’t really matter what I thought of the show and that, with Stranger Things season 2 already having been out for a whole week, many of you have now long ago watched it all in its entirety, but if there’s one thing I want to give a voice to in our Stranger Things 2 review, it’s what reasons specifically you, me, and all of us like the show so much:  It just feels right.

Stranger Things is a great show, it’s action-packed, it’s got significant elements of horror, but it never feels like an action movie and it’s never actually scary.  It’s all obviously and directly evocative and reminiscent of the ’80s, but it’s still ultimately its own thing.  It’s never clever or complex, it’s just solid and ridiculously appealing.  It sounds odd, but it is what it is, not in the reductive way that that statement usually suggests, it’s just undeniably Stranger Things.

All of that said, if the four-seasons-long plan for Stranger Things sticks, I can see Stranger Things 2 being one of the weaker entries in the overall saga.  It necessarily departs from the first in ways I didn’t always love (though I’ll concede that that might end up being an opinion I have only now, so close in proximity to season one), and as a chapter deeply in the middle, it has the perhaps thankless task of expanding the universe but not pushing things too far because the end is still way off.  From that perspective, and even if the series expands beyond four seasons, there’s only so far and so much season two can really do, but at this point I still have to call it:  Stranger Things 2 — still good, just not as good.

Thom’s Stranger Things (Season 2) final score

3.5

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On the Edge

  • Hopper looks like he gained weight in the last year.
    • To be fair though, those brown ranger outfits are really unflattering and leave nothing to the imagination.
  • Imagine if they cast Michael Jackson Fox for a part next season. Would that be too on the nose?
  • I kind of feel sorry for Mike’s younger sister. If they stick to the four seasons plan that kid’s never going to be old enough to have a significant role on the show.
  • But the kids I really feel sorry for are the kids from Super 8. They really missed out on the ‘80s-kids-getting-into-trouble craze we’ve got going now.

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