The Netflix series spins its wheels exploring familiar terrain.
Sometimes, success is all in the timing. Stranger Things was karaoke cinema, but circa July 2016, what else was on offer? A bored thirteenth Star Trek and an uninspired third Ghostbusters and a terrible fourth Bourne where Matt Damon punched Facebook? Game of Thrones had just ended. The zeit needed a geist. So by late July you were getting invitations to Stranger Things parties and everyone was talking about Barb.
And it’s never the wrong time for ’80s nostalgia, an itch pop culture has never stopped trying to scratch. The algorithm behind Stranger Things‘ particular nostalgia (the nostalgiorithm?) was obvious. A group of Goonies rode ET bikes with their pal Dark Phoenix, while the local teens Pretty in Pink‘d until they Halloween‘d.
It helped that the Duffers locked into the lost possibility of regular-person protagonists, a bygone notion in our era of Chosen Ones. And the performers, many previously unknown, were great. A character like young Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) got the kind of third-banana spotlight that Marvel usually reserves for SHIELD agents. Local police chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) was the hero-as-human wreckage, drunk and dissolute and wounded, the kind of lawman-with-a-cruddy-house who popped up a lot before traumatized First Blood morphed into steroidal First Blood Part 2.
And Millie Bobby Brown was a genuine discovery. Eleven as a character could’ve felt like a stunt: She’s every horror-movie kid and she barely knows how to speak and she’s the first alien girl disrupting the land of boys. But Brown’s sad eyes suggested reservoirs of real pain, and those same eyes could narrow into murder-slits of righteous rage. I compared her to Dark Phoenix a second ago because Stranger Things literally did that, but the ravenous ’80s superhero Eleven actually reminds me of is Alan Moore’s Kid Marvelman, another orphan ravaged by mad science, a god of pure childish id.
Eleven was nicer, obviously, and comparing Stranger Things to its more obvious inspirations made the show feel sanitized. It wasn’t as sociopathic as vintage King, not as funny as old-school Carpenter, not as inventive as Spielberg. Midway through Stranger Things 2, returning character Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) actually explains the plot of the first season to a new character. The newer character misunderstands Lucas’ confession and thinks he’s spinning a fictional story. “I just wish it had a little more originality, that’s all,” the character says, sounding like every critic cranky enough to high-horse the show’s homages.
But a lack of originality was never this show’s problem. When you go to see an ’80s cover band, you’re not listening for new material. You could appreciate how writer-directors Matt and Ross Duffer took the extra fanfictional step of throwing all their action figures together into one lost Amblintopia, making Hawkins, Indiana, their own hyper-specific version of Once Upon a Time‘s Storybrooke. So many other white-dude directors who grew up in the Reagan era are approaching middle age having made careers from rebooting our most beloved franchises with much simpler strategies, Star Wars But With The Death Star Again, Transformers But With King Arthur: There are worse ideas than Girl Talk-ing ’80s genre classics into a synth-heavy stew.
And there was the possibility that the Duffers would get more ambitious in their remixing. Could they empty all the toys into the sandbox? In Stranger Things 2, there’s a moment where a little girl is playfully pairing off two toys, He-Man and Barbie (or some offbrand variations). Surely that is some sort of truly wild nostalgia-baked fantasia in the brewing, swordsy high fantasy mixed with accessorized consumerist fantasy, two (happily retired!) avatars of gendered playtime mixing together into one wondrous whole.
But that’s a throwaway bit. Last season, Stranger Things ripped off the greats. This season, it’s ripping off Stranger Things.
Stranger Things 2 begins roughly a year after last year’s finale. Mike (Finn Wolfhard) misses Eleven. Dustin and Lucas share a crush on a skateboarding gamer named Max (Sadie Sink). Will (Noah Schnapp) is haunted by visions of the Upside Down, the alternate dimension that looks exactly like Hell in Constantine. Mike’s sister Nancy (Natalie Dyer) loves reformed bad boy Steve Harrington (Joe Keery), but exchanges lingering glances with Will’s brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton.) Joyce (Winona Ryder) has a new boyfriend (Sean Astin), but she’s mostly just really worried about Will. Hopper is investigating curious disturbances around town. And Eleven is…somewhere.
So there, I just described the initial setup and the first half of this pointlessly overlong, quarter-baked season of television. Yes, after an unexpected opening scene that looks like a worse version of The Gifted, Stranger Things 2 settles in for five straight hours of pure unfiltered Netflix bloat. Tantalizing possibilities are hinted at, then hinted at again a full episode later.
The cast remains full of delightful performers, but they sprawl in different directions, many of them boring. Nancy feels sad about Barb, a storyline that feels like a sop to Barb fandom (people, she was barely in this show!), which has the doubly ruinous effect of sending Nancy circling back through plot leftover from the first season. And that’s the effect of a lot of this season, actually. Joyce is freaked out by the possibility that Will hasn’t recovered from his time in the Upside Down, a subplot that gives you flashbacks to the last fifty times Winona Ryder looked really really worried. Will’s in a bad place, which you already knew from last season’s cliffhanger. Full credit to Schnapp, a phantom presence last year, for delivering a sensitively freaked out performance. He’s smaller than the other performers and seems constantly likely to break into dust from sheer fright.
But whereas Will’s disappearance was an immediately inciting incident last year, this time Will’s gradual upward descent slow-burns for a long time. Will Has A Scary Vision, whoops, I just spoiled the first few cliffhangers. Will Has To Be Saved, but didn’t you see this one already? Stranger Things 1 was slow, too, but there was a feeling of discovery on all fronts. Eleven was getting to know the boys, and the strangeness in the government facility was gradually coming into focus.
There are some fun character beats in this new season, but they exist separate from the plot, as if the writers plotted two-episode arcs for all the characters and then split them across nine episodes of all-too-familiar supernatural stuff. In place of Matthew Modine, Stranger Things 2 gives us Paul Reiser as a new Mysterious Doctor. And there’s a new shadow monster, very large, with more tentacles. Other weirdlies linger about. The creature effects were a low point in the original Stranger Things, but this was also true in freaking Jaws, and the show wisely held the Demagorgon back in evocative shadows. This season, there are more creatures, a horde of undifferentiated things climbing cavern walls and haunting corridors, always threatening to kill only the characters you barely care about.
So, one thinks of John McClane in Die Hard 2: Die Harder, a film we must now tragically refer to as merely the third-worst Die Hard. “How can the same s— happen to the same guy twice?” pondered our man John. New s— lingers on the margins. While everyone else on Stranger Things feels locked on rails, Eleven (MINOR SPOILERS FOR POINTLESS PLOT) is busy doing almost nothing! She spends the first half of the season in a remote cabin, the kind of subplot Heroes had to give Hiro so he wouldn’t just deus that failing phenomenon’s busted machina. If Stranger Things aired weekly, the decision to silo Eleven would be an all-time calamity, a month-plus wait for something to happen. In binge mode it’s just a bore, which only gets worse when Eleven sets off on a mission to uncover her (sigh) secret origin.
This quest does involve the only real notable bit of experimentation in Stranger Things 2. There is a breakaway episode, with a different setting, a different supporting cast, and a lot of graffiti inspired by Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles. I’m a desperate fanboy of breakaway episodes — my favorite scene from Sopranos is Tony yelling at Red Rock Canyon — but even this bold departure doesn’t add much. It feels like the Duffers want to world-build toward a larger narrative, and start to encapsulate some notion of ’80s culture beyond nerd-friendly genre.
Eleven gets eyeshadow, and Bon Jovi’s “Runaway” plays on the soundtrack, and so does the Runaways’ “Dead End Justice.” There’s a character with a mohawk, and a character who brags about “stealing from war criminal billionaires.” This rebel energy feels beyond the show’s spirit. Like, if you were wondering what the punk aesthetic would look like when refracted through a sanitized version of everything that was mainstream when punk was punk, the answer is Chapter 7 of Stranger Things 2.
There’s a whiff of Disney-level conservatism bubbling throughout Stranger Things, the faceless government types are maybe not as bad as you thought, the monsters shorn of any personality that could make their motivation even vaguely recognizable. Because Joe Keery is a charming actor, Steve Harrington has morphed completely from James Spader in Pretty in Pink into Eric Stoltz in Some Kind of Wonderful, which means that the whole cast is now as nice as a like button. The only vaguely nefarious new character is a George Michael lookalike who spends 95 percent of the season driving angry. In a single scene, we learn that he’s the product of an abusive household, a moment of cold-water brutality with little followup that makes this season’s various genre explorations feel even more divorced from any emotional reality.
And keep in mind: This season is set in 1984, the same year that Gremlins was satirizing every genre trope that Stranger Things treats as High Gospel. So there is no excuse for wheelspinning through tired story beats. But maybe you think that’s the point, that the oddly gutless storytelling reflects how safely the show has hermetically sealed itself off from the stresses of today. In lieu of a second season, Netflix has thrown a nine-hour Stranger Things party, watch along on social media, click here if you recognize the reference! But no one wants to stay at a party that long, and it’s worth pointing out that no classic ’80s movie mentioned in this review ran over two hours. No one will complain if Stranger Things 3 rips off the concept of brevity. C