Or: Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems
The worst thing that happened to the Duffer Brothers and their “little sci-fi drama that could” was the show getting as popular as it did. This has nothing to do with wanting the fanbase to be small so viewers feel good for knowing about it and everything to do with the quality of the show just straight up declining. I’m saddened to write this, as the first season was actually outstanding and deserves every bit of attention it received. Sadly, season two does not stack up.
That’s not to say it’s terrible. There are some fantastic moments. Bob Newby, played by the hopefully immortal Sean Astin, is a great addition to the cast. In fact, all the actors do the best they can with the script they have. Noah Schnapp, though asked to do very little, delivers an intense performance as Will while Hawkins’ own “Zombie Boy” deals with everything from bullying to demonic possession. The scenes where the Shadow Monster speaks through him are as chilling as it gets. The Stranger Things kids are still the same adorable and fun people they were before, and so the show will always have that going for it.
Stranger Things is at its absolute best when it focuses on the personal interactions unique to the varying age groups that it depicts. My favorite scenes of the show, including season one, are the ones between Eleven and Hopper at their home in the woods. Hopper is learning how to be a father while Eleven learns how to be more functional in society. You can tell Hopper is just doing his best to keep her safe, but doesn’t quite know what he’s doing. Eleven is genuinely pretty bratty at times. One minute they’re dancing and cleaning the house to Jim Croce music and the next they’re screaming across the house. Neither can really understand the other, and the father/daughter dynamic is captured incredibly well. Similarly, Bob and Joyce’s time alone from the children is endearing and warm. Steve and Dustin are fun at times, even if Steve is still the worst (I don’t care what the internet says). It’s good character development, good storytelling, and what makes Stranger Things the truly special show that it can be when at its best.
These highlights make it even more mind-boggling that the showrunners got the “sequel” so so so wrong. They still know what works, but just refuse to do it. Perhaps the best
example of this is Mike’s storyline in the newest episodes. An exhaustive list of his roles in the show’s second season goes as follows: he’s sad about Eleven not being there, he’s friends with Will, and that’s it. This would be a bad character use in any situation, but is especially so when you consider his great season one and the potential that Finn Wolfhard provides as an actor. The kid’s great and is coming off a hilarious performance as Richie in It, but he’s also clearly older than the other actors. In the lives of most geeks, there comes a time where you wonder if you’re getting too old for action figures and comic books. Mike should be experiencing that, and he there are signs that he may have been planned to. He’s the only one not thrilled to posing for pictures in his Ghostbusters suit, he’s forced by his parents to consider throwing his toys away, shuns Max, and seems pretty distant just generally. But that’s it! Wolfhard is wholly capable of the nuance required to delve into the pains of growing up and eventually accepting nerdiness, but is relegated to a supporting and ultimately unimpressive role.
While Lucas, Dustin, and Max’s love triangle provides some entertainment, Max and her brother Billy are meaningless additions to the show. It diversifies the group of kids, which is important, but the characters don’t add anything plot-wise. It’s very possible to write a version of Max that is more than the typical new girl in school love interest, but the Duffer Brothers didn’t bother. Maybe Billy needed to exist to make Steve likable(?) but is that it? And if so, why did he get so much screen time? What does the scene of him at home with his father and step-mother add to the show at all? What it boils down to is something for the kids to do while they aren’t allowed to help fight the Shadow Monster for some reason. Aside from Dustin taking in Dart in one of the most irredeemably stupid decisions by a smart character in recent memory, the kid’s don’t really have a part in the show at all. They’re pretty ineffective, which is in direct contrast with the inspiring and empowering theme that season one established for the show.
Therein lies one of the largest issue with season two. So much of it is just purposeless. Effectively, Jonathan and Nancy’s storyline does nothing. They have a great moment in their romantic storyline, but there’s no reason that can’t happen while they do something that pertains to the rest of the series. If they don’t go to meet with that journalist, nothing really changes. There may be one, small effect on the world, but the fact I can’t remember it shows that it may as well have not happened. Audiences and fans received #JusticeforBarb which was admittedly deserved, but with the degree to which it took Nancy out of the plot, I almost rather they had explained it away in a short scene.
If scenes in a movie or TV show don’t have to happen, there’s a good chance they shouldn’t. Any aspect that doesn’t really serve a purpose is likely better off removed entirely. Pitchfork has an excellent article about the music in the show that explains why even the music is careless. This is the curse of big budgets. To quote Dr. Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park (and I guess kind of Lex Luthor in Batman v. Superman? How was that not plagiarism?), the Duffer Brothers “were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should”. When you have all the money and freedom in the world, which of course they did after an incredibly successful first season, it’s easy to do things because they seem cool and you can. Why are there hundreds of Demogorgons now, even though one was plenty in the first season? Because they can afford it. Why did the last couple of episodes devolve into a bad hack and slash alien film? Because it would look cool and they can afford it. The subtext of Stranger Things is thrown to the wayside, and with it, the charm.
Okay, I’ve made it through the whole article without talking about how terrible the seventh episode is, so I’m going to do that now. So you don’t have to check, that’s the one where Eleven goes to Chicago and hangs out with that gang that dresses in punk rock clothes for some reason. I understand why the episode exists, and it has some merits. The scene where Eleven decides that she’s going to spare the life of the scientist that kept her locked up is a nice moment for her character. But generally, this episode is a waste of time. Eleven finding people like her is also a valuable part of her arc, but what a weird way for it to happen!! I don’t understand why an entire episode was devoted to this, and this alone, instead of sprinkling it in with what’s happening with the rest of the characters. I’m sorry, but I care so little about Kali and these people and do not want them to be on my screen for a full 50 minutes. Also, why are they dressed like punk rockers??????? The dialogue is awful, the teaching Eleven to use her powers scene is horribly trite, and that one CGI butterfly Kali makes for Eleven to see is bad. It has no reason to be bad considering the massive budget and the plethora of good CGI in the series, but still, it is bad. As is the whole episode.
To end the review on a more positive note, the homages to the 80s continue to be awesome. One of my favorite shots in film history is in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, when the little boy stands in the doorway with the light of the spaceship flooding the room, so seeing them do that with Will and the Shadow Monster was a great time. The Ghostbusters costumes and music made me nostalgic for a time I wasn’t even alive for. I loved the promotional posters they released that replicated various hit 80s films, and the vibe from those was certainly continued into the series. So it gets some bonus points for that. At this point the season needs all the bonus points it can get.
The Verdict: It’s clear the Duffer Brothers heard what the audiences were saying about season one, and abandoned their vision in favor of that. Stranger Things was not popular because of the monsters. Every sci-fi has monsters. Season one was special, and season two on its own would not have been the sensation that the original was. I so wanted this to be good. But alas,