Stranger Things 2 (Including a Bonus Teen Superhero Pilot): My Review

Happy Halloween everyone!

This will be my eighth and final review of the season. Halloween is here and with the start of NaNoWriMo tomorrow, my blog will be on a brief hiatus so that I can put as much of my time and energy as possible into working on my new novel. You can check out my Writing page if you want to see a brief description and check my current progress. In December I’ll resume my blog posts—my plan being to discuss various aspects of horror and writing, both individually and how they relate to one-another.

So on with the review…

By releasing Stranger Things 2, on October 27th, Netflix practically forced me to binge-watch the entire season this past weekend so that I could get it in before Halloween. Fortunately, with a total run-time of about nine hours, this is easily doable in a single—very lazy—day, which is exactly how I spent my Sunday.

The first episode came out of the gate full of that nostalgic, Stranger Things, vibe. They didn’t want to leave any doubt about the fact that you were watching a show set in the 1980’s. The clothes, the hair, the cars, the movies, and especially the music. The soundtrack is full of iconic 80’s songs. Put together, it feels like Mr. T just walloped you over the head with a Care Bear, stuffed with Rubix Cubes.

The story picks up one year after the events of the first season. The gang is a little older now, at that critical age where a single year can change your whole outlook on life, but It didn’t seem to stop them from falling back onto the familiar camaraderie of the first season. As great as these young actors are, I’m thinking this might be the last season before they start to hit that really awkward in-between stage that seems to be a sticking point for a lot of child-stars. Hopefully I’m wrong. They were definitely able to bring it back for this season though, providing the show with a large share of the charm and personality that made the first round into such a success.

It also maintains the look and feel. As “simple” as the opening title sequence is, I still feel like it’s a true work of art, capturing the feel of that time frame. This carries on through the rest of the show through the sound design, creating a consistent atmosphere with that particular flavor of old-school creepiness.

The performances were great all around. The returning characters were just as great/funny/crazy as ever, and there were some new characters added to the mix. I thought Sean Astin did a pretty amazing job. He brought a lot of life to his supporting character Bob and was very likable. On the other end of the spectrum was the character of Billy, played by Dacre Montgomery. He is the new d-bag in town, looking to take the crown from the preppy jerk Steve Harrington. He was performed well, but I feel like his character might have been written a little heavy-handedly. I see what they were trying to do, having to come up with someone even more nasty and narcissistic  than Steve, to make him look more human by comparison, but I feel like his motivations could have been more clear and he could have had at least one redeeming quality. He did own the role 100% though, as the sociopath you love to hate.

Some other new-comers included the new girl, Max, who joined the party of pre-teens, Murray Bauman, an eccentric conspiracy theorist, and Paul Reiser as a secretive scientist Dr. Owens.

And, um, yeah. There are some others. There’s a sub-plot introduced right off the bat in the first episode, forgotten about, and then revived for the entire seventh episode, only to be mostly forgotten about again. I wasn’t really a fan. To me it seemed like this thing was shoehorned in—a poorly executed afterthought—as a contrived way to keep a certain character away from the main action of the story until the last minute. I didn’t find the story line particularly interesting, It didn’t tie into the main plot in any significant way, and felt more like some executive boardroom decision than an organic part of the story. I also feel like we already have enough superhero franchises on the go. They don’t need to start creeping into our perfectly good horror/sci-fi titles. In my opinion they should have—and very easily could have—left it on the cutting room floor where it belongs*.

I also wish they had maintained more of the horror elements of the first season. Granted, it’s been a year or so since I last watched it, so my memory might be a little inaccurate, but I remembered it being a little more on the creepy side. It feels like they may have toned it down a bit for this season, maybe leaning more towards the science fiction angle. That’s just my personal taste though.

There was also the more difficult-to-avoid problem. One that’s common to the follow up of many popular movies and series. The first season of Stranger Things was cool and new and creative. It had a different feel than anything else that was popular at the time. This unique charm was part of what made it so popular and it has already influenced other films, including this year’s biggest horror blockbuster. ‘IT’ borrowed a lot from stranger things including the 80’s backdrop, the snappy pre-teen dialog, and Finn Wolfhard himself, the young actor playing Mike Wheeler/Richie Tozier†.

The problem with this is that, when it comes time to create the sequel, if they want to keep the charm of the original, it’s no longer unique and, if they want to make it original and toss the old formula, they risk losing some of the atmosphere they had. It seems like, with the exception of that new plot-line (which we don’t need to ever mention again), they stuck pretty close to the original formula.

In this case, I’d say it worked. It won’t last forever though. I could give countless examples of shows and movies that started out promising for a couple of iterations, but were run into the ground by formulaic repetition; Dexter, True Blood, The Walking De—What, too soon?… the Hangover movies?

I feel like I might be nit-picking though. It’s always easier to see the negative in these things, There is a lot of good here too. Interesting characters, humor, some decent scares, an interesting look at humanity in general. There was a lot packed tightly into these nine episodes to keep you glued to the story, well, eight out of the nine episodes anyway.

After the seventh episode, things picked up leading into the climax, an extended battle with the bigger-badder-monster, the stakes were raised since the previous season, with a new, Lovecraftian style abomination. They were able to tie up the story with a series of intense action sequences and some surprisingly dramatic scenes. It was clever and fun. Then we were left with a satisfying resolution as the main characters attempted to somehow integrate these insane experiences into their everyday lives.

I feel like it wrapped up nicely. People who enjoyed the first season will likely enjoy this one almost as much. If you’re reading this review, I’d say there’s an 85% chance you’re one of them. So, if you have a whole day to kill, grab yourself a big bag of Halloween candy, get into your PJ’s and fire up the Netflix. You won’t be disappointed.

I give Stranger Things—Season 2—four and a half Three Musketeers bars out of five.

 


*Upon further research, it may be some sort of experiment, like a T.V. pilot for a possible spinoff. If that’s the case, I’m hoping it spins off sooner, rather than later, and stays far away from Stranger Things where I’ll never have to watch it again.

†I know that Stranger Things was influenced heavily by Stephen King and likely the movie IT in particular. It’s kind of interesting how it came full circle in this case. Speaking of full circle, I discuss it a little in my first of this review series that can be found here.

 

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