A Puzzling Misstep: A Review of “Stranger Things 2”

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Attributing any more praise to the excellent first season of Netflix’s Stranger Things is basically impossible for me. When I originally wrote about it late last summer — following a binge in which I devoured it in its entirety within a 24-hour period — I declared the show “the best television [I’d] watched all year.” Since, I’ve only grown to better appreciate and love that original season over re-watches and discussions, but even more so now in light of the very recent release of its lackluster follow-up. While the new, monstrously-anticipated sequel is dubbed Stranger Things 2, perhaps a more accurate title would be Stranger Things 1.5.

To be fair, I still managed to consume Stranger Things 1.5’s Stranger Things 2’s nine episodes within a day, and I was never disinterested in seeing it through to its underwhelming conclusion. Perhaps my increasing inclination to browse social media during the season’s second half is most succinctly indicative of my feelings on Stranger Things 2 as a whole. The first half is fine, good even, effectively unfolding a genuinely interesting narrative over its first few episodes with the same lovable cast as before, adding a number of potentially engaging side characters into the mix at the start.

The latter episodes, however, have nearly soured me on the entire experience. The original season was almost entirely derivative of fan-favorite 80s films to its own benefit. Being 80s kids themselves, The Duffer Brothers plucked out the best concepts and characters ranging from King’s horror novels to Carpenter’s sci-fi flicks to Hughes’ teen movies, all in order to construct their own story that’s nearly on par with the best the 80s had to offer. In comparison, Stranger Things 2 outright fails in this regard, barely becoming more than just a monotonous retread of its predecessor without building upon its countless inspirations.

It’s not all bad, but alongside every positive element I found regarding Stranger Things 2, there’s a number of faults both big and small that ultimately hold it back. The season begins in grand fashion with a bombastic set-piece and introduction to an entirely new group of intriguing characters. But this sequence lasts no longer than five minutes, and when we finally see them again in episode seven in a late-season detour (also a particularly low point for the show), I just didn’t care anymore. I don’t want to spoil anything about these characters or their intentions, but I can only assume they’ll either play a bigger role in the third season, or perhaps even receive their own mediocre spin-off show (this is Netflix’s biggest property as of right now, after all, so of course they’ll want to milk this for years to come). Here, their inclusion only seemed like a missed opportunity.

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This is one of the few instances in which Stranger Things 2 attempts at doing anything new, although I’m genuinely surprised at how mishandled it is. Elsewhere, things are a bit more expected. We pick up a year following the events of the first season, and we’re almost immediately treated to sequences with each of the returning characters. Will (Noah Schnapp) is still afflicted by side-effects from being trapped within the Upside Down for such a long period, and his mother, Joyce (Winona Ryder), hovers over him at all times. Will experiences dream-like visions of the Upside Down at random, like when he’s spending time with his friends Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) at the arcade. Will’s “now memories,” as the characters will come to call them, are symbolic of big things to come. The first four or so episodes actually do a great job of building suspense and introducing a tale worth investing in. The final episodes, though, are unsuccessful in realizing the potential produced by the initial set-up.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a joy to watch many of these characters interact — especially the four main boys — same as it was in the first time around. Similarly, I believe Hopper (David Harbour) and Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) are among the greatest characters in all of TV right now. And somehow, Steve (Joe Keery) sees the best arc of anyone over the nine episodes, becoming the most endearing among the lot of them this season.

Even so, the spotlight here is undeniably split up between too many side plots and supporting characters, most of which aren’t all that engaging or become uninventive imitations of similar storylines found in the infinitely superior first season. Do we really need to again wonder what will happen with Nancy (Natalia Dyer), Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), and Steve’s love triangle? Will Winona Ryder ever get to act as anything other than an overly worried mother in this show? Can Will just be a kid again for God’s sake? I also found that there just wasn’t enough of Hopper, Eleven, or Mike throughout, and the new additions to the cast don’t amount to much at all — that is, save for Bob (Sean Astin), Joyce’s new love interest, who is just an all-around entirely likable dude.

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I’m also incredibly surprised at how much of this season surrenders itself to predictability, while also not at all shying away from tired, decades-old cliches. The first season embraced its tropes and remarkably inverted many as well, whereas here, much of it feels like the result of lazy writing. The climax of the season presents a few exciting moments, but at the same time I found it all too familiar and ill-equipped, particularly lacking any kind of strong punch. The most damning detail of the entire season is that in the end, basically nothing has been resolved. I was left with the feeling that the entire seven-plus hours I’d spent watching the show was nothing more than an overly long bridge in order to get to the real good stuff that will hopefully come into play next time. Well, let the wait begin for Stranger Things 3, I guess.

I can’t be entirely down on Stranger Things 2 — after all it is still Stranger Thingsand I’d been eagerly awaiting this for over a year. The original score, again courtesy of Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein of electronic band S U R V I V E, is as entirely outstanding and memorable as the first. Thanks to a much higher budget this time, the special effects look mostly spectacular and the set design is stellar, in part making for a really phenomenal show to look at. Also, when my two favorite characters from each season, Dustin and Steve, surprisingly team up halfway through, every scene with them is absolute bliss.

While a follow-up to Stranger Things wasn’t even necessary in my mind, I was excited to see where the Duffer Brothers would take their nostalgia-fueled show. I not only hoped, but expected great things from Stranger Things 2, and so maybe I only have myself to blame for my dissatisfaction toward it. There are definitely aspects to like here, but there’s not much to love, and perhaps that is what is most sinful about this strangely disappointing sequel.

3 stars out of 5

— Michael Lane, Blog Editor

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