Mild spoilers follow…
When the opening sequence of Stranger Things 2 (or Stranger Things: Season 2, definitely not 2 Stranger 2 Things) takes place in Pittsburgh and features some central casting 80’s street punks doing some central casting 80’s street punk shit (seriously, I half expected The Terminator to come and steal their clothes), you know that Stranger Things has, for better or worse, taken it’s Luke Skywalker-esque first step into a larger world. Aliens might be the better science fiction analogy though, and not just because Paul Reiser is here doing his Paul Reiser thing. Or is he? Subverting expectations and upending tropes within the well-worn world of sci fi/fantasy/horror clichés was the greatest strength of Stranger Things’ groundbreaking first season. Stranger Things 2 is definitely more Stranger Things, and while it would be impossible to surpass a season of television as perfectly realized as ST’s first, the mysteries, horrors and conspiracies at play in ST2 are definitely not for lack of trying.
Right off the bat, ST2 scores points by not fucking around with the audience, or holding any big answers or expectations at bay in the way that so many genre TV shows have killed their own momentum and good will by doing in the past. We join our main cast nearly one year after the events of the first series, with Will expectedly having trouble assimilating into society after his experience in the Upside Down, PTSD-like flashbacks that Reiser’s Dr. Owens dubs “episodes” place the boy back in the harsh alternate reality, while Mike poorly adjusts to life after Eleven, his school work and friendships suffering as a result. And what about Eleven? Her journey back to our realm is one of this season’s most harrowing, and her hero’s journey throughout the entire season nearly as much so, though there is that business with Number Eight.
“Previously on Heroes…”
Calling back to that somewhat out of place opening sequence, it turns out that the leader of those punks was the Eight to Eleven, her “sister”, who gained astral projection powers from the experiments preformed on her and is using that power to gain revenge against those responsible, for both her and Eleven’s mistreatment and the extreme shock therapy performed on their now catatonic mother. While I’ve praised the series as a whole for its clever subversion of genre tropes, this whole situation was way too derivative, feeling like any number of watered down X-Men takes (both official and bootleg), or even *shudder* Orphan Black, and also a rather shameless attempt at a backdoor pilot. No thanks. Nancy and Jonathan’s quest for justice for Barb similarly fell flat for me, coming off a bit too much like fan pandering given the life of its own that Barb’s plight took on amongst the fandom since season one’s release. None of this is bad, per se, it just deviates from the lightning quick pacing and economy of storytelling that the first season so excelled it.
So what does work? Well, a lot, actually, pretty much everything else. Gremlins and E.T. are added to the Spielberg Soup as Dustin adopts a pet, which turns out about as well as can be expected. He and Lucas find their own “Eleven” to crush on in skateboarding, Dig Dug-ing badass Max, the independent female element in the “party” giving off a strong It vibe. Steve once again takes up the spiked bat, helping the kids fend off an Aliens-style pack of rabid Demogorgons, as well as Max’s racist asshole brother Billy. In addition to Paul Reiser, fellow nerd favorite Sean Astin shows up as Joyce Byers’ good natured and innocent new boyfriend, drawn into the weird Hawkins goings on as hilariously, anachronistically and ultimately tragically as possible.
You think all this “Upside Down” stuff is bad? Wait until you see Ghostbusters 2.
Storyline wise, Stranger Things 2 manages to pack a lot into its meager 9 episodes (one more that season one), sometimes trading bombast and set pieces for clarity. For example, the “Christmas lights on the wall” type of macguffin for ST2 is a map of the tunnels that separate our dimension from the upside down. Will gains knowledge of this after a run in with this season’s (hell the whole series’) new final boss during one of his “episodes” in the Upside Down, and begins drawing parts of the map furiously as soon as he regains consciousness. How on earth Joyce, Jonathan and the others sort these map pieces out is brushed over extremely haphazardly, perhaps begging for some of the run time poorly spent languishing over the “Barb” and “Eight” plot lines. Setting those minor gripes aside though, the characterization and plot are ultimately very satisfying and come close to the first season’s near perfection. But the law of diminishing returns is what it is.
A piece of pop culture that no one expected much from coming out of nowhere and becoming a household institution is a phenomena that repeats itself time and time again, from Star Wars to Guardians of the Galaxy. Super Bowl ads, official Eggo tie- ins and Lyft cars on the GPS sporting Dustin’s familiar trucker cap all add up to a Stranger Things that, just like the show it self’s far reaching narrative, doesn’t belong to only the retro inclined horror and sci fi nerds anymore, but to everyone. I’m not saying that Stranger Things 2 jumps the shark or anything like that, just that too many corporate cooks may have spoiled it’s formerly flawless soup into something, well, less so. And while I’m still optimistic about the inevitable Stranger Things 3, I’m going to temper that optimism with a healthy amount of caution. It’s good to be back in Hawkins, Indiana, I just wish it was great.