REVIEW Stranger Things 2 (2017)

Fair warning: considerable spoilers follow – read after watching.

Among the many, many, MANY criticisms of Ghostbusters 2 – the 1989 sequel to the legendary supernatural comedy – maybe the most damning is that it had no teeth. Consider the hallmarks of the original: the sequel lacks the biting comedic (and somewhat satirical) tone, and trades in the spooky Zuul and the ominous Stay Puft Marshmallow Man for a kinda-creepy painting and some animated goo powered by the collective negativity of the city.

The sequel has no stakes. There is no threat. And where the original embraced the supernatural and saw it defeated by a group of unlikely heroes, the sequel trades it in for a cute story about the inherent goodness of people overcoming evil.

Of course, eight year old me didn’t care about any of that. I was just excited to be seeing a grown-up movie with my Dad.

I was thinking about the Ghostbusters films as I tried to evaluate the second season of Stranger Things. And I’ve come to the conclusion that the second season is a lot like that sequel. It has no teeth.

Okay, sure, it was a pretty good season of television. While I didn’t like it compared to last year, Stranger Things 2 was still a joy to watch, and came to life when it embraced what works, particularly the interpersonal dynamics of that amazing cast (side note: how amazing is Noah Schnapp, who was only a bit-parter last year as Will but was able to rise to the challenge this year and do so much more with that character).

But I felt like the show took a serious misstep in three key ways:

The villains didn’t seem as threatening.
Last season we had the Dungeons & Dragons-inspired demagorgon, a bipedal, fast-moving monster with the head of a venus fly trap if it was designed by HP Lovecraft. This season we had … like, smaller dog versions of that? Demadogs? Either way, the fact that they got the Gremlins treatment – ie we were introduced to a tiny, completely non-threatening version first – meant that they didn’t seem too ominous. And as for the Shadow Monster, a multi-tentacled tornado that looms over the town, I just felt the show didn’t do a great job of establishing what that creature was or what it wanted.

The new characters didn’t add much.
Ask yourself this: if you remove Max from the show and replace her scenes with more involving Eleven, and if you remove Billy from the series and replace his scenes with Steve with scenes of Steve-Nancy-Jonathan, is that a considerably better show? I say yes. Aside from that, I guess the other new characters were fine. Brett Gelman’s eccentric conspiracy theorist Murray seemed to serve a singular purpose, which was somewhat disappointing. Sean Astin’s Bob was kind of a dullard who was introduced purely so the writers didn’t have to kill a main character; the show is better if you give the Bob-Joyce romance storyline to Hopper-Joyce, with the added nuance that Hopper is hiding Eleven from Joyce too. And I didn’t think I would ever say this, but I wish the writers would have killed a kid.

(Note: I thought Paul Reiser was fine – and in fact, I liked that they pivoted away from the ominous G-Man that Modine played last year. #BringBackOwens)

Eleven was completely mishandled.
“Okay, guys. We have this amazing and mysterious character, played by easily the most talented actor on the show. What shall we do with her this season?” “Ooh, how about we lock her away in a cabin for half the season, then give her a terribly-timed bottle episode, before she shows up to conveniently save the entire main cast?” “There’s no way that will annoy our fanbase. Let’s do it.”

As I say, I still enjoyed Stranger Things 2 immensely – it will likely still be one of my favourite genre shows of the year. But it all felt a bit lacklustre compared to last year, and I think the hype and the hyperbole around the show has drowned out any meaningful analysis of what the show actually is: just a pretty good spooky drama, not an all-time television great.

Stranger Things 2 was created by the Duffer Brothers, and stars Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Noah Schnapp, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, Sadie Sink, Dacre Montgomery and Joe Keery, with Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Sean Astin and Paul Reiser. It is available to view on Netflix now.

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