Close your eyes. Focus. If you really, truly look deeply within yourself, you would admit that something just didn’t quite feel right about the second season of Stranger Things. It seemingly had all the things you liked about the first season. It sounded like Stranger Things. Same cool David Bowie-esque synth intro song. Same terrific young actors. The pudgy kid was maybe a little funnier and goddammit they’re still riding bikes around and giving me all the feels of my youth. But there remained a nagging feeling tugging at your brain, and *spoiler alert* it ain’t a demogorgon, broh.
The Creators Forgot (Or Ignored) What Worked from the Get Go:
Kids riding bikes through rural suburbs. Casual (yet non-aggressive) callbacks to 80s pop culture. Hints of sci-fi boiling underneath the facade of a coming of age drama. Banter between junior high kids. Comedy through puberty. Sheriff Hopper being a lovable dick. These are the things for which I am here. These are also the things the first season nailed — a large part of the reason it was so wildly well-received, and the elements the Second Season seemed to discard or ignore. Most importantly, Season Two merely rehashed the plot from Season One, but just not as good. Will Byers is changed by a presence from the Upside Down and his family and friends frantically try to figure out what’s going on and uncover a deeper plot/more serious threat. There’s even a similar gimmick to the Christmas lights alphabet in Season One, except now it’s a bunch of tentacles taped all over the Byers household (side note: how many fucking crayons did that take to draw??).
For the additional reasons discussed in more detail below, Season Two’s missteps turned the whole thing upside down (BANG).
Too Much Melodrama and Overacting:
In Season Two, the showrunners seemed to want the kids to flex their acting muscles by putting them in uber emotional scenes where they had to scream and/or cry and give long melodramatic monologues. This, my friends, is what the Chief likes to refer to as “DiCaprio Demonstration.” Overacting through the use of violent emoting. Sorry fam, DiCaprio doesn’t “act,” he merely screams and cries and flails about, and it ain’t acting (but this diatribe is for a different column on a different day).
Don’t get me wrong, the kids are phenomenal actors, but that’s what made the first season so darned interesting. In season one, they were super believable as nerdy teenagers. Their camaraderie was heartwarming, from the way they clowned on each other to the white lies they’d tell their parents so they could go on adventures. They didn’t have scenes in hospital rooms where they had to start hyperventilating and getting super intense. Hell, they discovered a fucking dead kid in the first season and were just like, “well damn.”
Hopped up on Sheriff Hopper:
Season One gave us Sheriff Jim Hopper, an alcoholic bad-luck sheriff who slept with half of Hawkins (yes, even the librarian). He was spiraling out of control, until his uncovering of the mystery regarding the upside down began to restore meaning to his life. He’s an asshole, self-absorbed, but with a heart of gold. He also represented us (the audience). As he learned clues, we did. We moved through the plot as he did, and he was a damn interesting and complex character to unravel. Who is this character in Season Two? It seems like all of the characters know more than the audience and we’re just trying to catch up. This leads to a ton of exposition, i.e., scenes where the characters have to unnecessarily discuss the status of the world using unnatural dialogue. It wasn’t as much a creepy mystery unraveling (cough, first season) as it was plot points thrown in our face with cheap cliffhangers nearly ever episode.
Regarding Hoppers’ personality change, in Season Two, Hopper’s mostly just friendly with a rough edge. The scenes with Eleven, for which he is now a surrogate father and caretaker, seem forced, right down to Hopper tousling her hair in a “sweet and caring” scene. It’s the problem of making your anti-hero just a hero (Steve suffers this same exact fate in Season Two). You took away what made Hopper fascinating. When he’s just nice, we don’t care as much. Yeah, yeah, he got real angry at Eleven once, but that scene seemed so manufactured for drama purposes. Like we get it, she is like the daughter you lost and want to protect her but are also a little overprotective AND she is also in grave danger.
Pointless Double-down on the Nostalgia:
In last season of South Park, Trey and Matt introduced the Member Berries, cute characters that relished only in pop culture (and comical racism) of the past. The joke being that all “new” movies and TV are merely reboots or repackages of existing intellectual property. Now don’t get me wrong, I fuck with nostalgia hard. I make a Mondo Cooler/Capri Sun joke probably once a month (almost always gets a laugh). But in the Second Season of Stranger Things, the showrunners seemed to have gobbled a mouthful of Member Berries. Instead of the 80s references being made to serve the story and set the tone of the world, we’re inundated with 80s shit thrown in our face with no other purpose than to make us go….
Right out of the gates, the boys dress up as the Ghostbusters and the “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts” theme songs rings in our ears. We take a trip to the arcade for no other reason than for the audience to say, “ohhhhh yeahhhh, I ‘member arcades!” Okay a new character was introduced there but you know what the fuck I mean. They really just wanted to show quarter-powered arcade machines with synth music. Conversely, in the first season for example, the show opens with the boys playing Dungeons and Dragons. This reference becomes a set-up for later pay-offs as the boys begin to play into their D&D roles in real life which tracks each of their character arcs. This is storytelling 101. The reference transcends a cheap 80s callback and becomes a satisfying pay-off that serves and informs the characters. Better luck with Season 3.
OH FUCKING SHIT OH GOD HERE COMES EPISODE 7:
As the season nears its climax, the show takes a surprise left turn, and Eleven (now known as Jane but I refuse to call her that) treks to Chicago to meet up with another numerically-named misfit. The result is a misguided, bizarre, and incredibly boring romp that failed on multiple levels. As the sweet (albeit with a violent edge) Eleven transitions into the Artist Formerly Known As Eleven Now Listening to Panic At The Disco aka Emo Eleven while living amongst a crew of random teenage outlaws, I wondered to myself, “what the fuck is going on and why should I care.” The answers are simple. Nothing of substance is going and I shouldn’t care. Get the fuck outta here with this shit:
I’m not alone in this opinion. Folks online are tearing into this episode. Indeed, its main issue is that it flies in the face of the tone of the show — 80s sci-fi cult classic movies — and transformed more into like Batman & Robin (shitty ass 90s camp). While the showrunners were likely attempting a brave one-off “weird” episode, all audiences really care about in episodic shows that Netflix has popularized is for the plot to be advanced. The show also overestimated Eleven’s ability to carry an episode. Millie Bobby Brown is a fine actor and everything, but we only like Eleven when she plays off the other friends back in Hawkins. By herself with a bunch of new characters, she’s an angsty boring character with not much to do other than throw shit around with her mind. Also, how did this ragtag group of teenage criminals end up in a fully furnished yet neon graffiti-d warehouse? Also, also, does this mean they’re gonna force feed us other science-y experiment-y mutant kids? We’ve got Nos. 011 and 008. Do the three digits imply there are hundreds?? When did this show become X-Men? NO MAKE IT STOP THESE CHARACTERS ARE BORING ALL I CARE ABOUT ARE THE BELIEVABLE KIDS HAVING FUN ADVENTURES NOT MUTANTS WITH MIND POWERS.
I liked Bob. I also liked Nancy and Jonathan’s relationship. They have chemistry (they’re also dating in real life, awwwww). I liked the weird guy that’s like a conspiracy theorist. Those bunker scenes with him, Will and Nancy were different and they worked.
But in conclusion, while most folks are calling Season Two as good as Season One with a few possible issues, I posit that it’s more like that show Heroes. Member that show? It started out so hot but quickly became so trash. We’re now on that trajectory. Oh, and a better version of Stranger Things 2 exists — it’s called It. Watch that instead, homies.
[banner image from Prowl Newspaper and all other images from Pop Sugar and Netflix]