Monday, November 20, 2017

Stranger Things 2 (2017) Channels an Awkward Phase

Photo Credit: Netflix
In 2016, Stranger Things became easily one of the most binge-worthy, obsession-inducing shows in recent history. Building characters into tropes only to shatter them in a world mixing Stephen King mystery and Steven Spielberg adventure made every episode THE BEST THING EVER. The fanbase's love of the cast and jaw-dropping cliffhangers understandably set up its future with the impossible task to follow in its predecessor's huge footsteps. Stranger Things 2 has critics and fans talking again, but this time, it's not exactly for the best reasons.

Returning to Hawkins, Indiana, one year after a young boy Will Byers is found safe and sound following a terrifying disappearance, supernatural elements continue to burst at the seams. The Byers family and a young girl with telepathic powers, Eleven, have managed to rescue the boy out of the Upside Down, but the same can't be same about him or their small town.

While season one was so meta to the eighties, filled to the brink with easter eggs and homages, the story managed to create its own iconic imagery. Everything from the opening song to moments of Eleven and her love of Eggos and Joyce communicating through Christmas lights - to name a few- gobbled the world whole with cosplaying, memes, and artistic tributes. Balancing three different storylines and sets of characters, the full plot centered on finding out more about the Upside Down and Eleven's mysterious abilities plays out like massive quest to slay the beast and be rescued by the princess. We went along with everyone's moves, but never knew exactly what was lurking around the corner.

Now, in season two, the show's creators relaxes on subtle (or obvious) homages so much, it makes one wonder if they ran out of steam, inspiration or both. Underneath the misshapen writing, elements that made the show so successful in the first place like the loveable characters and retro worldbuilding still exists, but unfortunately, lets that unique blend of science-fiction, horror, and nostalgia slip into the void.

Netflix's self-generated hype using horror-inspired posters and the trailer featuring Michael Jackson's iconic Thriller feels misleading. The story continues to further beloved, established relationships along, but doesn't create many exciting inferences to its inspired era nor memorable moments of its own. As characters are still broken up into multiple storylines about Will, Eleven, JUSTICE FOR BARB, and the Upside Down, they all feel separate, never completely melding with each other. Downplaying an aim to recreate the first season's King/Spielberg dynamic, this return to Hawkins is much more like a visit to simple nowhere town (that could even be set in our time period) where some weird stuff's going on.

While the story is more or less a repeat of season one with more visible monsters instead of one mostly lurking in the shadows, old and new characters slightly shift ahead but still remain a little of the same. Allowing the characters to evolve a la Harry Potter at least one year at a time, the boxes they're put into gives them plenty of room to grow for future seasons.

On the upside, Hopper becomes Eleven's surrogate father, and hey, parenting a telepathic bad-ass isn't easy; Joyce finds a warm relationship with Bob ("newcomer" Sean Astin), who may be the father figure Will and Jonathan deserve. On the downside: Nancy's gungho on serving justice to Barbra through a conspiratorial journalist but is still stuck in a love triangle, so yeah Jonathan's still around; Max, a new student at school takes up the mantle as the next girl to be reluctantly welcomed into the boy's club (atypically replacing Eleven), while her abusive brother Billy won't go away for the life of us. Adding newer characters to the mix, one would hope that they are interesting and worthy of precious screentime, but mostly come across as just existing, making us wish established characters had more time to develop.

What primarily does work for Stranger Things 2 are a few characters getting more fleshed out, becoming emotional anchors to the widening threat of the Upside Down. Will, who was mostly a gooey icicle in season one, experiences heartbreaking bouts of PTSD, making his connection to the beyond far more terrifying than we imagined. Eleven, who was previously an interesting character but Carrie on crack, becomes more humanized through her backstory. And finally, Steve sheds his possessive hormonal boyfriend front to be a big brother for the boys. The entire cast's talent still offers that absolute magic with their chemistry, transforming the 'typical mystery' vibes to feel as fresh as it used to.

With the monumental success of Stranger Things's first season, and the warm reception to its return, any follow-up would have difficult stepping out of its own extraordinary shadow. Season two's episode-to-episode arc is messy, but by the end, the story ties up neatly enough to be satisfying. Transitioning out of the global hit it was, its cast offers fine performances (awards for Noah Schnapp please) full of comedy, love, and heartache. Stranger Things 2 might've not been the exciting sequel it could've been, but the final results aren't the worst thing in the world. We have reality to hold up that mantelpiece, and Hawkins is still a welcome escape - even if it's just channeling an awkward phase right now.

Rating: ★★☆
Have you watched Stranger Things 2?
What did you think?

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