Netflix delivered a surprise hit last year in the form of Stranger Things, a colourfully nostalgic miniseries that riffed on the works of Stevens Spielberg and King. Though criticisms of the show being derivative and pandering were well-found, creators and directors the Duffer Brothers managed to spin a tightly plotted arc with distinct enough iconography and charming characters to differentiate it satisfyingly from the material that proceeded it.
Fans were thrilled by the familiar yet effective Demogorgon, shaken by the untimely death of Barb and utterly won over by the core group of four kids, affable and authentic enough to rank alongside King’s childhood ensembles in The Body (Stand By Me) and It. Most importantly, we were introduced to one of television’s most promising new stars with Millie Molly Brown’s Eleven.
Expectations were inexorably high following the announcement of a second season, which seemed to promise a shedding of its more overt 80s-inspired plot devices and visual riffs, in favour of a further look back on the works of HP Lovecraft. A cosmic entity has set up camp in a parallel dimension seemingly directly underneath the Earth’s crust and has begun haunting Will with visions and possessions. An eldritch, arachnid horror looms over the red sky of the Upside Down, and the kids run around
Though this premise is tantalising, especially given the dismally low number of media adaptations of Lovecraft’s work, it’s disappointing that after just a couple of episodes it’s clear that the narrative of Stranger Things 2 is largely a tribute to Gremlins, Aliens and The Goonies. A forgivable sin had the characters not been rendered incompetent and the plot needlessly complex in order to contrive the references into making a semblance of sense. Action-packed, witty and as emotionally sound as before, it’s just a shame that the world created by the Duffer Brothers is still treated as second rate when compared to material that we’ve seen before.
The fiery, Carrie-esque experiment Eleven is left frustratingly passive for a number of episodes, until a late-season chapter The Lost Sister demonstrates an attempt of originality that falls completely flat, and doesn’t bode well for the inevitable day when the well of 80s references dries up. Unconvincingly gritty, garish and ostentatious, this episode introduces a number of characters who would look more comfortable in a video game or lower-tier comic book whom you’ll pray never to see again.
It’s discouraging that the first narrative thread outside of the main action and characters appears to be establishing a poor riff on the X-Men franchise, in place of what was a brilliant opportunity to contradict the series’ naysayers and prove this universe has something original up its sleeve.
Saving the day are David Harbour’s Jim Hopper, the gruff and level-headed Chief of Police who undergoes the most compelling conflict in this season, and Joe Keery’s Steve Harrington, a natural fit in his new extended role as paternal role model and saviour of the younger kids, a vessel for much of the series’ humour and, unfortunately, unneeded romantic drama.
New characters Max and Billy are intriguing enough, though the former remains a blank slate to justify exposition and teenage romance, the latter a surprisingly effective satire of the psychotic Stephen King bully until the last episode. Sean Astin’s bumbling Bob is similarly unimportant, harmless and lovable if he hadn’t provided some of the season’s most egregious moments of character incompetence.
Until the last episode of series one left threads loose and questions unanswered, fans speculated whether Stranger Things was intended as an anthology series, its title rooted in the generic and the pulpy, referential nature of the style and narrative seeming perfect for a show that would deliver a different tale every year, like a more literate and likable American Horror Story. Indeed, it’s a shame this isn’t the case.
Though the characters are still just as lovable, the writing consistently witty and the pace never dragging, its dependence to deliver on the promises of its first series eventually feel very belaboured.
Anyone expecting a departure from its 80s pandering will be sorely disappointed, as Stranger Things 2 presents its references without meaning or intention to represent a moment in American filmmaking with a heartfelt awareness that shows like this couldn’t exist without Spielberg, Donner, Zemeckis et al. laying the foundations. Instead, despite a stunning cast and production value, this season has the makings of an obligatory sidestep towards what will hopefully be higher prospects.
To hear more of Lucas’s thoughts, tune in to Take Three on the Fuse FM Mixcloud page.