Streaming review: “Stranger Things 2” (2017)

“Stranger Things 2” (2017)

TV Series/Drama/Sci-Fi/Horror

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Episodes: Nine

Created by: The Duffer Brothers

Featuring:  Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, Cara Buono, Sean Astin, Paul Reiser

When Netflix released the Duffer Brothers created “Stranger Things” in 2016 there is no way in the world that anyone could have known that it would become one of the top pop culture phenomenon’s of that year – yet alone spawn a sequel series that has long been talked about, as well as it being one of the most anticipated events of 2017. So with that the new series, aptly titled “Stranger Things 2” dropped all of its episodes on the 28th October (NZ time), which meant that for many people it was the series to binge for the next few days.

The Duffer Brothers have brought back Eleven, Mike, Dustin, Lucas, Noah as well as Joyce and Sheriff Hopper, with all the supporting characters you would expect, adding two more regulars in the form of Dr. Owens, Bob Newby and Max to move the story forward from where we left it in the first season. The good news is that the plot is indeed moving forward, with some realities such as the trauma that Noah and his family are now feeling a year on from the revelation of Eleven and the ‘Upside Down’. He has regular visits to Dr. Owens which are of course, not what they seem on the surface. While there is no doubt that the first season (as well this of course) could not exist without the work of Stephen King, Speilberg and a huge dose of John Carpenter, this new season injects a massive dose of Lovecraftian Horror that infects the plot as well as the characters much like it did in the 1980s.

The second season takes place around Halloween (October 31) of 1984, about a year after the events of the first season, and explores the “bigger mythology” of Will’s disappearance. Its about the “determined desire to return to normalcy in Hawkins” for Will, his family, his friends, and the other residents in the town affected by the events. Will suffers from “some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder” from his time in the Upside Down, and has visions of a “shadow monster” that is reaching down from the sky, and which serves as a “singular threat” that connects the various narratives in the season.

Episodes:

“Madmax”

Written & Directed by: The Duffer Brothers

“Trick or Trick, Freak”

Written & Directed by: The Duffer Brothers

“The Pollywog”

Written by: Justin Doble Directed by: Shawn Levy

“Will the wise”

Written by: Paul Dichter Directed by: Shawn Levy

“Dig Dug”

Written by: Jessie Nickson-Lopez Directed by: Andrew Stanton

“The Spy”

Written by: Kate Trefry Directed by: Andrew Stanton

“The Lost Sister”

Written by: Justin Doble Directed by: Rebecca Thomas

“The Mind Flayer”

Written & Directed by: The Duffer Brothers

“The Gate”

Written & Directed by: The Duffer Brothers

Much like the first season it is better going into this without knowing much about the story, but I am going to talk about the creative choices as well as some of the themes that are apparent for me in this new season.

One of the main points of reference in season two is the great horror writer H.P. Lovecraft who had a resurgence in the 1980s, particularly in horror film and novels. In fact it was the loose adaption’s two stories in particular that ended up becoming two seminal horror films, Stuart Gordon’s “Re-animator” (1985) and “From Beyond” (1986). These introduced the idea of Lovecraft horror to an entire new audience, coupled with the advent of video cassettes and the boom in rental and retail stores. Lovecraft has been one of the largest influences on all horror media since his death, as well as his rediscovery by his peers with the publication of his sorties shortly after his death –  these infected and informed the way in which people viewed horror. In brief one of his ideas was the idea of a tentacled being called ‘Cthulu’ that lived in the oceans, and was trying to infect the world, which is something that may be echoed in the ‘Upside Down’. Not only that but this and other creatures would live under the ‘surface’ which is something that has influence the Duffer Brothers in their design of not only the world under the surface of Hawkins, but also the idea of points of space where it is thin enough to cross over – surely seen in both seasons. Of coure there are many other references, Stephen Kings stories come to mind, in particular ‘Carrie’ where the protagonist has mind powers that she uses in malevolent ways on friends and enemies alike, surely a reference to Eleven.

The story is of course set in the 1980s, whereas in the first season this was reflected in the pop culture of the day, as well as the washed out look and music that was composed, with subtle posters around the bedrooms of the main characters and of course the technology that is constantly being used by the characters within the story. This new season really wants to hit the viewer over the head with 80s pop culture, not only with everything aforementioned but also with more Non-diegetic pop music as well which like another 80s inspired story, “Atomic blonde” (2017) seemed to delight in constantly making it clear when the film was set to the point it seemed to be covering up a complete lack of story. Here however the Duffers seem to stop just short of it becoming too much, which has to be a fine balancing act. Another aspect was the use of movies of the time as well as seeing people dress up in 80s pop culture characters, the interaction with that as well as the video game arcades is a bit of a blunt tool to use for audiences who may know about the 80s already. While there can be no doubt that the first season of “Stranger Things” was on the forefront of 80s nostalgia, it now has to face a year that has seen a number of film and TV properties cashing in on this, including a monster horror hit in the form of Stephen King’s “IT” (2017), which used the 80s in a very subtle way, not cashing in on cheap nostalgic tricks that unfortunately are present in “Stranger Things 2” – which I found to be a bit of missed opportunity as well as unimaginative.

The instrumental music that has been employed by The Duffers through composers Michael Stein and Kyle Dixon (also known as S U R V I V E) is excellent, as it was in the first season, it has not moved forward though, still using synths as the basis, much like Mark Mothersbaugh did in the recent soundtrack to “Thor: Ragnarok” (2017) – DEVO is referenced in the first scene which may have been a direct homage to the great Mothersbaugh which was fun to hear, although is a massive trope for 80s based shows.

Of course “Stranger Things 2” is full of tropes, which may be considered self referential, such as the Rob Lowe lookalike who not looks like a Lowe film character but behaves the same way. Speaking of 80s callbacks the casting of Sean Astin and Paul Reiser who came to public attention with their now classic roles in two 80s staples, the still amazingly perfect “Aliens” (1986) and “Goonies” (1985) seems perfect for this show, they are not only great actors but bring a sense of authenticity, much like Matthew Modine did in the first season.

Something that does occur in this new season are some comments as well as actions about gender and racial politics which could have been handled a bit better and may have been if people with more experience has been involved. One major point, which seems to be paid for laughs, is when the gang dresses up as the Ghostbusters from the titular movie. Firstly both Mike and Lucas come to school dressed as Venkman (played by Bill Murray in the movie) which on the surface is fine, however Mike seems to make the point Lucas should have come as Winston (played by Ernie Hudson) as he is black, like the character – which if course is insulting. Then Lucas says that Mike could have come as Winston, the point then being made that no one wants to be Winston. From a cultural and racial point of view this is fairly low brow on many levels, needless to say that children espousing this view is supposed to be reflective of the times, but it comes across as clumsy at best, racist at worst. The gender issues for me come down to how woman are treated in the show as well as how some of the main female characters are reduced to screaming messes – Winona Ryder’s character comes to mind, she has gone from being a savior type person that had some agency to being reactive, seemingly needing a mans help at almost every corner, this was pretty disappointing for me as she was such a highlight of season one.

The show is still very good, the relationships between the four boys has moved on, they are not the tight group we saw in the first season, in fact for most of this new season they are spread out amongst secondary characters dealing with B plots that inform what is happening with the possibility of a new threat they are going to be facing. There has definitely been an effort to move the story forward while expanding this Universe that has been created. Sure I have a few quibbles but watching this show is fun, especially with company so you can talk about what is going on in between the breaks.

I can recommend this as a worthy follow up – If you enjoyed the first season then this is a step up, you will also be happy to know that a third and fourth season is in the works.

“Stranger Things 2” as well as the first season are streaming now on Netflix.

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