Here we are, more than a week after the release of Stranger Things 2: The Enstrangering, and thanks to the magic of Netflix and a culture that struggles with portion control, talking about this show feels like old news. My own family, dominated by young girls, followed the cultural trend on this one. Their old man prefers to portion out his enjoyment and savor each episode for a spell before moving on to the next. After day 8 and episode 8, it’s time for a general review.
It was fine.
The decision to elevate the threat from one flower-face to a pack of flower-face dogs led by a sky-spanning thing with roots that undergird the entire town was a great decision. It certainly raises the stakes on the danger posed by the creatures of the Upside Down, and with a sympathetic Lab Director, we even get to raise the power level of the resistance, even if that more organized resistance turns out to be no real aid.
The addition of Sean Astin as a third point on a love triangle for the adults was a nice touch, as was his character’s ready acceptance of the supernatural. That guy barely blinked, and didn’t waste a lot of time in shock once the proof of the supernatural was put in front of him. That made for a doubly nice touch given that he was shown as a smart guy throughout the series. Typically, writers would knock 40 points off his IQ just to advance the plot, but they didn’t do that here.
Winona Ryder’s performance was much better this go-round as well. Instead of the one-note panic-stricken maniac, she was allowed a much more grounded and expansive role. She provided some much needed support for the kids, and we know from experience that the crazed trashing of her house represents an important part of the monster puzzle. We still get that Lovecraftian vibe of a person who only looks crazy because they have seen beyond the veil of reality that stories like this need, but without the overblown misery porn of Winona chewing the scenery.
Naturally, with another eight hours to fill and most of the relationship drama resolved in season one, they felt the need to add new characters. The skater girl and her Steve-To-The-Max older brother made sense from a drama perspective, but both represent deeply flawed characters from a storytelling standpoint.
Which makes for a nice segue into how the writers dropped the ball on the 1980’s storytelling vibe. As Hollywood is wont to do, they simply couldn’t resist telling a Current Year story set in Current Year Minus X. The new girl had to be both tougher, braver, and more geeky than the four boys. Her older brother had to be given a moment of semi-redemption by showing he isn’t the bad guy – it’s his father that’s the bad guy!
Naturally. God forbid you have a father on TV that isn’t either grossly incompetent or inexplicably vile. Even the adoptive father (Sheriff Hellboy) morphs from reasonable and friendly and wise lawman to irrational and shouty once he dons the mantle of fatherhood. The only guy who approached the realm of decent father, Sean Astin, was a comic relief character only briefly allowed a moment of heroism and sacrifice.
The inability of storytellers to craft a decent tale that features a competent and loving father is a massive red flag that once you notice it, you can’t stop seeing it EVERYWHERE. We can all connect the dots between these observations and the recent revelations about the sorts of critters who call the shots in Hollywood, so I won’t insult your intelligence by detailing the connection here.
What did Steve do? What did New Girl do? What did New Steve do? (And no, giving Steve his final episode beat down doesn’t count.) At least Sean Astin got to have a moment of heroism, but there were way too many characters doing way too little.
There were also way too many missed opportunities. Sure, we can forgive a few characters being tight-lipped. The kid impregnated by the monster. The kid raising a small monster. That’s what they do, but given the huge emphasis placed on the “Friends don’t lie,” that riddle the series, when the revelations dropped, everyone shrugged, and the viewer was left with no real payoff.
Which is also true of the lead-up to the next season. The monster isn’t defeated, only locked outside for a little while. Everything they went through, all of the motions from the first season that the characters repeated in this second season just bought them a little time. Perhaps it is in keeping with the 1980s monster movie tradition, but that’s one tradition that made people roll their eyes thirty five years ago, and it’s one tradition that hasn’t changed.
So, in the final analysis, Stranger Things 2 is fine. It’s better than most of the drek on TV these days, but it is not without some heavy flaws. If you can ignore the usual Hollywood foibles and antagonism to middle-America, then there are worse ways to spend eight hours.
But break it up a little, would ya? Go outside and take a walk or something instead of sitting in front of the TV for eight hours for God’s sake.