The hotly anticipated Stranger Things: Season 2 is back from the ‘Upside Down’ with more 1980s retro-malarkey, shocking haircuts, awkward nerds, creepy government research labs, orphan kids with paranormal powers, and the ever-present threat of a horrific monster popping up from nowhere.
The highlight of Season 2 continues to be the familiar characters we met in Season 1, although their interactions don’t lead anywhere particularly revelatory. The children have grown into young adults in a coming-of-age story, looking for girlfriends, looking for a meaningful connection beyond their family. And while there are developments, they don’t seem to change much as characters. In essence, we leave them in much the same way we left them in Season 1, and because of this you almost feel that this season could be skipped without missing anything.
What makes this season stand out for good and bad are the new characters. One is obviously a ‘red shirt’ who we anticipate will not make it to the end of the season, destined to momentarily come between two characters (who have a mutual attraction the audience is already enamoured by), only to be killed off as the inevitable sacrifice—monster fodder. Then there’s the gang Eleven hangs out with in a parallel but heading-nowhere sub-plot (which will probably reappear in Season 3). There’s something not quite right about this Punk/Goth gang that’s palpably annoying. Maybe it’s because they’ve been introduced to quickly in the opening scene of this Season when we really want to find out what the other characters have been up to. The most successful new character was Maxine. It was the human relationships that really made Season 1 so compelling, and more could be made of her and her relationship with the group. Instead we’re treated to the Aliens syndrome, which is to say a bunch of creepy Triffid-headed-dog-monsters, so many that they rapidly lose their horror value or mystery.
This season seems to delve further into bad haircuts with Eleven, now with hair, sporting an annoying Marc Almond look, and Maxine’s brother with possibly the world’s worst rock-mullet. His character is as annoying as his hair, a one dimensional bad-ass whose only purpose is to be an asshole to Maxine, although he’s setup now to potentially become a key antagonist in Season 3.
The story references numerous films, most obviously Ghostbusters—the kids dress up as the Ghostbusters for Halloween. Other films that get a look in are the Exorcist and Omen with the whole ‘evil possession’ thing, the Goonies going down tunnels, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind with Will manically drawing tunnels and the Demogorgon (a gigantic, tentacled monster that’s clearly influenced by manga).
The 80s electronic music is as strong as ever, but the retro-quotes feel less enchanting this time around. Perhaps there’s too much going on and not enough time to savour what really counts—the relationships between the characters. The monsters have lost their mystery and impact, because they’re too many of them and we can see them too clearly. It’s like being in a generic computer game.
In the same way that Donnie Darko fused science fiction with a small town coming of age story; Stranger Things combines a monster-filled fantasy world with a small-town story of kids coping with teenage life. The problem is that Stranger Things 2 feels more like familiar things—albeit with more monsters, and more special effects.