Sunday, October 29, 2017

Same Ingredients, New Recipe - Stranger Things Season 2, Reviewed

Against all reasonable judgement, Glory and I watched the second season of Netflix's nostalgia/horror pastiche Stranger Things in its entirety this weekend. For a lot of people, that will be unsurprising, but it's been a while since any of us had done binge-watching that seriously, we didn't start until suppertime last night, and we still got the shopping done, homework finished, yard raked and Christmas lights put up as well.

Audrey and I came to the Stranger Things party late last year, so there was little point in reviewing it then. In fact, I'm pretty sure 90% of the people reading this who might be interested have probably already watched it, or at least committed to doing so. But for anyone remaining on the fence, allow me the indulgence of sharing my observations and impressions (spoiler-free, natch!).

The story picks up a year later, three days before Hallowe'en 1984. Things have returned to normal in Hawkins, Indiana: Chief Hopper is maintaining order, The Party is still tackling middle-school adversity together, and a new crop of secretive government types have repopulated Hawkins National Laboratory. But a lot has changed too; Mike still pines for the return of Eleven, Joyce Byers has a new fella (played by Sean "Goonies" Astin!), and a mysterious stranger has taken the high score on Dig Dug at the Hawkins arcade.

Obviously it does not take too long for things to go off the rails here, and the Upside-Down slowly and insidiously makes its presence known is a series of odd feelings and agricultural phenomena. Will's connection to this hellish other dimension asserts itself as anticipated, and soon everyone is battling evil from within and without.

If I have a complaint about the second season, it would be that the story itself hasn't changed a lot from the first season, and a lot of the same beats repeat themselves. Are our young heroes still tormented by bullies? Yes, and then some. Are there a couple of gory surprises in store? You bet. And is anyone surprised when the Byers house begins to look a the art installation of a crazy person? Not particularly.

Having said that though, season 2 is still a worthwhile endeavour for those of us who came to care about these characters a little over a year ago. Most of the components have stayed the same, but the Duffer Brothers have them interacting together in different combinations now - it's like taking the same flour, eggs and milk, but making cake with them instead of bread.

Eleven's primary dramatic foil is Chief Hopper, who we saw leaving Eggos at a dead drop in the woods in the epilogue at the end of last season. Not to take anything away from Winona Ryder and her well-deserved resurgence, but Millie Bobby Brown and and David Harbour provide almost all the thespianic chops this season, and there is powerful emotion in their interactions.

Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), who appears to be a member of the only black family in Hawkins, gets quite a bit more time to shine this season, not only in his scenes with Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) (now with incisors!), but also with his younger sister. Most significant though is what happens when new student Maxine (Sadie Sink) enters the mix, especially when the other principals are 1 year further into puberty.

All the nostalgia is still there, and we children of the 80's will have a lot of fun struggling to recall all the soundtrack artists (so happy to hear Oingo Boingo onscreen again that I don't even care that the album came out a year after Season 2 is set!), remembering the arcade games (hell, remembering arcades), and marveling at the styles of the decade.

Likewise the nerdy references, ranging from movies, to scientific terminology, to, in one notable case, a full screen close up of an entry from the original AD&D Monster Manual (glee!).

Scenes are spread around a bit more equitably this time around, resulting in maybe a sliver less exposure for the young lads on their bikes, but its probably better to have too little than too much. Plus, having established themselves in the first season, there is a little less need to have them prove themselves when the weirdness shifts into high gear.

Still, it's strange that nine episodes in, my favourite character is probably high school senior and reformed douchebag Steve Harrington (Joe Keery). He doesn't really steal the show, but he is possibly the second most progressive minor in the show, and the reasonableness of some of his responses make them all the funnier.

There are a few changes that occur along the way, but I can't help but feel that in some ways season 2 is clearing the decks for a third season (which the Duffer Bros. say they are already working on), and perhaps beyond. So the bad news is, we may be in for even more of the same.

The good news is, we may be in for even more of the same! And if you liked season 1, you owe it to yourself to check out season 2.

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