Stranger Things 2 Lives up to the Hype

Ever dreamt of diving back into the 80s, that oh-so endearing period, where everyone had weird haircuts and pop music was living through its golden years ? Well, hear me out: Stranger Things is the result of taking The Goonies, blending it with E.T. and sprinkling everything with some Ghostbusters. It is a love letter as well as a respectful homage to the 80s, and was a critical and commercial success back when it first aired in 2016. Saying that its second season was highly anticipated would be a slight understatement – the show has already earned millions of fans and anchored itself in pop culture –  but, does this second iteration manage to surpass the first, without benefiting from the effect of surprise and having to meet the expectations of millions of viewers?

One does not change a winning formula. Stranger Things S2 is a direct continuation of its elder, but simply does more, better and more generously. The primary strength of the show is of course it’s assumed ode to the 80s. The soundtrack is made up of a wonderful blend of iconic songs, ranging from Michael Jackson to Bon Jovi, and mesmerizing synth music. These are perfectly reminiscent of the period the show is trying to evoke and this second season fortunately doubles up on the excellent but scarce tracks of the first. The show is filled with hundreds of references to 80s’ pop culture and noticing them is always deeply rewarding. Both the soundtrack and the subtle referencing create a comforting and wistful feeling of nostalgia, that may very well bring back some memories to many viewers. Even though not everyone watching may have been around thirty years ago, the show still manages to strike a nostalgic chord, as it is reminiscent of movies and music that iconically punctuate pop culture and reimagined a “coming of age” genre.

The narrative may seem generic but this is a conscious choice, made to be symbolic of a cinematic era centred around the supernatural, hidden experiments and a national feeling of mistrust and Cold War paranoia towards the Soviet Union.

The 80s are also personified through Stranger Things’ plot and characters. For all the newcomers, Stranger Things is about four best friends, Lucas, Will, Mike and Dustin, living in the small rural town of Hawkins, Indiana. A chain of events opens a gate to a dangerous dimension, a version of our world that is decayed and evil – the Upside Down. With the help of a strange psychic girl they meet along the way, Eleven, they will fight both these supernatural entities and the federal agencies trying to cover everything up, in order to restore peace to Hawkins.

The narrative may seem generic but this is a conscious choice, made to be symbolic of a cinematic era centred around the supernatural, hidden experiments and a national feeling of mistrust, and Cold War paranoia towards the Soviet Union.  Of course, all the classical horror tropes, such as possessed kids and lab-experiments-turned-wrong, are here used skillfully and to great effect. Once again, the goal is to play on the viewers’ nostalgia and, for better or for worse, Stranger Things is an evocative blend of cult movies such as Ferris Bueller’ Day Off, Aliens, and even The Exorcist. This allows the plot to still feel new and novel despite its generality, as it relies on narrative tropes commonly used but perfectly executed.

The children carry Stranger Things on their back and allow this second season to navigate a fine line between the humorous, the good-feeling and the horrific, which feels both particularly distinct and refreshing.

The characters are all wonderfully based on 80s’ archetypes – the nerdy kids, the jock, the grumpy sheriff could all have been taken straight out of a John Hughes film. In the first season, the stars of the show are of course the children, which are addictively entertaining. Once again, Dustin, the joker of the group, steals the spotlight in every scene he plays in and could solely justify watching the show. The chemistry between characters like Steve and Dustin or Lucas and his sister is also excellent and serves as the basis for great and hilarious scenes. Of course, as in the first season, the performances are spot-on. The children carry Stranger Things on their back and allow this second season to navigate a fine line between the humorous, the good-feeling and the horrific, which feels both particularly distinct and refreshing. This unusual vibe brings a breath of fresh air in a generic TV environment and is therefore a welcome dose of novelty.

The first season’s success was partly linked to the team of children, whose chemistry and shenanigans were delightful to witness. In season two, the focus is much broader, a risk that turns out to yield huge benefits for the viewer. The show’s wider scope allows each major character the room to breathe and develop, while also adding some new faces along the way. The rebellious redhead girl and her narcissistic brother are only two examples among many, but perfectly fit the universe and are a welcome addition, bringing novelty and dynamism to the plot. Unfortunately, with new characters come many added side plots, and the show tends to lose its narrative focus along the way, only to be nicely tied up in the end. Some characters that were central to the first season, such as Eleven and Mike, unfortunately don’t have much screen presence this time around, but this allows for other faces to flourish and develop. This also means that scenes with the group as a whole are unfortunately absent, at least until the season finale. Ultimately, the storyline in this season has a larger scope and can at times feel overwhelming, but the choice to leave some characters on the side to make room for new plots and  unexpected twists along the way allows the show to still feel fresh and exciting.

One of the first season’s biggest flaws was its uneven pace, which made some of its episodes seem a bit lengthy. Here, the rhythm is generally handled much better – the snappy remarks, horror and action scenes are all skillfully and seamlessly interlinked and create an addictive viewing experience. It takes a few episodes to remember the basic elements of the story and get back in, but once you do, you will be hooked until the end. As this second season’s mechanisms are here greased much better than the first’s, the show finally gets this small missing element that was restraining it from playing on the same field as TV’s other giants. This time around, binge-watching Stranger Things is a delightful experience and you will be getting to the end of the ninth episode in a blink.

Overall, Stranger Things’ second season is all we could want from a sequel: it does everything the first one did right, but with greater scale and higher stakes. The show is not revolutionary, but it is different enough to feel novel and refreshing. Stranger Things is based on a greatly effective formula – it’s mesmerizing soundtrack, spot-on performances and 80s feel all combine in a nostalgic and evocative TV show that may very well be counted among the best in recent history. When the finale’s end credits roll, your only regret will be that it did not last longer.

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