Monday, October 30, 2017

The Halloween List: Stranger Things 2!



It's been fifteen months, but Netflix's most popular show is back. It sounds like we may not get another season until 2019, so savor this while you can. If you've watched the first season a dozen times, I recommend going into this one with moderate expectations. The second season cannot match the surprises of the first because we all love it now. Stranger Things 2 is more Stranger Things: more creepy crawlies preying on the small town, more lore of the Upside Down, and more character development for one of TV's most lovable ensembles. It's another order of that fun meal you had last time.

The season puts its weakest foot forward, taking about four episodes to really get in motion. It’s a hard contrast to the first season, which in one episode set up everyone’s motivations and half of the major plot threads. The difference is that now the Duffer Brothers know exactly how much pop culture loves their kids, and so they don’t mind having them hang out, slowly get into needless conflicts with each other, and lather up in 80s references. The slower early episodes are thickly decorated in Punky Brewster and “vintage” and KFC product placement.

In both seasons, Stranger Things is at its best when it uses its influences quietly. The first season was highly influenced by Spielberg’s E.T. and Stephen King’s Firestarter. It honored its influences by doing things like the bicycle escape scene where Eleven used her powers to save them – flipping a van rather than making the bicycles fly.

At its best, this season handles its influences in the same way. One particular episode dives deeply into visual queues from Alien and Aliens, but no one brings it up, and the outcomes are very different. In another plot thread, Dustin tries to adopt a little monster of his own, promptly feeds it after midnight, and the synth-heavy soundtrack echoes notes from the theme to Gremlins. These are homages embedded in the plot without derailing it. It’s much defter, say, than when the kids scream at a Dragon’s Lair arcade cabinet, or watch a vintage commercial for Oreos and The Terminator.

The newcomers fit the show very well. Sadie Sink plays the new girl who penetrates the all-boys club, and she has just enough self-confidence and vulnerability to go stride-for-stride with them. Paul Reiser is the ultimate 80’s reference joke, playing the new face of the evil organization. Sean Astin almost steals the series as Bob, Joyce’s new boyfriend – he’s an affectionate dork who is exactly as sweet and supportive as Joyce deserves after the hell she went through last year.

You can tell these actors are fitting in when Paul Reiser and Sean Astin’s characters go through an action scene together, with no original cast members in sight. The friends I watched it with fully tensed up, fearing for their fates. They were selling a scene purely on what they’d done on the show so far. Especially on a show like this, where people are so protective of the cast, it’s an achievement that everyone fits in.

The best part of the season is the ending, with the survivors coming together with a desperate plan to protect the town (and perhaps THE WORLD!) from “The Shadow Monster.” The cast has such chemistry that every reunion and conciliation between them is heartwarming. The show knows you’re waiting to get that parasite out of Will, and to see Mike and Eleven meet again, and it’s going to make you wait. It’s worth the wait, although the wait is the worst part.

Especially the early episodes are filled with irritatingly shallow conflicts. Hopper keeps Eleven alone in a cabin in the woods for a year because “it’s not safe,” but we never know what he’s keeping her safe from. Nancy, Steve, and Jonathan revive their love triangle of someone feeling spurned while the other two sweat. In fact, there's a point when two entire love triangles converge and yell at each other. Max enters in the series along with a bully brother who immediately demeans her; later joins our beloved boys, only to get into squabbles with all of them, and only gets along with Will long enough for Eleven to show up, think she’s been replaced, and run away crying. These are the misunderstandings and transgressions the show tears down later for catharsis, but they suck up airtime while they last, and most could be resolved by people just communicating their desires to each other.

Which reminds me to give you this PSA: if you like someone, talking to them is a better way to their heart than secretly raising a pet monster to impress them.

You’re welcome, America.

As for the pet monster, its CGI is some of the best I’ve seen in a TV show. In its various forms as it matures, it looks slimy and reasonably realistic. The key here is light matching: when the critter is in bright light or shadow, its skin tone matches the light source like its environment. Thus the unreal creature looks like it belongs in its environment. This isn’t just good because of money. There’s intelligence behind the effects, and by the time Hopper finds out what’s “poisoning” the local pumpkin patch, we see some truly wild effects. I dread the fanfic it’ll spawn.

Every so often, I rewatch Stranger Things. The blend of homages, Horror, humor, and characters standing up for each other are so potent. If the season is uneven, it’s something I’ll happily go through again on my next visit to the series.

This ends the Halloween List. Thanks to everyone who's watched and read along with me! Let me know if you found anything you loved. Or, that spooked you. That's just as good.

3 comments:

  1. Most people went into the first season with no expectations, which is why it blew everyone away. The second season just falls short, but still way ahead of most everything else out there.

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  2. Is it just me? I would be impressed if someone raised a pet monster for me. Colour me shallow.

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  3. I hope you had a good Halloween, John. I haven't seen this show before but the trailer is pretty spooky!

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