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.

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