Hello everyone, welcome. Today I am doing a TV series review. As many of the regulars recall, I asked the question if they would find it weird if this website started including my writing posts. The response was overwhelmingly positive so I am starting to do that now. And that includes reviews of books, and reviews of TV and Movies where I feel the subject matter is of interest for geek readers, or there is a lesson to be learned for the writer readers. Today’s post is a brief review of the Netflix Show, Stranger Things Season 2.
To give a bit of context, Stranger Things premiered last year and was about the disappearance of Will Byers, in a sleepy American town in the Early 80s. The luckless boy strayed into a parallel world, referred to in the series as “The Upside Down”. Simultaneously, a hunted young girl, going by the name of Eleven or Elle, who has psionic abilities appears and is welcomed into Will’s friendship group, as they search for him in a Goonies meets ET like fashion. Everything points back to strange experiments conducted at the Department of Energy Lab on the outskirts of town.
Season 2 is set one year later. Will Byers has returned, though still regularly receives examinations at the Department of Energy Lab. He suffers from what is believed to be flashbacks and PTSD, though as it transpires, he is not suffering flashbacks but rather can occasionally seeing into the Upside Down. As for the rest of the cast, we have Sheriff Hopper, played by David Harbour, dealing with the usual sleepy town crime and conspiracy nuts obsessed with the events of season one, and a strange blight that is affecting local flora. We have the rest of “The Party”, Mike, Lucas and Dustin going through their early teen years as unpopular DnD nerds, Mike still mourning the loss of Eleven. And we have Joyce Byers, played by Winona Ryder, the mother whose frantic devotion to her missing son was the significant driving force of season one now in a more normal setting, even with a bit of romance with local Radioshack repairman Bob “The Brain” Newbie, played by Sean Astin. We also have Mike’s sister, Nancy still with her boyfriend Steve (Who was a twat for most of Season 1 but matured significantly towards the end), complicated by her friendship with Mike’s outcast brother, Jonathan.
Bob is a new addition to the cast (and when I figured out why I think he was added, I laughed quite a bit…), and we also have the addition of Max and her abusive older step brother, Billy.
The plot revolves around Will Byers link to the Upside Down, specifically something he saw that really spooked him, and also the changing group dynamic with the loss of Eleven and the addition of Max.
I can’t really talk too much more about plot without spoiling, so I will go onto my verdict.
Stranger Things Season One worked remarkably well as it had a number of factors driving it. It had the nostalgia vibe to it. There were production elements that made it look like it was filmed in the 80s, and nostalgia is a powerful tool that any artist can employ to make the viewer an ally. It had a cracking performance by Winona Ryder, whose frantic search for her son really added to the drama and the pacing of it. It had nostalgia again, for geeks as it had so many geeky and rpg references in it. It had the amazing visuals of the Upside Down and a really good cast. And to top it all off, it was probably the closest thing I have seen in a long time to something that was truly original. So, with this lofty standard set as benchmark, does season 2 hold up?
The short answer is no. The longer answer is no, but it is still very good. It just isn’t as good. The pacing was quite considerably slower for the first three episodes, though it did pick up at that point. By contrast, arguably the visuals were better in the first three episodes, and in the finale but were slightly less good in the middle of the show. Don’t get me wrong, they were still good but I had an expectation after viewing the trailer and for 4.5 of 9 episodes it really wasn’t met. The acting was spot on all the way through. The younger cast are outstanding, supported ably by Winona Ryder and David Harbour. I think one of my favourite random moments in the series was when Dustin teams up with the older boy, Steve to go fight a monster, and they end up talking about how Steve gets his hair so “perfect”. It was a random, funny conversation which did a good job of exposing their human sides in a really weird kind of male bonding. It was just entertaining! I also quite enjoyed the ambiguity about Will’s Doctor from the DoE, Dr Owens played by Paul Reiser, which admittedly was a name I was unfamiliar with but a face I recognised. He played Carter Burke, the scummy Company Man in Aliens, and Jeffrey, the hapless Detroit companion of Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop 1 and 2. It is probably the first time I have ever seen him play a role that is both serious and not obviously slimy. Again, nostalgia at work here – I associate certain things with the actor and wonder at the character’s ethics, and you are kept guessing as to whether Owens is actually a good man for quite some time. I am going to reference visuals again, specifically the finale which was phenomenal and made me think of films like The Black Hole and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, both of which I saw when I was much younger, and that helped me appreciate it more; nostalgia at work again.
From a literary critical point of view, I quite liked the addition of Max and Bob. Max serves as a good foil for Mike, the leader of the party who was closest to Eleven in season one. Dustin and Lucas want her to join their party (they are both crushing on her), but Mike feels like this is a betrayal of Eleven’s memory and thus Max shows just how much he is still affected by her loss. And Bob. What can we say about Bob? He is an absolutely normal guy, the guy that nerds grow up to be. He is walking advert that it is actually OK to be a Nerd or a Geek at school because things will work out. He is a window into the lives of the main characters when they grow up without having experienced the world of the Upside Down. And from that I figured something out about him, which I assume was intentional. There are a lot of Dungeons and Dragons references in the series, from Dustin checking a monster manual and constant references to “The Party”. Bob is another one. He is who the main characters will be if they grow up without the Upside Down. Without the experience of the Upside Down. Without Experience. And then we remember his name. Bob Newbie. If you get that, you qualify as a gamer…
This series was really enjoyable, but nowhere near as good as Season 1. The pacing was a bit off at the beginning (and for one episode later on which I felt was unnecessary for Season 2 but presumably sets up stuff for the future seasons) and the visuals were not always what I expected (that is not to say they were poor, but simply outwith my expectation), however the main problem for me was Season 2 didn’t have what made Season 1 great. It wasn’t new or original anymore. I read another review that refereed to it as “playing it safe”. I have to agree. Season 1 for me was mind-blowing with its originality and pacing. With Originality no longer a real factor, at least not for me it needed the pacing to support the great cast and good story. But it wasn’t there. If I were to do rankings, I would give Season 1 a definite 9 out of 10. Season 2 gets a 7. Still good, could have been better. Definitely worth a watch.
As for the lesson here. If you are telling a story, nostalgia is your ally – it is a pathos appeal. If your first story was reliant on certain factors, such as newness and pace, then you need to find ways to keep them if you plan to continue the story because that is probably what your fans are going to be expecting. A kickass opening credits doesn’t hurt either…
bye for now!