Stranger Things Season Two: it’s still (probably) exactly what you want (Spoiler Free)

November 10, 2017

People want more of what they like. That’s the clear trend in pop culture today: Audiences want more of what they already know fits their taste. We see it in movies, where every successful blockbuster seems to be a reboot or a sequel. We see it in music: The last few years of Bruno Mars’ stardom have been defined by his ability to make an old sound new. I can even admit that I love my favorite show “Mr. Robot,” because it’s basically an update of “Fight Club,” a movie I already love. But most of all, we see this love for the comfort zone in the unexpected popularity of Netflix’s “Stranger Things.”

Maybe audiences have always gravitated towards the familiar, but now what everyone wants is something that will be similar enough to what they already like, and simultaneously add something to it. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” for example, which essentially had the same plot as 1977’s original “Star Wars,” also introduced genuinely new and interesting characters. The movie made more than two billion dollars at the global box office, because it combined a lot of old with just enough new. That balance, between the familiar and the original is what people want, and that’s what “Stranger Things” does so well.

But there’s a key difference between the success of “Stranger Things” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” The latter had one of the largest marketing campaigns in film history, while the hype for “Stranger Things” was generated solely through word-of-mouth. This was just another Netflix series uploaded in the summer of 2016, but what made it so magical is that it ended up being exactly what people wanted: familiar eighties atmosphere alongside a sleek, original sci-fi story. “Stranger Things” has that balance we all crave, but there were no billboards or YouTube ads telling people to watch it.

So where does this leave the second season of “Stranger Things?” The show doesn’t have that same buzz, because now it’s a known quantity, but it maintains that same familiar, extremely likable vibe with a solid plot. At the end of the day, it’s more “Stranger Things,” and that’s great. Creators Matt and Ross Duffer know exactly what they’re doing, and while the Duffer Brothers are clearly huge fans of Steven Spielberg, they’re operating in a medium Spielberg has largely steered clear of: television. This means that instead of only two hours, the Duffers have nine hours in season two to tell a story, and that they can complicate a lot of our pre-existing notions of eighties archetypes. Season two isn’t a step down from season one, it’s just a little less special because we don’t get to discover it this time.

Season two picks up about a year after the end of the first season, with Will back from the upside-down and fan-favorite Eleven MIA. The beginning of season two is a bit slow, but that’s mostly because the show genuinely wants to take the time to dwell on the trauma the characters endured in season one. One of the things that makes “Stranger Things” so great is that there are the perfect number of episodes: eight in the first season, nine in the second. There’s no fat that needs to be cut, and structurally, this means two episodes are spent doing a lot of setup and enjoying that “vibe” the Duffer Brothers have such a knack for crafting, and then get into the plot later.

However, there is a clear structural flaw in season two, mainly around episode seven. Remember how I said it took the plot some time to get moving? By episode six things are chugging along, and there’s some real narrative momentum…that grinds to a halt when all of episode seven is focused on a character that doesn’t have a ton of relevance to that momentum (please excuse the vague language, but I’m trying to be spoiler free here). Did the character in question deserve the attention the episode gave her? Absolutely. Did that attention have to jarringly take away from a really gripping point in the story? Absolutely not. There has to have been a better way to structure the back half of this season. The good news is that the last two episodes are fantastic, and do a lot to restore that momentum, bringing the season to a fantastic conclusion.

But my favorite aspect of the second season of “Stranger Things” is the redemption of Steve Harrington. Everyone’s seen an eighties movie with a jock in it before, and it’s not a flattering role. But in “Stranger Things,” the jock is three dimensional, as are the nerds, the weirdo and the cop. That’s why this show is special: It uses that image you have in your head of the jock, but makes him into a real person, one you end up rooting for. Again, not wanting to spoil, but Steve became my favorite character in season two, and considering some of the shenanigans he pulled in season one, I found myself so impressed at what the Duffer Brothers were able to do with this character. But again, that’s the “Stranger Things” promise: start with the familiar (the surface jock archetype) and add something new. No wonder everybody seems to like this show.

There’s a lot I didn’t get to talk about here that I would have loved to. This is the only show on television that successfully captures exactly how kids interact, which is an equal testament to the writers and the cast. I also wish I could talk more about how effective the new characters introduced in season two are, considering I was very skeptical of them at first (with the exception of those in episode seven). But maybe it’s not that complicated. “Stranger Things” is just a really good show, and it’s just as good in season two.

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