Friday, November 3, 2017

Stranger Things Season 2 Review

This post contains spoilers for season 1 and 2 of "Stranger Things". Duh.

Quick! What was the best thing about "Stranger Things"? Did you answer "The conspiracy plot about a shady government agency covering up a generic experiment"? No? Nobody else did, either. So it bears the question: who the fuck thought it was a good idea to expand the plot in that direction? Like this baffling one, season 2 of "Stranger Things" is a cascade of bad decisions from the first to the last episode, executed with all the competence only a multi-million dollar budget can buy, carried by the goodwill a genuinely compelling first season bought you.

I have to imagine the writer's room when they started sketching out the second season. The first one left them with a problem: it was a self-contained story that was closed in the end, with only a minor ambivalence (the fate of Eleven) left. The Demogorgon was defeated, the gate to the Upside-Down closed, Papa was dead, Will rescued, no one cared about Barb anyway, peace restored. So, what to do with season 2?

The answer was: the same fucking thing again, but more.

In season 1, Steve was the prototypical jock. He bullied everyone, he tried to get in Nancy's pants, he was popular and good at sports. His story was taken into an interesting direction when he made the transition from obstacle for the party to acessory and later transformed into a genuine boy-friend for Nancy, a jock reformed. This also avoided the rather clicheed outcome of Nancy seeing the worth in the nerd (Jonathan) and falling for him, which I was really glad about. Billy, the Steve of season 2 and brother to "Mad" Max, is all of that, cranked up to eleven (he he he), without any arc. It's so ridiculous you'll groan in your seat.

In season 1, The Party was really charming. The kids played D&D, they had a genuine bond, and Eleven integrated nicely in that dynamic. Their rules and their whole relationship was decidedly that of kids, in all the charming ways. Now, everyone is a year older, which in puberty is an eternity. Instead of transitioning into something fitting, with all the aches and difficulties, The Party just doubles down, with all their rules becoming irksome and annoying rather than adorable, but played serious by the show instead of as a leitmotif of growing up (see below). Mike shouting at Max "You're not a member of this party!" instantly recalls Rick Grimes talking about "the group", and if you channel your inner Rick Grimes, you're in really bad territory. This rips out the beating heart of the character dynamics right there.

In season 1, the Demogorgon was obviously CGI, as was the Upside-Down, but there wasn't all that much of it. Now, with a larger budget and more clout, they significantly enhanced the number of scenes with otherworldly stuff in them, especially with stuff that happens in the real world. And boy, is that a bad decision, because the CGI looks awful. The monsters look fake even in their infant stages, and the same holds true for the "organic" tunnels they are moving in. This gives a sterile, fake look to everything that does the horror elements of the season no favors at all. Speaking of horror, in season 1, the Demogorgon was a Alien-sized creatue that was pretty scary. Now we have a giant cthulhoid cloud monster. That's not scary. That's something you need giant battle robots for, to punch it in its dumb cloud face. Bigger isn't always better, you know? And while we're at it, "more" isn't better, either. One Demogorgon is scary, two score of them are just ludicrous.

In season 1, the conspiracy around Eleven was in the background, mysterious and encounterd as an obstacle and threat, but not as a plot by itself. It ran alongside the main plot, but it wasn't made plot. That's smart, because conspiracy plots turn out to be incredibly dumb more than 90% of the time, raising a lot more questions than they answer even if they genuinely try to answer them. Widening the scope of the conspiracy in this season was the worst decision of all, with the whole momentum of the story coming to a screeching halt when the fast-paced events of Hawkings are put on hold for a complete episode as we watch Eleven go out of state into the big city to find her "lost sister", Eight. The den of dumbness and cliches she encounters are mind-numbingly direct.

Speaking of cliches, in season 1, the show leaned heavily on archetypes, but with a lot of sympathy and a kind of smiling eye. It was charming. In this season, the cliches are cranked up to eleven (he he he), but without any of the charm. Billy could be a jock right out of "Revenge of the Nerds". Eight's gang of Punks are the punkiest punks you'll see this year, living in the punkiest Punk den there is, talking punky. Hopper is so gruff on the outside but with a heart of gold that he radiates out his gruffy ass. And so on, and so forth. The conspiracy theorist always wears an open bathrobe all the time, mixes Vodka and wears a beard and sunglasses in his wired up den. Everything is just over the top, with no one in the production team telling anyone to maybe dial it down a little. At a certain point, though, it all becomes noise. Everything that was charming before is now just blunt.

In season 1, there was period music to sell you it was the Eighties. In season 2, we're in a fucking musical. It's like the increased budget, like in all the instances mentioned above, removed all restraints. The producers feel the need to batter you with an array of pop songs that may or may not fit the mood and pacing of a scene and oftentimes start and stop at random points, without rhyme or rhythm. The original score, as bland and generic as in the first season, is also far more noticable, hitting you over the head, telling you what you have to feel in any given moment, whether the moment earned it by building up towards it or not, and in way too many instances, it's "not". The same goes, by the way, for the use of slow motion. It's extremely irritiating when Eleven leaves Eight or when Bob dies, because it's so over the top, so obviously designed for maximal emotional impact, that it robs the scene of said emotional impact alltogether. Less is more sometimes, guys.

But not enough with all the additional make-up the series got, they also streamlined character arcs into deeply cliched and simply boring directions. Steve and Nancy seperate so Nancy can hook up with Jonathan, because that's what absolutely was missing in season 1. Lucas and Dustin keep secrets from each other; Dustin because he stows away a baby Demogorgon, Lucas because he wants to bring Max into the group, which, no, those shouldn't be treated as equal offenses in any way); Mike really wants to kiss Eleven; Eleven gets really envious because Mike talks to another girl, and on and on and on. Nothing of this is endearing anymore, it's tedious, and we've seen it a bazillon times in productions that are a whole lot worse than Stranger Things.

Speaking about tedious, the structure of the season is also all over the place. One of the main reasons beside the cast and characters why season 1 worked so well was the confinement of it all; it took a lot of pages from the ET playbook, but it used them well. The broadening of the scope in season 2 does the structure no favors and kills the pacing several times, most notably when Eleven tries to find Eight.

It's worth talking about this for a paragraph, because much like the Governor's two episodes in that new group in season 4 of "The Walking Dead", the episode with Eight is just treading water and leads nowhere at all. You could just take it out and you would lose nothing. And that's a cardinal sin in a series. Actually, you'd win, structure-wise, because the plot, the caracters, the set-design, everything about it is just plain awful. It doesn't tie in to the broader story at all, it doesn't connect to any motifs of the story, and it doesn't progress Eleven's character in any way. She ends up right where she started.

The reason for this is that the ending of season 1 found the writers in a corner they had written themselves in. Eleven is basically overpowered, the Munchkin of the Party, to stay in the lingo. If she enters the main storyline, the heroes win. That's the end of it. So the series needs to keep her out of the storyline for eight of nine episodes, somehow. And after episode three, this is so obvious you could put a giant neon sign over it.

Obvious stuff like this permiates the whole season. It is clear from the get-go that Max will end up in The Party, and that Eleven will reunite with them. Instead of embracing that obviousness and doing something new and interesting with it, the writers opt for playing the audience for dumb and find increasingly strained reasons why these obvious conclusions for the two female character arcs need to be put on hold. And that would be annoying enough for these two alone, but unfortunately, at least Hopper and Joyce are way too connected to them and suffer accordingly, as well. I already mentioned that natural arcs and leitmotifs are largely missing. In the first season, the D&D game and The Party served as structuring elements around which the rest of the Stranger Things universe rotated, much like the ET universe rotated around ET, Elliot, Michael and Gertie. In season 2, there is no center to it, and the story elements are just floating next to each other, without much connecting tissue.

For example, take the final scene of each season. When at the end of season 1, the kids were back in the cellar playing D&D and finishing their adventure, we had gone full circle (which is why the story was closed and didn't need a sequel anyway). They were kids, they remained kids, and they had solved everything with kid logic and defended their status as kids against the world of the grown-ups, as these stories tend to go.

In season 2, they are growing up - again, puberty -, so it kind of makes sense to let them have puberty problems of relationships and first love and end with a kind of homecoming ball (a small-scale variant, but still). But the whole season utterly fails to connect everything into this leitmotif of slowly growing up, of becoming teenagers and transitioning out of childhood. It wants to have its cake and eat it, too, which leads to a wild back and forth: kids scenes when they want him, teenager scenes when they want them, but with no rhyme nor rhythm between them.

Or take a look at Dusty's relationship with Dart. He nurses the CGI ugliness until it morphes, then he fears it and fights it, and in the end, when they need a surprise rescue, both of them suddenly remember they were friends for some unknown reason and bond over nougat. There is no inner logic, no connective thematic tissue underneath it; it's scenes that happen because someone wanted them to happen, not because they follow naturally from each other.

And taking about the Demogorgons and the morphing, who the hell though it was a good idea to take the Alien movies as the foundation for your plot?! This fails on so many levels - artistically, storytelling-wise, thematically, in pacing - I'm truly baffled. This is the second-worse decision after making the conspiracy and Eleven's quest for her past into a central plot point. I could go on, but this runs long enough as is. The thing is, season 2 still isn't bad, there's way too many competent people and really engaged and hard-working, talented actors here. But it's mediocre to bad in its writing, and like a bad seasonal plot in "Game of Thrones" (*cough* Dorne *cough*), this tends to pull down everything with it. Which is an utter shame. I liked Stranger Things, but its second season bored and annoyed me. Not a feeling you should induce in your audience, innit?

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