We’ve all had time to binge season 2 of Stranger Things by now (and if not then what’ve you been doing?), but did it live up the strengths of the first or was it deceptively disappointing?
Back in the summer of 2016 when the new and unknown Netflix sci-fi dropped, it quickly became the show people needed to watch. Stranger Things landed with speed and continued to build momentum in the impending days and weeks. Everyone was talking talking about it; with positive word of mouth affirming it as one of the online service’s most popular shows to date.
A year-and-a-bit down the line and its creators, the Duffer brothers, gave fans the next instalment they craved, and all in a relatively short space of time. It was generally well reviewed and enjoyed widespread acclaim when it launched at the tail-end of October, and to its credit it appeared to have delivered.
Stranger Things season 2 spoilers to follow, obviously.
The hype was undoubtedly huge, mainly because not only was season 1 a well-structured and gripping sci-fi/drama, but because it threw many of us back to that 1980s-style gang of misfit kids (a la Stand By Me, E.T., and most recently in JJ Abrams’ Super 8) and threw in a healthy dose of horror and action.
Fresh talent was established in the shape of its young cast — most notably it shot British actress Millie Bobby Brown to global stardom, as she became the recognised face of the show after her impressive turn as mute heroine Eleven.
Yet despite the season 2 trailers and teasers promising something bigger and better than the former, it ultimately felt disappointing as a whole. And this could be down to a number of reasons.
Firstly, sequels often fail to live up to expectation simply because they try to be more epic in size and scale than its predecessor. It doesn’t tend to work, especially in movies such as Kingsman: The Golden Circle, but franchises like The Fast and The Furious are rare examples of bigger and better equalling more success. It’s what producers believe audiences want, when in truth the effort they go to becomes noticeably forced and thus not as organic and effortless as the original hit.
Importantly, it expanded in all the wrong areas. Hopper (David Harbour) and El’s (Bobbly Brown) father-daughter relationship probably worked on paper, but in reality it tried too hard to establish its over-protective parental bond and angsty teen rebel dynamic. Hopper ended up being unlikable a times and lost the edge that was created in previous episodes.
It also introduced new characters into the mix: Bob (played sincerely by Sean Astin) was, admittedly, one of the season’s high points. Inevitably the selfless Bob went out on a high yet poignant note which offered one of the more touching moments the series had to offer, between him and girlfriend Joyce (Winona Ryder). Everything else around it appeared to lack genuine substance or relevance.
The addition of new friend/member of the gang/love interest, Max, was initially a cool concept — a potentially interesting person infiltrating the group with an ability to shift its dynamics; which it did in many respects. However, the idea of the boys jostling for her affections as the show began to take us into their teenage years (and early puberty) felt a bit of uncomfortable. The idea of sexualising (even in the most mildest of senses) these children certainly redirected focus off of the innocence season 1 prided itself on.
Instead, it came across as clunky and a little creepy at times and, unrelated to Justin and Lucas vying for Max’s attention, Mike and El’s cliched kiss towards the end was kind of unnecessary, too. Remember how less was more during season 1? Why couldn’t we refrain from trying to evolve the show into a more mainstream box ticker than staying true to its roots? It didn’t need to pander to anyone.
While the season actually began strongly enough — the opening 3 or so episodes were very engaging and build on its previous one — it lost its way during the middle and limped over the finish line when it culminated in what was supposed to be a huge climactic finale to outshine anything we’d seen before.
Throughout I was yearning for some unexpected twists and shocks. Maybe I’m too accustomed to the likes of Game of Thrones or Westworld where I’m left shouting at the TV in complete amazement or an emotional rage. Rarely did I get a sense of this in Stranger Things 2. In fact, I went in assuming that these new characters — Bob, Max, and Billy — would be harbouring their own secrets, with a good chance they weren’t who they claimed to be. But that wasn’t the case and it left me feeling a little empty as a result.
To put things into context, as season 1 concluded and its haunting synth theme tune began to play, I was left with all sorts of thoughts and emotions swirling through my mind. It embedded a sense of mystery and anticipation, as well as a foreboding sense of uncertainty for the next season and where the heck it’d lead us. The end of season 2 — even though I saw it not long ago — feels kind of hazy. I’m also lacking any future excitement after a somewhat typical and conclusive happy ending.
Perhaps the success of the first season went to everyone’s head. Or, as is more likely, season 1 was so great that anything that came afterwards was always going to struggle.
Either way, it was relatively easy to get swept up in the Stranger Things wave of euphoria and, on reflection, sadly one thing is for certain: its follow-up is nowhere near as good as its debut.
Side note: Steve’s (Joe Keery) hair is still magnificent and should probably get its own spin-off.