Friday, October 27, 2017

Fewer Stranger Things Makes Season 2 Better!

The Good: Generally good answers to open questions from season 1, Moments of performance (mostly from David Harbour and Joe Keery)
The Bad: Plot-heavy, Derivative, Most of the characters are uninteresting
The Basics: Stranger Things Season Two winnows down the weirdness in Hawkins, IN, and makes for a marginally better season of television than the first.

Unlike many people, I was thoroughly unimpressed by Stranger Things Season One (reviewed here!). The show was packed with science fiction and horror tropes, but when the big revelations for the show came, most of them made no real sense. So, for example, the season was preoccupied with a lost child - Will Byers - who was trapped in, essentially, an alternate dimension that has come to be known as The Upside-Down. Will is eventually shown to have been hiding out in the woods in The Upside-Down. Will's mother, however, receives messages in our world that are apparently from Will while he is lost, including weird horror bulges in her home's wall. There is no correlation, however, to Will sleeping afraid in the woods and being proximate to the house to give his mother messages. So, objectively viewed, much of Stranger Things Season One was a mess. While many people seemed charmed by the early 1980s setting of Stranger Things, that did not "wow" me and I felt no reason to rewatch the first season in the year since it first aired.

As Season Two of Stranger Things begins, there is a burden on the show to provide some actual answers to what was going on in the two major plotlines introduced in the first season. The mystery within Hawkins is concerned with the Upside-Down and the agency of the U.S. government that continues to access it. Will Byers, rescued from the Upside-Down brought back an embryonic life form, which escaped down the drain. The other half of Stranger Things focused on 11, a girl who was part of a secret government experiment and possesses Jedi-like powers. The nature of the girl and the experiments done to her were a mystery that seemed only tangentially-related to the Upside-Down plotline. The second season explores both mysteries, though it continues to do so with characters who are largely uninteresting.

In late October, 1984, Hawkins, Indiana is preparing for Halloween and Will Byers is suffering from post-traumatic stress from his time in the Upside-Down. Jim Hopper starts to see evidence that something is once again not right in Hawkins when Will and his mother visit the government facility in Hawkins, where Dr. Owens tries to convince Will that his recurring visions are flashbacks and part of his trauma. Will periodically appears to step into the Upside-Down (or witness what is going on there) and he sees a massive entity that is comprised of a swarm. When envisioning the Upside-Down one day, the entity swarms into Will and from that point on, he has memories that are not his own, the ability to see within the entity when others visit the Upside-Down (like Jim Hopper) and he reacts when the entity is burned. Dr. Owens studies the entity from the Upside-Down while Joyce struggles to keep Will safe and the rest of Will's friends find themselves hunting a demogorgon that has rapidly evolved from a polliwog into a full-sized monster.

The other major plotline in the second season of Stranger Things focuses on 11, Elle, whose birthname is actually Jane. The season actually opens with the revelation of the young woman with the 008 tattoo involved in crime revealing her powers. Jane has been living in the middle of nowhere, kept safe and educated by Jim Hopper. When she gets upset about how she is kept away from Mike with the excuse that she can see him again when it is safe, she and Hopper have a fight. Jane runs away and goes in search of her mother - with whom she has had psychic contact - after she sees Mike with another girl at school. After finding her mother a virtual vegetable and seeing how she became that, Jane goes in search of others like her. She finds herself among 8 and her crew, on a quest for vengeance against the scientists who experimented upon them and the other children.

The second season of Stranger Things has new characters, most notably Dr. Owens, Bob and Maxine. Dr. Owens is played by Paul Reiser and it compels the actor to, in essence, reprise his role from Aliens (reviewed here!). Owens is a scientist working for the government, taking over Brenner's experiments with the Upside-Down. He helps to "weed" the opening to the Upside-Down and keeps tabs on Will and his health when it becomes apparent that he is connected to the massive entity from the other side. Perhaps the most comforting aspect of Reiser being cast as Dr. Owens is that he manages to defy expectations for his character by not being nearly as slimy as Burke was.

Bob is a love interest for Joyce and he is much more plot-convenient than he is an organic character in her life. Bob works with electronics, is very smart, and loves puzzles. He quickly figures out the nature of Will's drawings when Will inadvertently makes a map of the entity that is spreading beneath Hawkins. Bob has special skills that make him exceptionally useful to Joyce, Jim and Dr. Owens, but it is never clear what bond Bob and Joyce actually have with one another.

Max is a new girl in town and it seems like the directors live putting her front and center in shots, regardless of how important the character actually is to the plot. In fact, the most important moment for Max seems to be that she is around Mike when Jane is at their school, which propels Jane on her own odyssey.

The second season of Stranger Things is riddled with many of the same issues as the first season. Somehow the entity Will brought back remained tiny for almost an entire year, then became absolutely massive over two days. Jim Hopper, Joyce Byers, and Bob enter the Upside-Down and the writers seem to forget that in the first season, it was established that the atmosphere in the Upside-Down was different from our world. Similarly, Jane has been kept isolated her entire life, but when she sees 8 next to a burn barrel, she knows that she is in Pittsburgh?! Even if she saw the skyline, she would have no idea the city.

Stranger Things quickly evolves into Aliens, with a Sith rising b-plot. And, as the season progresses, it is hard for anyone who loved Buffy The Vampire Slayer not to make a mental comparison between the lab in Hawkins and the Hellmouth. But even when big things happen, it remains hard to care about the characters given how generic most of them are.

On the acting front, Stranger Things Season Two is ruled by performances by David Harbour and Joe Keery. Harbour is given a decent arc where Hopper plays parental to Elle and that allows him to play Hopper with more range in a single episode than he was allowed in the entire first season. Harbour rises to the occasion by portraying understated love and realistic anger.

The surprise of the season has to be how impressive Joe Keery is in the role of Steve Harrington. In the first season, Harrington was essentially an antagonist to Jonathan Byers and he was basically a young punk. At his best, Keery rose to moments where he seemed like he was a young Josh Charles. In the second season, Keery is given more to do and when he plays opposite Gaten Matarazzo, he is able to exhibit an impressive sense of comic timing for his often-ironic lines. Keery interacts with the virtual characters amazingly and in a way many actors of any age are unable to.

Ultimately, though, the second season of Stranger Things continues its trend of feeling bloated and plot-centered more than character-focused. The alien invasion style plot menaces a bunch of people who the viewer is likely to find entirely dispensable . . . and a vengeful young woman who seems to be written like a Sith or an X-Men style mutant. The result is a better season than the first, but one that is often just as forgettable.

For other works from the 2017 - 2018 television season, please check out my reviews of:
Rick And Morty - Season 3
"Zari" - Legends Of Tomorrow
"Luck Be A Lady" - The Flash
"Far From The Tree" - Supergirl
"Lethe" - Star Trek: Discovery
"Something Inhuman This Way Comes . . ." - Inhumans
Twin Peaks - Season 3 ("The Return")
Game Of Thrones - Season 7
The Defenders - Season 1
Friends From College - Season 1


For other movie and television reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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