Saturday, March 3, 2018

Classics: A Review of Stranger Things Season 2

In 2016 Netflix viewers partied like it was 1983 with the release of the hit series Stranger Things. Inspired by the pop-culture of the 1980s’, Stranger Things proved itself to be more than a mere homage to cultural icons past by becoming one of the most hotly discussed and debated series of the new millennium. Following the first season’s success fans and critics alike wondered if a second season would, or even could, reach the standards of excellence set by the series’ debut. As 2017 approaches its end the question remains; was 1984 in Hawkins, Indiana as chilling, thrilling, and downright strange as we had hoped?

Who you gonna call?
The story begins roughly one year after the events of the first season as the residents of Hawkins attempt to return to some semblance of normality. For the series’ central players the emotional scars that they sustained in season one remain painfully raw one year later. Just as the characters come to terms with their traumas, however, events begin occurring across Hawkins which suggest that the government experiments in Hawkins’ Lab were just the beginning of the strange things to come.

This season largely manages to avoid the pitfalls typical of most sequels by continuing to build upon the events of season one, rather than placing the characters into a whole new adventure. The most obvious example is the use of the overarching theme of trauma to highlight the ways in which the characters cope with the losses that they suffered in season one. This exploration of trauma allows viewers crucial insight into the characters, while grounding the often fantastic plot through the inclusion of an all too real issue. This theme also offers ample opportunity for the script to address the questions raised in season one such as how will his time in the Upside Down affect Will and what were the consequences of Barb’s death. The series also provides viewers with much needed insight into the inner workings of the mysterious Hawkins Lab and Upside Down in a way that enrichens the story while still leaving room for future surprises.

Despite the script’s efforts to remain true to the spirit of first season, the second season contains enough twists of its own to keep viewers coming back for more. Most notably, the inclusion of the newest Upside Down villain the Shadow Monster/Mindflayer infuses the plot with psychological thrills that will have viewers keeping the lights on long after the final credits fade. Perhaps the most satisfying changes are those that the central characters undergo as they grow and evolve in response to a set of all new challenges. In spite of this season’s many praiseworthy aspects, however, season two did contain flaws which were largely the result of the writers’ efforts to expand the story’s universe too much too quickly. The script’s stumbles are most glaring in the scenes featuring new kids in town Billy and Maxine, who could have been compelling characters had they been given back stories that were more developed and more directly connected to the central plot. Similarly, Eleven’s adventures beyond Hawkins proved a distraction rather than a story thread, with her encounter with fellow lab experiment Kali/Eight significantly slowing the season’s momentum. Overall, however this second visit to Hawkins, Indiana was a worthwhile trip that already has this reviewer anticipating what thrills season three will have in store.

In a world full of tens be an Eleven
While Stranger Things contains a plot that is truly out of this world, its greatest draw remains the humanity at the heart of the performances of its ensemble cast’s performances. Wynona Ryder continues to shine in her complex portrayal of Will’s struggling mom, Joyce. David Harbour adds an essential vulnerability to his role as cynical sheriff Jim Hopper, particularly in his scenes opposite Millie Bobby Brown. Natalia Dyer infuses Nancy with an empowering spunk and resilience as she evolves from teenage follower to confident young woman. Charlie Heaton enlivens social outcast Jonathan with a boyish charm, especially in his scenes opposite Dyer, which crackle with chemistry. Joe Keery proved to be this season’s breakout star as season one’s stereotypical jock turned season two hero Steve Harrington. Gaten Matarrazzo rightfully earned plenty of buzz in his reprised role as the always endearing Dustin, with his scenes opposite Keery lending the season some of its most memorable moments. Caleb McLaughlin turned in another winning performance as Lucas, while adding a new dimension to his role as Lucas struggles with changing group dynamics and girls. Noah Schnapp finally gets the chance to show off his acting skills as Will evolves from plot device to compelling and tormented protagonist. Finn Wolfhard adds an edge to his role as Mike through his portrayal of Mike’s grief following the disappearance of Eleven. Millie Bobby Brown electrifies the screen once again as the enigmatic Eleven as she aptly portrays Eleven’s full range of conflicting emotions. Series newcomer Brett Gelman is endlessly entertaining in his performance as an eccentric freelance journalist. Sean Astin proves to be the series’ best addition in his role as underdog turned surprising hero Bob Newby.

Science fiction, supernatural thriller, coming of age tale, and homage to all things 1980’s; whatever its classification Stranger Things has become nothing short of a cultural phenomenon. Through its innovative scripts and heartfelt performances, the series continues to push the boundaries of television. Both a horror story with a heart and a period piece with lessons for today, Stranger Things is strange in all the best ways.

I don't think we're in Hawkins anymore, Toto

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