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Review: Stranger Things Season 1 and 2

Stranger Things has become somewhat of a cultural phenomenon, at least amongst a certain audience. For those unaware, the Netflix original series was first released in the summer of 2016, and was met with both critical and public adoration. Consequently, the show was commissioned for a second season, released October 2017, and with at least two more seasons planned. It seems the show’s creators The Duffer Brothers have struck gold. But is it any good?

The answer to this question is, to put it simply, yes.

Stranger Things is genre fare. It trades on the tropes and aesthetics of 80s adventure, science fiction and horror media, with little subversion, creating a recognisable feel to anyone familiar with the works of Ridley Scott, Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter or Stephen King, or any of the other notable filmmakers of that era. This means the inclusion of typical stock characters and narrative features, such as a government agency performing experiments on children, and a pair of bullies to pick on the AV-club attending quartet of nerdy heroes.

The first season revolves around the disappearance of Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), who, on the way home from a night of tabletop gaming with his friends, was chased by a mysterious, shadowy creature. The plot follows a number of familiar character archetypes as they try to find him including Jim Hopper (David Harbour), the deadbeat sheriff; Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder), the scatter-brained single mother; Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton), the photography-loving social outcast; as well as his friends, Mike, Lucas and Dustin (Finn Wolfhard, Caleb McLaughlin and Gaten Matarazzo, respectively).

I say archetypes, because that is very much how the characters begin. Where Stranger Things excels, though, is adding depth and development to them over the course of the series. For example, when we first see Hopper, he is lying on his sofa, shirtless, amongst a collection of empty bottles, their alcoholic contents long gone. Over the course of the story, however, we learn of his repressed emotions about his daughter, and see him empathise with Joyce. In a sense, this disappearance gave him the goal he needed to get his life ‘back on track’, and since we, as an audience, see this progression, are able to connect with him on an emotional level.

This is a similar case for the majority of the characters in the show; they begin two-dimensional, gaining depth as the season progresses. Even supporting characters, such as Steve Harrington (Joe Keery), get their own mini arcs, helping to give Stranger Things a distinct identity.

In fact, I would argue that many of the more traditional supernatural elements are actually the weakest parts of the show. At times, the government conspiracy and monster elements of the story feel convoluted, though are necessary to provide antagonism for the heroes to overcome. I like the Demogorgon as a concept, and feel it could have been really special if more focus was given to its dimension-hopping power, but often it ends up as a generic bulletproof monster. Similarly, the governmental types are lifted wholesale from Men in Black, The X Files and other media of that ilk. This makes them rather forgettable villains, even with a personal connection to one of the main characters.

Otherwise, the writing is very good. The script expertly balances the exploits of the characters by cutting between the three groups of kids, teens and adults. As a result, when the plotlines do converge, it feels exciting, especially when all are working towards a common goal.

It is at this point that I have to mention the children. Mike is, arguably, the protagonist of the series, and, due to a combination of superb writing and acting, feels just as fleshed out and realistic as any of the adult cast (as do Lucas and Dustin). Their performances truly convey the characters’ want to save their friend, whilst retaining the childlike innocence naivety that made films like The Goonies so popular. When they find Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) in episode one, the panic they experience is palpable – Who is this girl? What is she doing here? What can we do to help her?

Especially noteworthy is the fact that these children are often our point of view characters for the events of the story; as an audience, we can only understand what is going on as they do – through the lens of fantasy. For example, the monster is called the Demogorgon. Not because of its physical attributes, but because they can only comprehend the unearthly threat by using their knowledge of Dungeons and Dragons. In a way, this is quite a ‘meta’ commentary, potentially drawing parallels between this and the fact that a full appreciation of Stranger Things requires a basic cultural understanding of the tropes of 80s fictional media.

This is Stranger Things at its best. Taking the familiar and innovating just enough to give the show its own distinctive flair, whilst retaining the nostalgic touches that made media of the time so iconic. It isn’t perfect by any means, yet is certainly worth a watch, especially for fans of the films it emulates.

Season Two is, essentially, more of the same. It starts slow; rather than kicking off the plot in the first cold open, the season instead spends its first few episodes reintroducing the characters and location, establishing what happened immediately after last season, and hinting at new threats. Not that this is a bad thing; I would argue that one of this season’s key strengths is its pacing. The slow set up means that the action can gradually build to a crescendo, in a manner that feels more like one long eight-hour film, rather than separate episodes.

That is apart from episode seven. Entitled ‘The Lost Sister’, it feels more like a bad pilot to a spin off, rather than a part of a coherent season of television. The issue is that the episode is about Eleven, and only Eleven. After a tense cliff hanger in Episode Six, the other characters are ignored whilst the young psychic goes on an angst-filled romp to the city, where she meets an assortment of forgettable edgy stereotypes.

On its own, ‘The Lost Sister’ would’ve been a trite pilot for a generic sci-fi show, absent of the things that make Stranger Things special. Its real crime is how unnecessary it is. Eleven did need something to do, granted, but dedicating an hour to such banal content is ultimately detrimental to what is otherwise an immensely strong season. Whilst every other plotline contributed in some way to the conclusion, the only real narrative consequence is that Eleven is a bit better at using her psychic powers. Where most media would consider this a matter so trivial, as to only be worth a montage, Stranger Things wastes an entire episode. I would suggest skipping the episode; not much is lost and the aforementioned stellar pacing of the season is retained. Then go back if you want. Not that it’s really worth it.

Unsurprisingly, Season Two is strongest when it is doing just as the previous season did: remixing the generic content of the 1980s. One of my favourite scenes, for example, could’ve been ripped straight out of Aliens. It also works hard to differentiate itself just enough from Season One, so as to avoid looking like a half-baked rehash, with a bigger (and, in my opinion, better) antagonist. One key tactic is to mix up the teams; rather than Kids/Teens/Adults, you now have Hopper working with Eleven, for example, and Steve taking a ‘cool older brother’ role with Dustin.

There are also the new characters: the arrogant racist Billy (Dacre Montgomery); his sister Max (Sadie Sink); and Joyce’s new boyfriend, Bob (Sean Astin). Each character feels like they belong in this world of monsters and conspiracies, whilst also serving some degree of narrative purpose. Billy, for example, acts as a personal antagonist for Steve, whilst also providing a reminder of the less tolerant social context of the decade, something that the first season’s romanticised representation of the time period was sorely missing.

Season Two also does a sterling job of tying up any loose ends that Season one left untied, noting every unfired Chekov’s gun and ensuring each trigger was pulled. Even moments from the first episode, like Dustin offering Nancy a slice of pizza, are given payoffs. It’s immensely satisfying, in a way that few television shows are, with the last quarter of the finale being reserved for pure, wholesome catharsis. Some may find it a little soppy, but after however many hours of monster-fighting action, it is deserved and needed, and I for one felt contented.

To conclude then, Stranger Things well worth a watch. The two seasons complement each other in a way that is rare, and noteworthy, acting as perfect companion pieces. In a way, I’m sad that there is going to be another season, on behalf of how complete the ending was. Nevertheless, I have confidence with the Duffer Brothers after sixteen great episodes. It’s just a shame about ‘The Lost Sister’.

Stranger Things is available on Netflix now. Image Source: TheAtlantic.com