After looking forward to the binge weekend of “Stranger Things 2” for most of 2017, I have to say there was one thing that surprised me.
I did not expect to flip over to a Dodgers-Astros World Series quite so often.
Sorrynotsorry, there were plenty of pleasant plot turns in the second installment of “Stranger Things.” I’d say most of it was…tubular.
This is not the place to read a plot summary. You want that, you go find recaps on Vulture or EW or AV Club or whatever. And then you think, hey when a whole season becomes available at once, these comment threads sure are a) poorly attended and b) spoiler-ific. So as I was saying, this isn’t the place to read a plot summary, but yes there are SPOILERS here.
Perfect use of Sean Astin. Yes, of course he was there because of The Goonies, which is also why he said, when confronted with a labyrinthine map, “What’s at the end? Pirate treasure?” At that moment, thousands of #goonies4life hashtaggers rejoiced. But the secret reason that Astin was perfectly chosen is that he actually got to play, and act the HELL out of, the nerd role that he never got in movies like The Goonies and Rudy. Before “Stranger Things 2,” we didn’t know Astin could deliver many, many nerdy words in very, very few mouth-drawn breaths. We are all richer for this knowledge. Loved: his body language, especially when kissing Joyce; him (commenting on!) “getting” Winona Ryder at the end of the day, as all 80s str8 male nerds had hoped to do; his glee at a Mr. Mom video; and his geeky defensiveness “Well, why don’t I teach you French, too, Jim?” (No, BASIC is not as hard to learn as French. But you can’t say the show failed to give him a comeuppance for this boasting.) When Astin as Bob described his childhood, you couldn’t help but flash back to his 80s roles…and then force yourself to say wait a minute, Bob’s childhood was before the 60s! This was its own sort of upside-down reality, and it accentuated the weirdness.
Almost as perfect use of Paul Reiser. From his first frame on screen, it was obvious this sequel had hired him to play the sequel to Burke from Aliens (which was, uh, a sequel). But we didn’t know if the show would make him Full Burke or Reformed Burke. And I’d say it was clever to finish by presenting a Burke so reformed that Hopper is having an amiable coffee with him. (Hopper hates even his friends!) My quibble is that we never saw Reiser’s character shift from devil to angel. It felt a little like a previous draft might have made this a bigger deal, perhaps in the scene where Dr. Owens (Reiser) warns Bob to hide in the closet. Maybe the audience is misdirected into thinking Owens will kill Bob…and then he turns out to save him. Instead, Owens’ fate as the rest of the leads escape the lab is left as an afterthought, not something viewers are positioned to care about. Bit of a problem there, but then, Aliens took Burke for granted as well.
The Dustin and Lucas Show. So much Lucas, and so, so much Dustin. It was as though the lions’ share of fanmail had read: “pretty good first season, but can we get more Lucas and Dustin please?” Caleb McLaughlin was so effective as Lucas that you tended to forget that the MadMax character was badly underwritten; you figured he loved her for reasons we as viewers hadn’t really seen. Gaten Matarazzo as Dustin, despite having to do his best acting next to a CG baby demogorgon, emerged as pretty much the heart and soul of ST2 with every trill through those “pearls.” (He also helped us forget the reliance on CG.) My one issue is that Dustin and Lucas were so great that we almost – almost – forgot about Mike. If you binged all of Season 1 and Season 2 back to back, the proportion would make more sense…that season was a little Mike-heavy. But this Season 2 course-correction runs the risk of diluting the formula that made us love the first season so much. Hey look, if we had to lose Mike to get more Dustin and Lucas, I could empathize with the trade-off, but the fact is that most of these episodes came in at well under the hour that Netflix has gotten us accustomed to. More Mike would have helped remind us why Eleven has been nurturing her crush for a year. On the other hand, perhaps, by keeping Mike away from us, the show was putting us into Eleven’s shoes?
Eleven! I live in a fantasy world where no one ever remembers who Bobby Brown was, and every time you google his name, Millie Bobby Brown comes right up. That’s how it should be, that’s how it needs to be. Season 2 wisely gives Brown even more to do, and you know, she knocks it all out of the park. It’s really not that easy to play maudlin and traumatized for as long and as well as Brown does. Her lip quavers, her shoulder shakes – she is what makes this show feel like it matters. Her range even sells her otherwise unnecessary trip to Chicago (see what I did there?). A different show might have eschewed the Chicago episode and given us more time with the Byers clan – Mike, Jonathan, and Joyce. Winona Ryder is risking becoming what Courteney Cox was to “Friends” (for a while), the sidelined headliner. (So was Dee Wallace in E.T.) I can live with that demotion as long as she keeps coming to award shows.
The whole 1980s/King/Spielberg thing. Season 1 was a revelation; we didn’t know how much we needed a show that pastiched those 1980s Steph(v)ens of spooky childhoods, King and Spielberg, and yet regularly displayed its own originality and cleverness. Season 1 was both more and less than a nostalgia exercise; it played like an actual artifact of the times, but it also trimmed the fat of some of its 80s inspirations to get us right to the good stuff. Season 2 is probably only different for already knowing that we wanted that formula and that they wanted us to want the formula. The songs in Season 2 are usually better and more appropriate. (I loved the final parts of the final episode, with the always-poignant “Time After Time” followed by “Every Breath You Take,” a song we now see as creepy; the show brought the song back to its long-ago pubescent sweetness…before literally overturning things one last time.) Basically, the show captures the King-Spielberg magic again, but somehow the trick seems less impressive because it proves repeatable. Last season’s tangled Christmas-light communication system, a delightfully bizarro appropriation of Gremlins and parts of the King oeuvre, is succeeded by the “paper trail” from Will’s scribbles, and yes, that looks cool enough…except that all it turns out to be is an unreliable map, not the skyscraper-size shadow monster we want it to be. (If it’s an acre-sized map of small-town Hawkins Indiana would it not in fact be rather reliable?) This is not the place for a list of all the many exact references/homages; this is. (Although it leaves out anything after the 1980s, for example the lab’s similarity to Jurassic Park and Will’s similarity to Harry Potter.) The more important point is yes, they saluted the Steph(v)ens again (and a lot of other culture), and yes, it worked like another charm.
Film or show? I have a voice-activated remote control, so when I say “Samantha Bee” I see “Samantha Bee” in words on the screen, along with options to watch “Full Frontal” or her other shows or movies. Occasionally I’ll say something that comes back “No results.” When I said “Stranger Things too,” I did not expect my screen to show “Stranger Things two” and “No results.” It did know “Stranger Things.” And imdb, likewise, knows “Stranger Things” but not “Stranger Things 2.” That’s because TV shows, from “Game of Thrones” to “House of Cards,” don’t have sequels, they have new seasons. And yet, the people behind “Stranger Things 2” certainly market it with that number, going so far as to specialize the twitter hashtag into an idiosyncratic “2.” In terms of Emmys or Oscars, “Stranger Things” is clearly TV. But the confusion is telling, and it’s not only about King and Spielberg. Netflix is pushing against that show/movie boundary all the time. If in ten years we have a new hybrid category, perhaps called the showvie, I will be giving “Stranger Things” partial credit for getting us there.
Bottom line. What the writing-directing team called The Duffer Brothers does is not as easy as it looks. It starts with great casting, but just as difficult is conjuring PG-rated horror that makes us care just enough without surfeits of blood or gun violence. (The recent It, which broke all box-office records thanks to the first season of “Stranger Things,” was rated R, and if Hollywood tries to do more Stand By Me-meets-Poltergeist, you’ll see how bad these films and shows get.) The Duffer Brothers exquisitely balance their kids’ downtime domestic moments with the scenes of rushing to save each other and solve life-or-death problems normally left to the police. The Duffers know we want to see our teens riding hoopdy bikes without helmets, ambling down train tracks, making a school bus into a shotgun shack, working out all those painful awkward insecurities. “Insecurity” might have been a great name for the show (I still don’t love the anodyne title “Stranger Things”), because the nostalgia is for the last time in America when kids weren’t secured by bike helmets and play dates and overscheduling. We were free (I’m the exact age of the leads; I was born in 1971), but outside role-playing games, we rarely felt like world conquerors; instead we were often like Dustin, crying from rejection. (By the way, thank you Duffers for finally removing the stigma and now letting me admit: I LOVED Dig Dug!) These days, social-media-savvy kids are secured but still insecure, which has its own tension, well explored in shows like “13 Reasons Why”; but we still look to that freer, nerdier Hawkins Indiana for valuable reminders of where we came from. Would we go back to Hawkins for a Season 3 set around October 1985? I know I’d go back…to that future.