Love it or hate it, nostalgia is all the rage right now. From TV revivals of classics like Twin Peaks, Dynasty, and Will & Grace, to the return of vintage fads like berets and belt bags, the pop culture of yesteryear is back in full force.
Among these resurgences is Stranger Things, Netflix’s original series. The sci–fi tale of a small town with big secrets (and an even bigger alternate dimension) was an immediate hit. Featuring a gaggle of underdog preteens and the triumphant return of alt–sweetheart Winona Ryder, the show embodied the eighties in kitschy little 50–minute packages. And now, the second–coming of the Duffer Brothers’ hit is finally at hand. So, a single question remains: will this season be anywhere near as good the first?
The answer is both yes and no. Picking up several months after the return of Will Byers, the series begins with many characters struggling with the aftermath of the events of last season. Mostly what follows is more of the same trite (albeit well–integrated) cultural references, replete with meticulously curated wardrobes, and tween “will they won’t they’s.” The series does a stellar job of transporting the audience into its universe of eighties–Hawkins, Indiana. The Duffer Brothers seamlessly integrate the minutiae and pathos of small–town life with the feel of the era. And all the while, the show’s otherworldly aspects bubble in the background.
But despite this, the second–coming isn’t as glorious as it was meant to be: the dialogue is weak, the logic is flawed, and the showrunners continue to expect the audience to blindly believe that a Dungeons and Dragons handbook holds all the answers to the supposed Upside Down (with literally no explanation of this. At all.) It pains me to say this, but this season is, at best, surprisingly tired, and at worst, weirdly lazy: it all feels more like a conclusive sequel than a second chapter. But, you know, sequels are never as good as their predecessor.
Sure, there’s some new stuff in the mix, but it’s really just that: stuff. So okay, we see Millie Bobby Brown skulking in a leather jacket and eyeliner, cool. We get a transparent—and frankly, flailing—attempt at #justiceforbarb (who I never liked much anyway, honestly). We even get three decidedly random couplings in this season, including Nancy and Jonathan, which would be cool if it weren’t the most expected part of this entire season. And, in another nonsensical twist, his breakup with Nancy somehow reduces Steve’s role in the series to that of… a babysitter.
Amongst the more notable changes is the introduction of four new central characters, none of which seem all that necessary to the plot. The first is a one–dimensional love interest for Lucas. Then, there is the aforementioned love interest’s brother, whose cameos consist of unexplained, underdeveloped (and really, only implied) racism. Then, there’s Joyce Byers’ throwaway live–in boyfriend, who is along for (most of) the ride but—spoiler alert—doesn’t live to tell the tale. And finally, there’s Eleven’s “sister,” the most interesting of the bunch, yet she remains woefully underdeveloped as a character, and is present for a grand total of three episodes for the brief period in which Eleven dabbles in the Big Apple drifter–crime scene. At times, the show felt so campy and baseless that it resembled A Very Special Halloween Episode of some failed sitcom, or like the Goosebumps version of Scream Queens. And frankly, the foray into the world of spooky Ryan Murphy–esque aestheticism is hackneyed.
I went into this season a little prejudiced. Am I a fan of the pseudo–romance between Mike, an Indiana preteen, and Eleven, a telepathic mind control victim who is severely lacking in verbal skills? No. Do I think the whole “gang of childhood misfits” thing is played out? Oh, for sure. But my real problem with this season of Stranger Things is its desperate, clawing attempts to appeal to every whim of its fan base. And even still, the endeavor barely hangs on to the coattails of last season. Ultimately, it's not enough. Despite the big budget and careful attention to detail, at the end of the day, television is about stories and narrative, which this season sorely lacks.