Stranger Things 2 Review: Bigger, but Not Better – Vanity Fair

When does a meme die? Or if not die, at least grow stale, repetitive, irksome? It can happen awfully quickly, passing around the Internet and proliferating until some kind of critical mass has been reached in mere days or hours. We devour and degrade things with alarming speed, which is why Stranger Things 2—as the second season of Netflix’s smash hit sci-fi show is insisting we call it—has such a difficult, perhaps impossible, task set before it.

The first season of the show, from the brothers Matt and Ross Duffer by way of a zillion old sci-fi and fantasy titles, was an unexpected pleasure, a surprise summer phenomenon that nimbly trod a tricky path between cute and cloying. The central kids from the show—Finn Wolfhard, Caleb McLaughlin, Gaten Matarazzo, Noah Schnapp and especially Millie Bobby Brown—became near-instant viral stars, the novelty toasts of town. The buzz machine worked loud and fast. Too loud and too fast, perhaps. At some point in the last year, I kind of forgot that I loved the first season of the show, that it was alluring and evocative and traded in a rare kind of decency. Instead Stranger Things got memed into an annoyance—a very real danger of loving something in this content-flood era.

That has a huge effect on Stranger Things’s second season, which drops on Netflix on October 27. Picking up a year after the events of last season—which involved an inter-dimensional monster, a telekinetic young girl, and bunch of scrappy kids with a few scrappy adults working to save the day—Season 2 finds our heroes older, perhaps wiser, and certainly more self-aware. Eleven, the poked and prodded experiment subject played by Brown, has disappeared after using her powers to defeat a monster. Her geeky friends all miss her, especially Mike (Wolfhard), but they are also happy to have their friend Will (Schnapp) back safely in their group. Though the end of last season suggested that not all is right with poor, sensitive, moon-eyed Will. And indeed it is not. He’s gay!

No, I’m just kidding. (Though there is some subtextual, allegorical stuff one could use to support that claim.) What’s wrong with Will is that he’s still connected to the scary Upside Down dimension he was trapped in last season. He finds himself having hallucinations or visions of some impending darkness, one he’s both terrified of and inexplicably drawn to. And so everyone, kid and adult, is dragged back into an adventure of sorts, calling on knowledge of nerdy arcana—and plenty of small-town, blue-collar gumption—to figure things out. Same as last season, only weighted by a year’s worth of expectation.

Which isn’t fatal to the show. Stranger Things 2 is still engaging throughout—Netflix graciously made the whole nine-episode season available to critics—and features plenty of charming performances. Though the early-mid-80s world of the series is perhaps a bit too over-articulated this season, things still look good, all earth-toned, autumnal, and wistful, in their way. The plot involving the older kids, played winsomely by Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, and an underused Joe Keery, is sweet and satisfying, a good continuation of a narrative from the first season that doesn’t rely too heavily on the clichés of its characters.

I suppose that’s because the bulk of the cliché comes in the form of the younger boys. McLaughlin’s Lucas and Matarazzo’s Dustin get more focus this time around—Lucas has a crush on a cool tomboy new to school, Max (played by the perfectly named Sadie Sink), while Dustin takes in a dangerous pet, and pines after Max himself. It’s nice for the actors that they get a little more screen time. But after a year of having these ragamuffins paraded in front of us, I wasn’t exactly eager to spend more time with them. Same for Eleven, who, no, is not dead, and who goes on a journey into the past in this season, finding a new punk-rock rebel style in the process. Sure, sure; yay for the kids growin’ up and kickin’ butt. But it’s hard to be as enamored of these characters as the show wants us to be. They’re not iconic; they’re just kids.

I won’t spoil any more of the mystery of Season 2, but I will say that much of it plays like a lukewarm rehash, with a bit more red meat thrown in to cover up the mustiness. It’s a classic sequel form, really. There are some welcome inventions—particularly in casting Paul Reiser as a kindly government scientist, a witty counterbalance to Matthew Modine’s villain from last season. But mostly the show just regurgitates itself, making Stranger Things Season 1 another of its reference points, joining the likes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Aliens, and Jurassic Park, all alluded to this season.

The trouble is, Stranger Things hasn’t yet earned canonization the way those hallowed properties have—so the second season’s self-regard lands badly; it’s premature. Having the great David Harbour and Winona Ryder do the same desperate shtick from the first season and hoping we’ll affectionately say, “Oh, right, remember?” doesn’t really work when the thing only aired last year, and when the series has been ubiquitously joked about and parodied since. This is a common peril, but it’s especially concentrated here, this feeling that the show exhausted itself with its own success. It’s why everyone at HBO interested in a second season of the perfectly ended Big Little Lies should watch Stranger Things 2—a meandering, intermittently entertaining follow-up that dims our memory of the original fun, of that excitement and sense of occasion. I still ate it up in one big gulp. But I was hungry again an hour later. Only, not for more of the same.

Metropolis
2001: A Space Odyssey
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
E.T.
Under the Skin
Ex Machina
Arrival
Metropolis

Metropolis

2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

E.T.

E.T.

Star Wars IV

Star Wars IV

Blade Runner

Blade Runner

The Matrix

The Matrix

Gravity

Gravity

Under the Skin

Under the Skin

Ex Machina

Ex Machina

Arrival

Arrival

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