Stranger Things 2

hive mind monster

When it debuted in July of 2016, no one had heard of the Duffer brothers; however, their nostalgic sci-fi/thriller Stranger Things soon emerged as the surprise hit of the summer.  Heart-racing and action-packed, the small screen sensation had it all: a mysterious girl with telekinetic powers, a nefarious mad scientist, a government cover up.  The fact that it was also a heart-warming nod to growing up in the 80s only made the show that much more irresistible.

Flash forward and few shows have inspired such ardent adoration.  After a long 15 months eagerly awaiting the second season, fans rejoiced when Netflix released all 9 episodes on October 27th.  Though I, too, fell under its spell of 80s references and mullets, I always wondered how Stranger Things could be sustained over multiple seasons.  And I have to admit: when I initially watched the much-anticipated second season last week, I was less than impressed.  

The first season was masterfully, almost flawlessly constructed: it had a strong central conflict, a clear antagonist, not to mention an overarching mystery so compelling that we had little choice but to hit “play next.”  By contrast, this season felt less plot-driven.  Unlike last season where I literally could not stop watching, this year I was perfectly capable of pausing after a single episode.  Rather than indulge in a binge-watching marathon that left my roommates concerned I hadn’t left my room for 2 days, I watched moderately, pacing myself over the course of a week.  Was my ability to restrain myself irrefutable proof of the show’s declining quality?

Yes and no.  In all fairness, it’s hard to follow up a season as suspenseful and adrenaline-fueled as season 1.  I mean how do you top Jaws?  When a show generates as much buzz as Stranger Things, expectations are bound to be high…it’s possible that no matter what the Duffer brothers had turned out this year, some fans were going to be disappointed.

hopper & pumpkins

Regardless Stranger Things 2 still has some major problems.  For one, the tight, expert story-telling of last year feels meandering and, dare I say, sloppy this time around.  While its debut season had a driving conflict (find the missing Will) and more than one threatening antagonist (a horrifying monster from another dimension, a diabolical mad scientist, a troop of forbidding government agents to name a few), Stranger Things 2 lacks a fundamental problem to propel the plot.  Yes, there is the issue of Will-why does he keep having these disturbing, PTSD-induced flashbacks?  are they really flashbacks at all?-these questions aren’t nearly as compelling as the odd happenings and puzzling mysteries of season 1.  “Who’s the mute, bald-headed girl the boys stumble upon in the woods?” we wondered, “What’s the upside down?  And where in god’s name is Will?”  Last year, these enigmas had us enthralled episode after episode; this year, I didn’t feel as mesmerized by the plot.  Why does Will keep seeing that spider creature?  What’s killing all of Hawkins crops?  What a shocker: it’s yet another petrifying monster from the upside down.  

shadow monster

Which brings us to another failing of Stranger Things’s sophomore season: the way it shamelessly regurgitates many of the same plots.  The first season’s central premise-girl with paranormal abilities unintentionally opens portal to another realm and unleashes otherworldly monster- is recapitulated again here, only this time the monster is a little bigger and a little badder.  The shadow monster, much like its Dungeons & Dragon’s counterpart the mind flayer, is a parasitic beast who traverses dimensions, infecting the minds of others in order to control them and spread itself.  A sinister spider-like creature who menaces over Hawkins in ominous red clouds, the Duffer brother’s invention certainly looks the part of monster.  But though it’s physically colossal, its threat feels less serious and immediate than that posed by the bloodthirsty demogorgan of season 1.  Last season, if you were unlucky enough to cross its path, the demogorgan would surely snatch you and bring you to its lair; this season…I’m not sure what the shadow monster would do.  Much like horror movie franchises, the Stranger Things “sequel” manages to feel less scary though it boasts a more powerful killer.  

There are countless other instances when Stranger Things 2 retraces the same narrative ground: protective mother Joyce once again has to decipher the mystery of what’s happening to her son (which of course involves channeling a paranormal being until her living room looks like a page from Samara’s coloring book), the lovable gang of preteens bickers about whether or not to admit yet another outspoken tough girl into their group, and older high schoolers Jonathan and Nancy rehash the same tired “will they or won’t they” subplot.  Am I asserting good television has to be completely original to be entertaining?  Of course not.  Part of Stranger Things’s charm was the way it could make a story that was at once familiar seem fresh and exciting.  But literally recycling the same exact narratives is just lazy storytelling.  In season 2, instead of paying homage to the past while telling a new story, Stranger Things started paying homage to itself, becoming- as film critic Jess Joho writes- a “self-referential uroboros that couldn’t stop eating its own derivative tail.”  Watching the latest installment, I felt like the Duffer brothers were merely replicating a formula because it had already worked once.  

stranger things gang

And why would you repeat the same stale conflicts and predictable troupes when there’s so many interesting directions this sci fi/thriller could have gone?  As a viewer, it was maddening that the majority of last year’s loose ends were so tidily resolved.  Really?  After our characters discover Hawkins Lab has performed heartless (not to mention illegal) experiments on human subjects, wrenched a hole in the space/time continuum and freaking unleashed a deadly monster onto a sleepy Indiana town, life just resumes as usual?  In real-life, if you uncovered that huge of a government secret, you wouldn’t live to tell the tale.  And what about the rest of Hawkins?  Do they just unquestioningly accept the idiotic explanation that the body found in the quarry was not Will but another boy who drowned?  Hawkins Lab poses another series of problems.  Are we just supposed to forget it was the main human antagonist now that Brenner’s not in charge?  I wish the Duffer brothers had the courage to explore these questions and venture off the beaten path instead of retrace what they’ve already done.

But that’s not to say there’s no novelty in Stranger Things 2.  As is obligatory in television, the second season expands its original cast, adding Max, a skate-boarding redhead, her short-tempered brother Billy, a head-banging bad boy who drives the girls wild in his unimaginably tight Wranglers and Bob, a lovable nerd who acts as romantic interest for Joyce, Will’s mother.  

Though I grew to like many of the new additions to the cast, it bothered me that the majority of new characters were created for purposes of plot.  Max, for example, was obviously created to fill the void left by Eleven.  Oh, Eleven’s going to be wandering off on her own most of the season?  Better toss another tomboy into the plot.  She might not possess psychic powers or the ability to teleport to other planes, but hey, she can skateboard and beat your ass at Dig Dug.  More a plot device than flesh and blood, Max exists to act as a love interest for the younger boys, ignite conflict between Lucas and Dustin, the two lads vying for her affections, and thus advance the plot.  Did I dislike her character?  No, in fact her flirtatious adolescent banter and eventual relationship with Lucas was adorable; I just felt she was designed to fill a very stereotypical part.  

max

I had a similar complaint when it came to Sean Astin’s character, Bob.  Almost unbearably sweet, Bob possesses little depth, playing the all too cliched part of nerdy nice guy who’s endlessly considerate.  How is he obnoxiously thoughtful?  Let me count the ways.  For one, he surprises Joyce at work just because he’s so giddy in love (barf).  Later, he stops by the house with brainteasers when he hears poor Will is sick.  And of course he accepts single mother Joyce’s kids, even offering to move them all to his parent’s house in Maine so the troubled Will can get a “fresh start.”  He’s the “perfect boyfriend,” in other words, boring as fuck.  Not only is his character hopelessly dull, he’s pointless since we all know Joyce is going to eventually get with Hopper.  Bob literally only exists so the main characters (the ones we actually care about) can get out of Hawkins Lab alive when a pack of demo-dogs show up.  Constructing such a one-dimensionally kind character only to sacrifice him is like murdering a teddy bear: it’s just wrong.  Winona Ryder agreed.  When she caught word that the Duffer brothers were killing off Bob, she was furious.  “You’re monsters,” she rebuked, “monsters!”

bob

But the worst additions to Stranger Things 2 have to be Kali and her gang of misfit punks.  In the now infamous 7th episode “The Lost Sister,” the Duffer brothers introduce us to Kali, another gifted child who was kidnapped by Hawkins Lab.  Narratively, Kali acts a foil to her “sister”: while Eleven hides out quietly and bides her time until she can live without fear of being recaptured, Kali vows to take vengeance on the “bad” men who mistreated her.  Once again Kali is a poorly disguised plot device designed to lure Eleven to the dark side and pose a moral dilemma.  But didn’t our favorite telekinetic girl already struggle with this in season 1?  I thought she already definitively decided she would not be a monster?  Besides broadening the universe of the show (and perhaps creating the possibility for a spin off…dear god I hope not), Kali accomplishes nothing but stall the season’s momentum.  Come on, Duffer brothers: do we really need to introduce a needless subplot at the very moment the season starts to pick up?  Kali does, however, remind us of one cinematic truth: the original is always better than the sequel.  The fact that Stranger Things 2 opens with a scene of Kali, at the time a mysterious Indian girl with an “8” etched on her wrist, makes it seem as though she and her rebel band of vigilantes will be a significant part of the story but neither ends up having any real bearing on the larger plot.  Such shoddy craftsmanship would never fly in season 1.  And don’t get me started on those hackneyed Hot Topic “punks.”

kali

Reading this, you might think I detested Stranger Things 2.  But I absolutely did not.  Despite its many flaws, there were certainly things about this season that worked: the budding of an endearing father/daughter dynamic between Hopper and Eleven, Steve’s redemption from rich kid bully to babysitter/love guru/mentor (not to mention learning the secret to his gorgeous, much lusted after locks), the heart-warming school dance where we got to wistfully behold the miracle of our beloved teens growing up.  A nostalgic concoction of slow dances to Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” and adorable couplings up, the finale was probably the best episode of the season.  I’m not going to lie: I might have gotten misty-eyed when Nancy tried to spare Dustin the humiliation of being rejected and Eleven agreed to dance with Mike.

In the end, was Stranger Things’s newest installment perfect?  Unreservedly not, but in the words of New York Times film critic James Poniewozik, it’s last year’s Halloween candy: repackaged, perhaps, but undeniably sweet.

eleven

mick and eleven

Enlightened Series Finale

In the genius, if underrated, HBO series Enlightened, Amy Jellicoe, former corporate executive turned idealistic do-gooder, struggles to change the world after having an affair with her boss and suffering a mortifying, at-work breakdown.

What’s interesting about Amy is that she is a flawed character and her quest is not an entirely noble one.  From the beginning of season two, we get a sense that her lofty ambition to take down corporate giant Abaddon may conceal a less enlightened desire for vengeance.  “What kind of revenge play do you have going here?” LA Times reporter Jeff Flender asks when she leaks confidential company emails, “Did one of these guys screw you over?”  Outraged, she rebuttals: “This isn’t about revenge, it’s about justice.”  But is it?  Throughout the series, the true nature of Amy’s motives remains uncertain.

Co-creator and writer Mike White isn’t interested in having his characters fit cut-and-dry black or white categories, which makes for compelling and at times, unbearable, television.  There is a duality to Amy: she is alternately contemptible and heroic, awkward and charming, psychotic and sane.  On the one hand, she despises the superficial materialism of the 1% but, on the other, she longs for their particular brand of power.  “I’m tired of feeling hopeless and plastic and numb.  Please,” a desperate, teary Amy begs Tyler, “don’t make me go back to being nothing.”

Being somebody, doing something: this is the heart of Amy’s goal.  It is up to us to decide whether her crusade is a commendable one.  Amy yearns for something more but her starry-eyed aspirations are often complicated by an egotistical lust to climb the social ladder.  One of my favorite scenes is when Amy rushes to take her trashy Entertainment Weeklies off the table before Jeff comes over.  “We don’t read those,” her mother says confused as Amy spreads out copies of TIME magazine and the New Yorker.  No, they don’t but she wants Jeff to think they do.  “He’s a big deal,” she tells Tyler.

Though Amy may be caught up with impressing Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists and schmoozing her way into the liberal, activist elite, upon watching season 2, I think we can agree she is a pretty remarkable character.

When the finale opens, we see Amy watching TV, transfixed by footage of the Arab Spring.  “Am I my higher self or am I in the mud?” Amy wonders via voice over (a clever device used throughout the series to glimpse her inner dialogue).  “Am I an agent of change?” she muses, “Or a creator of chaos?”

In the preceding episode appropriately entitled “No Doubt,” we see Amy become less and less certain of her decision to expose Abaddon.  When Charles Sizdon, her supposed nemesis and Abaddon’s nefarious CEO, offers her the community outreach position she’s been hoping for, the once radical, burn-the-fucker-down Amy can’t help second-guessing herself: had she made a mistake?  Would it have been better to impact change from within?  Before she had been fighting a concept, an idea-corporate greed, the inhumane exploitation of workers and the environment-but now she was rallying against a living, breathing human being.  Sizdon is likable, charming even, and Amy can’t help questioning whether sending him to prison is the right course.

enlightened mom

 

This doubt continues to play itself out in the final episode.  Sane, adult-like pragmaticism finds form in hyper-sensible Helen, Amy’s mother.  After confessing that she has helped to expose the evil-doings of her slimy, unethical employer, her mother is disappointed, not proud.  

“Why would you do that?” Helen asks, exasperated yet again at her daughter’s refusal to fall in line and conform.

“Cause the guy’s a criminal…”

“And why is that any of your business?  They brought you back after all you did (never mind that Abaddon wrongfully  transferred her out of her department in typical boy’s club fashion, siding with her sleazy, dick-headed boss) and this is how you repay them?  You have done a lot of foolish things in your life but this is too much.”

Where Amy expects to find confirmation, she meets disapproval (and a chilly suggestion to pack her bags and move out).  Ms. Jellicoe may be doing something great but Helen-like the rest of the world-just doesn’t care.

Enlightened makes the upsetting suggestion that the majority of Americans don’t care.  If we knew what Amy knew-that our company’s CEO was bribing a government official, essentially rigging the system to line his own pockets-would we do something?  would we be compelled to action?  

For the creators of this one-of-a-kind tragicomedy, the answer is no.  

White never makes this observation in a condescending, predictable people-are-sheeple kind of way but he maintains the claim regardless.  So many of the show’s characters-Amy’s mother, Krista-are unwilling to face the reality of the world in all its injustice and terror.  At the end of the episode, Amy stands alone as the only one willing to wake up and be “enlightened.”

amy and levi

“Am I crazy?” she asks ex-husband Levi in one of the episode’s most gorgeous final shots.  

“No,” he responds, “you’re just full of hope…It’s a beautiful thing to have hope for the world.”

 Like Amy, the idea goes, we have to be a little crazy if we want to change the world.