TV Review – Stranger Things: Season 2
Because Netflix doesn’t reveal data about who is watching its shows and how many are watching, it’s difficult to know which shows are successful and which aren’t. Nielsen ratings have been traditionally the metric for the broadcast and cable networks, but, for five years or so, analysts, media critics and even people in the industry have been in the dark when it comes to Netflix’s business. Based on coverage and traffic on the Internet to that coverage, it’s been somewhat easy to guess what’s a hit and what’s not, but it’s never truly been concrete. All that ends with this current TV show. A week or so after the premiere of this season on October 27, Nielsen reported numbers that give a clearer picture of how much of a hit this series is. Nielsen said 15 million watched the first episode of the second season and each episode after averaged about 4 million.
Yet, even before these numbers, people knew how much of a success this show was due to all the awards it got this year. It was nominated for two Golden Globes. It was then nominated for three SAG Awards. It won the SAG Award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series. The true acknowledgment though came when the series was nominated for 18 Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Drama Series. It won 5, all technical prizes, but clearly this show has become a phenomenon.
In my review of the first season, I basically said the show was mostly plot and didn’t do a lot of character work. I didn’t think the first season was all that scary because it never to my satisfaction made us feel the stakes. Yes, the first season was about a young boy who goes missing and as a result a teenage girl dies, but it’s only thanks to the exasperating performance from Wynona Ryder (The Age of Innocence and Edward Scissorhands) who plays Joyce Byers, the mother of the missing, young boy, that we do feel any kind of consequence. It’s primal, that of a desperate mother, but that primal feeling was really the only thing that shined other than all the 80’s nostalgia. That feeling continues to shine in the second season, but thankfully it’s not the only thing.
This season is better than the first season because there is an emphasis on character and laying down stakes. However, there are things that it stumbles in doing. For example, the first season was only eight episodes in length. This season is nine episodes. The extra episode doesn’t help this show’s case. It allows the show to introduce a whole bunch of unnecessary things and characters who don’t add much.
A lot of people have been criticizing the seventh episode as being the obvious extra episode that isn’t adding much, but I disagree. It’s not that episode that’s the problem. It’s little things sprinkled into all nine episodes that are somewhat extraneous and distract more than enhance the story or the people we know from season one.
There were five new characters this season. Three of which are really not essential. Two of those characters in my opinion hinder rather than help the narrative. Those characters are Max Mayfield, played by Sadie Sink (The Glass Castle) and Billy Hargrove, played by Dacre Montgomery (Power Rangers). Max is the stepsister to Billy. Both come from an abusive home, and, as a result, Billy verbally abuses Max and Max escapes into arcade games.
Aside from being a love interest for Lucas, played by Caleb McLaughlin (Shades of Blue and The New Edition Story), and the third point in a possible love triangle with Dustin, played by Gaten Matarazzo, the character of Max is just a distraction. I’m not opposed to Lucas having a girlfriend, but the Duffer brothers, the creators of the show, really force her integration into the group too quickly. All of a sudden, Lucas wants to tell Max all their secrets involving the supernatural but the show never establishes that Lucas has that strong of feelings for her.
Aside from being a foil or slight bully for Steve, played by Joe Keery (Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party), the character of Billy is a waste of time. His somewhat racist undertones were also not appreciated. Honestly, Billy and Max could have been taken out of the narrative, and it wouldn’t have changed anything about what happens or the emotional or important beats that the show wanted to hit.
The third character who really wasn’t essential this season was the character who appears in the seventh episode, which literally is a departure from the main action that preceded in the first six episodes. Linnea Berthelsen plays Kali, another young girl with supernatural powers. I get the point of the character. She represents what Eleven, the main young girl with super powers, could become. Yet, I think that lesson could have been made without this literal departure from the main action.
David Harbour (Revolutionary Road and Black Mass) returns as Jim Hopper, the sheriff of the town where all this supernatural stuff is happening. This season is interesting because in many ways he becomes a surrogate father to Eleven, played by Millie Bobby Brown. Both Brown and Harbour were nominated for Emmys specifically for their roles and this season proves why. The two actors work extremely well together and their relationship really is at the heart of this season.
Sean Astin (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and The Goonies) co-stars as Bob Newby, the manager of the town’s Radio Shack and also the boyfriend of Joyce. He’s a bit of a geek, but he’s really sweet and smart. He becomes a bit of a surrogate father to Joyce’s son, Will, played by Noah Schnapp (The Peanuts Movie and Bridge of Spies). At least, he tries. His relationship with Joyce and Will also goes to the heart of this season and also helps to establish stakes, which really hit home in the eighth episode.
Paul Reiser (Mad About You and Aliens) plays Dr. Sam Owens, the last new character introduced this season. He functionally replaces Matthew Modine from the first season, but he’s a lot of ways better. He’s funnier for sure, even in just slight ways. He continues the work at Hawkins lab to study and control the source of all the supernatural stuff in the town.
Some nitpicks come in a B or C-plot involving Jonathan Byers, played by Charlie Heaton, and Nancy Wheeler, played by Natalia Dyer. Jonathan and Nancy go on a road trip, ultimately to shut down the Hawkins lab. This is another aspect that could have been dropped entirely, mainly because I didn’t agree with what the kids were doing.
The Duffer brothers go out of their way to portray most of the scientists both from last season and this season as bad guys or guys who don’t care if children die. The exception is Sam Owens, but every other scientist is portrayed as bad, thus the lab needs to be shut down. I get that this is a trope in 80’s films and even 90’s films, but it’s tiring and quite frankly stupid.
Another slight nitpick is the monster in this season. The monster is at first affectionately called a polliwog. Like a mogwai from Gremlins (1984), it’s hurt by the light. Yet, there is a scene where Dustin lures the polliwog into the daylight and nothing happens. It’s a slight nitpick but one that bothered me.
Running Time: 1 hr. / 9 eps.
Available on Netflix.