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Stranger Things season 2

The first season of Stranger Things was a mysterious and intriguing piece of television that successfully channeled an eclectic collection of 80's and 90's nostalgia (from E.T. to Stephen King to The X-Files to Dungeons and Dragons). Instead of being a cynical piece of derivative nostalgia bait (or an outright cash-in on established intellectual property), Stranger Things somehow felt wholly fresh and original.

Unfortunately, season 2 lacks a lot of that mystery and originality that made it's predecessor work so well. Season 2 just feels too familiar. We already know about the Upside Down, and the Demogorgon, and Eleven's psychic powers, and the secret government research lab conducting shady experiments. None of that can really carry the show anymore. But that's about all that season 2 has. There's nothing very new. There's no surprises.

The introduction of a new girl creates tension within the group.

Compounding this problem is that plot points and set pieces feel recycled from last season. Most are inverted in some way, as if they are Upside Down reflections of the previous season's events. But that isn't nearly as clever as the wordplay might make it sound. For example, there's a sub plot of tension among the boys because a new girl has entered their group. This time, it's Max instead of Eleven, and it's Mike who's unhappy with the new dynamic of the group instead of Dustin and Lucas. Midway through the season, there's a set piece in which Will draws a bunch of pictures and hangs them up all over the house. It feels like a repeat of Joyce hanging up the Christmas lights, except that it's Will trying to communicate with the Upside Down instead of Joyce trying to communicate with her son. And the group even takes in another stray and tries to hide it; except this time, it's a baby demogorgon instead of Eleven.

There's a sort-of new monster in the form of the "Shadow Monster" that haunts Will. This shadow monster, however, doesn't really do anything, and we're left with only the army of dog-like demogorgons. It takes an approach similar to James Cameron's Aliens , in that it multiplies the number of monsters, gives them a "nest", and adds some big "queen" that seems to be controlling everything. This comparison is driven home by the shadow monster's resemblance to a ghostly xenomorph, and the inclusion of a scene that was basically pulled straight from Aliens (right down to the beeping motion detectors). But unlike Aliens , I never felt threatened by the surplus of demogorgons, and the Upside Down never seemed as mysterious as the xenomorph hive or their horrifying queen.

The "Shadow Monster" is a threat that never really pays off -- at least not this season.

While the first season didn't revel in sudden character deaths for the sake of shock value like Game of Thrones , the sudden death of Barb midway through the season did manage to raise the stakes for everyone else. Season 2 has nothing like that. There's no sudden or unexpected deaths of any characters who aren't obviously disposable from the moment they arrive on scene. And even among the cannon fodder characters, the death count is still ridiculously low.

The most interesting concept is the recurring idea that there may be a Soviet spy in the midst of the characters, trying to steal the secret of the Upside Down. The show keeps hinting at this possibility and sets up almost every guest character as a possible suspect. By the end, I was even suspecting that some random lady on the bus might turn out to be a Soviet spy. Except this never goes anywhere. There is no spy. It's a complete red herring.

There's also a subplot about Eleven's "sister" / Kali, Eight, which also doesn't go anywhere. It's introduced in the opening of the first episode, and then appears again in like the [terrible] second or third to last episode, and then gets shoved off to the side again. It's probably a set up for future seasons, which also seemed to be a recurring theme. Now that the show is successful, the writers seem to be planning for further seasons (or a spin-off), and shoe-horning setups in, even though they don't really fit in. There's also multiple character who get sprayed with demogorgon jizz (for lack of a better word), but absolutely nothing comes of it (no pun intended) -- not even a cliff-hanger. Is this something that's going to become relevant in season 3? Either way, it feels perfunctory.

Kali (a.k.a. "Eight") and her gang feels like unnecessary padding, and possibly just a set-up for season 3.

All this isn't to say that season 2 of Stranger Things is bad. It's still good. I certainly enjoyed it a lot more than I've enjoyed the early episodes of The Orville (which I'm liking a bit more as it goes on) or Star Trek: Discovery (which I'm hating more as it goes on). Season 2 just isn't as good as season one. It's a bit disappointing, and that disappointment even leaks into the parts of the show that are good, as they never seem to be as good as they could be. The characters are all back, and are just as lovable as ever. But the introduction of Max, Mike's pining for Eleven, and the stress that they put on the group results in a lot of off-putting antagonism within the group. Heck the very first scene of the four leads together includes an uncomfortable racial quarrel over their Ghostbusters Halloween costumes. Why would you insist that Lucas has to be Winston? There's also some uncomfortable racist undertones from Max's brother, which are much more effective and creepy, since he's kind of a villain character anyway. I don't recall there being much (if any) racial tensions within the friend group in season one. Maybe it was, and I just didn't pick up on it (or don't remember it). But it's put out there right from the start, and it felt unnecessary and out of place.

But other than that, the cast and characters are all universally great. Hopper (David Harbour) probably remains my favorite character, but Dustin also really steals the spotlight for me in this season. I felt that Gaten Matarazzo has exceptional screen presence and routinely steals the show. All the small-town, familiar charm is still present. There's still a very strong focus on family as a thematic centerpiece of the show, and it never gets too campy or cheesy. Sean Astin is fantastic as Bob. The nostalgia references are still there and mostly work well. It leans a bit heavy on Ghostbusters and Aliens, but there's still a lot of E.T., Gremlins, X-Files, Stephen King, and other influences.

I didn't really feel like the Stranger Things storyline needed to continue into a second season. The first season was so strong, and wrapped up so nicely that I felt like a second season could only be a disappointment. I feel a little bit vindicated.

Ghostbusters and Aliens seem to be the strongest influences on this season.

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