Photo courtesy of Netflix.
Netflix’s “Stranger Things 2” is a decidedly underwhelming return for the sci-fi phenomenon.
Attributing any more praise to the excellent first season of Netflix’s “Stranger Things” is basically impossible for me. When I originally wrote about it late last summer — following a binge in which I devoured the series in its entirety within a 24-hour period — I declared the show “the best television [I’d] watched all year.” Since, I’ve only grown to better appreciate and love that original season over re-watches and discussions, but even more so now in light of the very recent release of its lackluster follow-up. While the new, monstrously-anticipated sequel is dubbed “Stranger Things 2,” perhaps a more accurate title would be “Stranger Things 1.5.”
To be fair, I still managed to consume “Stranger Things 2’s” nine episodes within a day, and I was never disinterested in seeing it through to its underwhelming conclusion. Perhaps my increasing inclination to browse social media during the season’s second half is most succinctly indicative of my feelings on “Stranger Things 2” as a whole. The first half is fine, good even, effectively unfolding a genuinely interesting plot over its first few episodes with the same lovable cast as before, adding a number of potentially engaging side characters into the mix at the start.
It’s not all bad, but alongside every positive element I found regarding “Stranger Things 2,” there’s a number of faults both big and small that ultimately hold it back. The season begins in grand fashion with a bombastic set-piece and introduction to an entirely new group of intriguing characters. However, the sequence lasts no longer than five minutes, and when we finally see them again in episode seven (a particularly low point for the show) in a late-season detour, I just didn’t care anymore.
Elsewhere, things are a bit more expected. We pick up a year following the events of the first season, and we’re almost immediately treated to sequences with each of the returning characters. Will (Noah Schnapp) is still afflicted by side-effects from being trapped within the Upside Down for such a long period, and his mother, Joyce (Winona Ryder), hovers over him at all times. Will experiences dream-like visions of the Upside Down at random, like when he’s spending time with his friends Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) at the arcade. Will’s “now memories,” as the characters will come to call them, are symbolic of big things to come, and the first four or so episodes do a great job of building suspense. The final episodes, though, are unsuccessful in realizing the potential produced by the season’s initial set-up.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a joy to watch the four main boys interact, same as it was the first time around. Similarly, I believe Hopper (David Harbour) and Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) are among the greatest characters in all of TV right now. And somehow, Steve (Joe Keery) sees the best arc of anyone over the nine episodes, becoming the most endearing among the lot of them this season.
Even so, the spotlight here is undeniably split up between too many side plots and supporting characters, most of which aren’t all that engaging or become uninventive imitations of similar storylines found in the first season. I also found that there just wasn’t enough of Hopper, Eleven or Mike throughout, and the new additions to the cast don’t amount to much at all — that is, save for Bob (Sean Astin), Joyce’s new love interest, who is just an all-around entirely likable dude.
I’m also incredibly surprised at how much of this season surrenders itself to predictability, while also not at all shying away from tired, decades-old clichés. The first season embraced its tropes and remarkably inverted many as well, whereas here, much of it feels like the result of lazy writing. The climax of the season presents a few exciting moments, but at the same time I found it all too familiar and ill-equipped, particularly lacking any kind of strong punch.
I can’t be entirely down on “Stranger Things 2” — after all, it is still “Stranger Things” and I’ve been eagerly awaiting this for over a year. The original score, again courtesy of Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, is as entirely outstanding and memorable as the first. Due to a much higher budget this time, the effects look mostly spectacular and the show is a wonder to gaze at. And when my two favorite characters from each season, Dustin and Steve, surprisingly team up halfway through, every scene with them is absolute bliss.
While a follow-up to “Stranger Things” wasn’t even necessary in my mind, I was excited to see where the Duffer Brothers would take their story. I not only hoped, but expected great things from “Stranger Things 2,” and so maybe I only have myself to blame for my immense disappointment toward it. There are definitely aspects to like here, but there’s not much to love, and perhaps that is what is most sinful about this strange sequel.