Friday, December 8, 2017

Stranger Things - Season 2


After a first season that unexpectedly blew up the entertainment world, The Duffer Brothers returned with Stranger Things 2. But they failed in recreating the easy retro wonder and chilling suspense of their original masterpiece, and instead the sequel isn't much more than a cheap imitation of their previous work.

Give me this look if you must, but just know I'm giving it right back.

It watches a like a big-budget stroll down memory lane. The cast returns as tour guides, pointing out dim reflections of season 1, winking and saying, "Remember that? That was pretty magnificent, right? Right?" Yep, this show used to be magnificent, but now it's a jumbled pile of fan service via self-reference and obtrusive Easter Eggs. Before, it was a labor of love. Now, it's a meme. It's Funko Pop Culture, and, and Mom Steve™. They've lost sight of the art, and spent all their efforts appeasing the masses of fans with whatever it was they squealed over before. And it's the same, but MORE! so fans squeal again, but the soul is gone. The Demogorgon got it, probably.

I specifically recall the Duffers promising this wouldn't happen. "We'll write until the story is over, not stretch it out," they said. Well if the story isn't stretched out right now, I need to quit reviewing things, because I know nothing. The first four episodes are about 5% plot, and 95% fan service. Every introduction of a returning character I half expected to be accompanied by an applause track, like fans cheering whenever Kramer burst onto the Seinfeld set. Even Carol gets one of those moments, and then is never shown again. She, Tommy, Powell, and Callahan are insultingly useless and unused, so why are they back in the first place?

They did good keeping Hopper the same I guess, but he loses interest.

Answer: Fan service. This season values fan service over everything, to a level I've never seen before, not in Star Wars or Marvel movies -- or even Sherlock. It's almost like the same people didn't write it at all, but just took the fluffiest fan-fiction they could find, filmed it, and served it up. Well, this fan feels like she's been served -- a pile of rotting table scraps. Easter Eggs might be yummy in the moment, but they're no replacement for substance in entertainment. As Mike would say, we're not dogs; and we deserve to be respected and challenged as intelligent viewers. I will always question why things happen the way they do, especially in a sequel, and I want to find a reason that exists in the narrative of the story, rather than, "Uh, the fans would love it duh!"

Obviously, I'm not a fan of fan service. Having Easter Eggs constantly chucked at my head is unpleasant and distracting. But I do understand the appeal in theory. I just don't understand how anyone could think this stuff is acceptable as character or plot development -- fans or creators. Dustin was a fan-favorite, so now he's got a mom and a cat, and a pet baby Demogorgon (Haha, remember when he was the reasonable one?) and he gets scenes wholly devoted to "comedy" and swearing a lot. No character direction or plot-developing to be seen. But even worse, his character is changed to allow for it.

*rant intensifies*

And fans were upset with Nancy for picking clutch-good-guy Steve over Jonathan last time, so that gets "fixed." I hate this most because they actually subvert season one events to make it happen. No, she didn't wait a month before taking Steve back. She just didn't. They tried to twist it into Jonathan's fault not Nancy's choice, and I call bull on that. The end of their arcs is the place for official romance (if it should happen at all) when they're both the best versions of themselves. It's so cheap to do it now. Nancy's a worse person than she ever was in season 1. And Jonathan is such a misunderstood loner that even the writers don't know what to do with him. They don't fit anymore -- their unexpected connection is gone -- but details like that won't stop the fan-pleasing train!

Anyway Steve's nice now, so he doesn't deserve to be saddled with Nancy either. Instead he's saddled with leading the plot line created for all the useless characters to populate. Like Dustin and Lucas and the new girl Max, and her brother Billy. I really don't get the point of Billy. They apply 80's music to him like he's cool, but we're supposed to hate him, right? All but forgotten are Joyce and Mike. I missed Mike being the main character dearly, but at least his character wasn't ruined. His reunion with El lasted about two seconds though, which is hands down the stupidest thing this show does, out of a plethora of spectacularly stupid things. Sean Astin's Bob is the new Barb, and surprisingly likable, though his overdone, manipulative sucker-punch wasn't nearly as effective as Barb's, in spite of a longer set up.

The Steve/Dustin stuff had charm of course. It was downright cute at times. But totally empty, like everything else.

The worst victim is Mrs. Wheeler: from strict, sensible mom to flustered and dewy-eyed over a 17-year-old boy in two seconds flat, which was ten times creepier than those stupid Demodogs. Ugh. Demodogs. If I could erase one thing it would be them. It took a whole year for them to go from large slug to large slug, then three days to go from large slug to large dog. What? And the Demogorgon rules are completely changed! They're attracted to blood not raw meat, and they hunt alone. By the end there's so many they're not even remotely scary anymore. So animated too, and why oh why do they suddenly look like dogs?

Everything is CGI-ed into oblivion. The scope is so wide it loses focus, and then becomes distracted by the increased budget. Sets that used to be practical -- like the Upside Down -- are now CGI, and the effects aren't even good. They're obviously fake. Some effects in season one were fake-looking too, but used carefully and sparingly, for best possible results. The underground tunnels were mostly practical, and worked the best. The Upside Down inside the school was offensively bad. Overall, the locations just don't feel real anymore, and it kills the nostalgia. Everything lost the organic, non-pop-cultured retro feel. And it's intentional, moment by beautiful moment pacing is gone too.

The big mistake that makes room for little mistakes is that the plot was stretched far too thin.

I think I can see where the story was meant to go though -- before it was distracted by its own popularity. And it gets there in the end, more or less; battered, bruised, and all but destroyed, but technically intact. This base plot line is The Shadow Monster, and Will being infected and controlled by it, then, because he's smart, signaling the way to defeat it. Then El is the only one able to complete the task. El and Will were always the most important characters, so it makes sense that they would be done right. Will is basically the main character now, and shines impressively. He, and the plot he's the center of, spurs all things actually scary, mysterious or strange this season succeeds in.

El almost fails, because she isn't needed until the end, and they take their sweet time getting to her important development. Her relationship with Hopper was bursting with potential, but reduced to the angst-y rebellious teenager and overly-protective father cliche without reasonable explanation. Finally in episode 7 she gets all her good development in a rush. Not a great idea since she's the most fascinating character, and deserves gradual development in a constant spotlight, but at least it was true to her character. She runs away to explore her dark side, but her love for her friends and the truths she learned from them keeps her from falling away, and brings her back, more powerful than ever.

If you think episode 7 should be skipped, I don't know how else to put this: you're WRONG.

Straying from the formula and from Hawkins in episode 7 was the one risk the Duffers took, and for some reason it's the only criticism they're getting from the squealing fans. But El's development there, along with the main Shadow Monster plot line are the only things to save the show from total disaster. It's short and simplified, but on a base level, is all good stuff, and when it's being actively implemented, the show is genuinely good. Not quite incredible or mind-blowing, but good. And whenever characters touch it, they thrive again -- briefly, but without fail. Away from it, the directionless, bloated mess drags them down.

I could go on for twice as long, but suffice to say I was disappointed. The show copies its old self with a cut-and-paste method, and the degraded quality shows painfully. In fleeting moments it matches up and becomes glorious again, but then, like one of Will's visions, it vanishes away. It isn't terrible, granted. But I'm struggling to find anything worthwhile in it that isn't done better in season 1. It's not even scary. The characters are betrayed and forced to be stereotypes. The mood is dishonest, and the emotion clouded with insincere self-reference. The writing and production has dwindled away from immaculate to forgettable and nonsensical.

This photo reflects my disappointment.

Call me a snob if you must, but this is Stranger Things! It used to be jaw-dropping; a gorgeous medley of fear, charm, mystery, and wonder, created with impressive care and devotion. It paid homage to classic films, and rebuilt them into a new, original creature. That tiny little 80's scifi adventure has affected big-budget blockbusters. It has boldly proved that passionate, quality entertainment is still the best commodity. A mere year later, it fails to live up to its own influential standard. It barely even lives up to its title.

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