The following review does not contain major spoilers for the second season of Stranger Things.
Life on Mute
by ETHAN PETERSON
Stranger Things 2
creators The Duffer Brothers
It would be nice of everyone involved with Stranger Things 2 to offer a cut of this limited series without the non-original music. The aural shitposting in this dull sequel to the brilliant original becomes overwhelming somewhere during the eighth rendition of a Duran Duran track that, I’m sorry, was not very good to begin with. The incessant period soundtrack is all the more disappointing and generic-sounding because the original music, composed by Michael Stein and Kyle Dixon of Survive, is so much better than the trash that horrendous decade emitted from its orifices. But whatever. Maybe that is the least of the problems in this meandering return to Hawkins, Indiana.
New this season is Max (Sadie Sink), a fetching redhead at the school where Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Will (Noah Schnapp) spend most of their time moping. Once these boys used to play Dungeons & Dragons and go on adventures. With the onset of early puberty, everything has turned to shit. Fuck Jim Croce, Duran Duran, Ted Nugent, Al Casey, Dan Quayle, Roy Orbison, Pat Benatar and Olivia Newton-John. Fuck The Police.
Time is also out of joint for Mike’s sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer). Nancy is already beginning to look like her mother; her fresh-faced joie de vivre has pretty much entirely vanished. She spends most of her time complaining to her sometimes boyfriend Steve (Joe Keery), who has given up his college ambitions in order to enter his father’s business. Hawkins is the saddest town in the world, and unlike the sonorous mystery of the original, here the main question is whether Will, who returned from the upside-down at the end of last season, will be able to sleep through the night.
Winona Ryder has, for some reason, entered into a passionate relationship with Bob (Sean Astin). Astin is meant to bring us conjoined memories of The Goonies (Fuck The Goonies); instead he and Ryder have all the natural chemistry of a frog inside a shoplifted handbag. Ryder in particular is given almost nothing to work with this season. At least last time out she was believably concerned, driven to find her missing son. Now she is completely aimless, and financially provided for by a man who looks like a lugwrench.
It is kinda weird that Stranger Things 2 focuses so much on the romantic aspect of the show, because that is exactly the kind of material the Duffer brothers cannot write, like at all, even if you gave them a million pages. First of all, love between middle schoolers ain’t exactly the most fertile territory to begin with, and high school ardor is barely better.
When Nancy drunkenly tells Steve how little she cares for him and that their relationship is bullshit, the show just has her pretend her subconscious was doing the talking. That way she is not actually a functional character, but simply a Mary-Sue-esque projection of what men require from their women. At one point I thought if I saw Nancy in one more turtleneck I was going to scream.
Stranger Things distinguished itself in the way it wrote believable and meaningful storylines for young people, brought to life by a substantial and broad cast of child actors. All that is still present, although the acting of Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) is clunky and poor overall. Stranger Things 2 could have used a whole lot more imagination regarding what young people actually feel and think. The boys of this story are either bracingly mature and completely naive, sometimes within the same scene. Mostly it is hard to tell, because the Duffer brothers are focused on the more pandering, comedic side of what they created.
Well, that was all a mistake. Instead of a generic shadow monster, they had a chance to actually make something that blended horror with a realism of time and place that added to, rather than subtracted from that intrinsic aesthetic. Instead, Stranger Things 2 is a watered-down retread of the first, chock full of the fan service that should have only come after they ran through their original ideas. Or did they have any in the first place?
Ethan Peterson is the reviews editor of This Recording.