Season three of Stranger Things due to land on 5th July 2019. So it’s time to take a look back on the previous two seasons of this immensely popular show, now that we have the benefit of hindsight!
Stranger Things is a science fiction / horror mash-up with large slab-like doses of 80s nostalgia and references. Taking in all manner of influences from movies like E.T., the works of Stephen King, and even some modern takes like the evil mirror universe styling of Silent Hill.
Whilst the pop culture references are fun and plentiful, what Stranger Things does so well is take the essence of that investigative child-like glee in movies such as The Goonies, and fuse it into terrifying world ending danger, where (as usual) no-one believes the damn kids.
Writers and showrunners, The Duffer Brothers, reportedly shopped it around several studios before Netflix picked it up. Most studios wanted to shift focus away from the young central cast of children and instead focus on the adults. With the benefit of hindsight it’s difficult to see how this would have worked because the tone of the show relies on the very nature of blending everyday youthful problems (like who to ask to the dance or how to try and be cool), along with falling deeper and deeper into otherworldly peril.
Set in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana, Stranger Things follows the story of four 12 year old Dungeons and Dragons players. In episode one, one of their number disappears without a trace, leading to his mother (played by Winona Ryder) turning to more and more desperate means to find him. Thrown into the mix is a spate of oddly paranormal events, and the mystery surrounding a shaven headed young girl who has escaped from Hawkins Laboratory and has ‘eleven’ tattooed on her arm. We quickly learn she has psychokinetic abilities and is being pursued by people who will stop at nothing to track her down.
Season 1 paces itself perfectly with this set up. Other usual small town characters are introduced (typical douche jocks, popular girls who doubt themselves, a gruff and alcoholic Sheriff) and their sub plots revolve around the central mysteries nicely. And when we do occasionally slip into the eerie ‘otherworld’ the fear and tension is palpable. The show does a great job of making this seem like a dangerous place just on the edge of perception, pushing to break through to our reality. All this culminates in brave feats, accomplished story arcs, plenty of answers (with a few questions held back), and a nail biting climax.
With season 1 such a buzzy hit, season 2 had a lot to live up to. However, when revisiting Hawkins for more of the same there were definitely some issues. These issues are the inherent sort you get from wrapping things up so nicely before. New characters get introduced that don’t gel so well, and the joy of that all shining moment when the gang get together and achieve something wonderful is broken up with our gang going separate ways a lot.
Eleven is in hiding with Sheriff Jim Hopper (David Harbour) and her plot line sends her off to find out about her true family, and meet more people with abilities along the way. However, this feels more like a set of motions that need to be gone through in order to set her up for later action, and her absence from the main group means that they end up descending more into pubescent squabbling rather than investigations. That said, once the action ramps up (devil dogs chase scenes anyone?!) the tension is still edge of your seat stuff.
The young cast provide a mixed blessing as their youth gives the show such verve, but their bickering over childish things can grate somewhat. There is only so many times you can see resident livewire Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) defend looking after his clearly extremely dangerous….thing….that he’s found and not want to yell at the stupidity on display.
But when together they spark off each other wonderfully. Mike (Finn Wolfhard) is the shy ‘de facto leader’ of the group who gets plenty to do in season 1 but is more or less sidelined in season 2. Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) adds more comedy value with his exasperation at Dustin’s foolishness. Breakout star though is clearly Eleven (Mille Bobbie Brown), who performs with a wonderful blend of intensity and vulnerability even when her actual plot lines vary in quality.
Even if season 2 was essentially ‘more of the same but not as good’, Stranger Things is still an excellent show. The 80s nostalgia for the most part is weaved into the fabric with well placed music, references, and tonal nods. It’s like watching an adult horror Goonies with modern sensibilities but a retro setting. As a stand alone show, season 1 is pretty flawless. So it will be fascinating to see where season 3 goes from here because so long as the balance between youthful exuberance and Clive Barker-esque terror is well kept then there is plenty of material left to mine.
Oh, and #JusticeforBarb!
Words by Michael Record