Spoilers for ‘Stranger Things’ and ‘Stranger Things 2’ Below…
‘Stranger Things’ turned nostalgia into art. The first season of Netflix’s best show (it is, admit it) gave us everything we loved about the 80s (Spielberg! King! Carpenter!) and wrapped it in a nice, little, easy-to-binge, package.
What sets it apart from every other 80s cash-grab are the formal determinations of the work; the child actors are the best in the business, the adults deliver career-defining performances, the music perfectly meshes with the atmosphere of the show, and the cinematography is slick-but-restrained. The show didn’t feel like it loved the 80s as much as it felt like it was made IN the 80s.
Where it turned into art was how it subverted expectations.
Show of hands: who expected to love Steve by the end of the first season? We ALL did. They took the stereotypical crappy boyfriend character and made him a fully-realized, complex human who, surprise-surprise, really loves his girlfriend, admits when he’s wrong, and doesn’t hesitate to run into a building where he KNOWS there’s a giant monster only to grab a bat and knock it in it’s stupid flower head.
Steve’s the best.
Also, who expected Sheriff Hopper to be the smartest, most capable sheriff-and-father figure who listened to (and believed) the crazy kids while finding out he had a tragic backstory that didn’t completely cripple him as a character? NO ONE DID. His first scene, getting ready in the morning, and smoking IMMEDIATELY AFTER BRUSHING HIS TEETH made me hesitant he would be THAT guy. But he wasn’t.
A quick rundown of other possible tropes that didn’t happen: the bad guys did NOT kill everyone after talking to them (after they murdered the owner of the café I was fearing for the kids’ teacher), Nancy’s mom didn’t go insane after finding out her daughter was banging Steve, the deadbeat father went away without a fuss and never pulled a gun, and the best friend Barb died.
So, yeah. ‘Stranger Things’ was excellent. And ‘Stranger Things 2’ was…good. It was pretty good, yeah. But man, were there issues. So, let’s get into five ways ‘Stranger Things 3’ can make sure it doesn’t turn into ‘Orange is the New Black Season 3’ or ‘House of Cards Season Anything After 1.’
1: Focus the Story.
While making the Stranger Things world larger with more characters is necessary, don’t deviate from what drew people in the first place: the characters. The new characters of Bob and Dr. Owens are fantastic — they make the show feel bigger, add more depth to the show and their casting was perfect. Sean Astin IS Bob. And I KNOW I’m not alone in thinking Paul Reiser was going to screw everyone over like he did in “Aliens” only to be pleasantly surprised.
Max was a fantastic addition to the series; adding some realistic drama in the group (bros first, right?) while also giving an outsider’s perspective on the craziness. She adds to everything and doesn’t detract, so she’s good. Her brother, though…hmm…that’s a tougher one.
Remember when I said what made Steve so great in the first ‘season’ was how he defied expectations? Yeah, Billy was mostly just a terrible person. The only moment he became interesting was when he was hitting on Nancy’s mom (that scene is so good I want to buy it dinner). And, you know what? If we’re keeping him around, evolve that relationship — that’s some drama. But having the abusive father, getting his comeuppance — all typical and telegraphed. And since his actions really don’t have that big of an impact with anything else he does. Except for the scene with the mom, he adds nothing, really. You remove him and it doesn’t change how much Max and Lucas hang out, doesn’t change Steve’s actions at all…Billy is a time waster.
And speaking of time wasters…
…we have to talk about 8/Kali and her band of annoying movie-punks. Beginning the season with them made ZERO sense. We know about her RIGHT UP FRONT, so when we find out about her a few episodes later, it means nothing because we’ve been waiting to know more about her for the last 6 hours. And when we finally pick back up with them, it does NOTHING. Yes, Eleven (or Jane, now?) needed to learn to focus her power, but you know what would have been better? Anything.
Here’s something from the top of my head: she’s locked in the cabin, so, let’s say there’s a VCR. She pops in a tape of Empire Strikes back, listens to Yoda and you can cut between Yoda teaching Luke to focus and Eleven doing the same thing. First of all, that fits with the time (they would have watched “The Empire Strikes Back” and we already saw her lifting the Millennium Flacon in the first ‘season’ so it would have been awesome).
Instead, we get an entire episode that disrupts the flow of the narrative in Hawkins and instead introduces a subplot of people we don’t know killing other people we don’t know only to be introduced to another kid Matthew Modine experimented on, only since we don’t know how she was treated, we don’t care. There isn’t one good reason to introduce these elements. Everything else we learned could have been discovered in alternate ways. Pointless.
And while the Kali stuff didn’t fit in terms of thematics, it also didn’t fit, formally…
2: Keep it Real.
Remember when I said ‘Stranger Things’ felt like it came from the 80s? Well, ‘Stranger Things 2’ reached it at TIMES…but overall failed; especially with the Kali stuff. The opening sequence of ‘Stranger Things 2’ didn’t look like it was made in the 80s — it looked like every generic TV show now. Camera moves were too over the top, the color timing was too modern…same with everything in episode 7. Nothing about the Kali stuff felt natural to the 80s. The punks felt like fake movie versions of punks and not real people who existed in that time. When you have a show with demodogs, shadow monsters, and telekinesis, you have to ground everything around it so it doesn’t get too silly.
You know…let’s go back to the color thing for a second…
Maybe I’m crazy, but ‘Stranger Things 2’ seemed WAY more saturated than ‘Stranger Things.’ I know that might seem silly, but when you’re trying to emulate the look and feel of movies shot on film in the 80s, it becomes incredibly important. Tone it down to keep it real.
3 & 4: Get an Antagonist/Fix the Superman Problem.
The bad guy in ‘Stranger Things’ wasn’t the Demogorgon, it was Dr. Brenner. Who’s the antagonist in ‘Stranger Things 2?’ The shadow monster who doesn’t talk? The thing we don’t know anything about except it wants things to die…because…evil? Yeah.
Hell, the demodogs didn’t even show up until half-way through the season, so, they have even less presence than the Demogorgon which means the story has no urgency. Between the Demogorgon who could appear anywhere at any time and Dr. Brenner who was always on the kids’ tails, ‘Stranger Things’ never felt safe; there was always something bad just out of reach that wanted to get the kids. ‘Stranger Things 2’ has no sense of impending doom; we’re just marking time until Eleven gets back to kill everything.
…which leads me to the Superman problem.
Writing a good Superman story is difficult because he’s an invincible character who can juggle planets. He’s TOO strong. Same with Eleven — that’s why she’s out of the game most of ‘Stranger Things 2’ — if she had shown up any earlier, there would be no show. She would have mind-killed the demodogs and found a way to close the portal. And by the time ‘Stranger Things 3’ happens, she’ll be stronger and now in society. So, what to do…
Well, I suggest introducing a character who was part of the experiments Dr. Brenner was conducting — maybe someone who is still working with him. Someone who LIKES the power. Then, cast Michael J. Fox to pay this character. Yes, it’s 1985 “Back to The Future” stunt casting, but it worked with Sean “Goonies” Astin, so screw it. Also, make his unfortunate condition part of the plot…
What if you found out using these abilities actually caused severe harm over time. You can’t bleed from your nose and ears that much and be just FINE, right? So, introduce Michael J. Fox as 002 or something — one of the early test subjects — who has been using his abilities for Brenner but it’s almost cost him his life…and if Eleven keeps using hers, it’ll do the same to her. In fact, after closing the portal, it’s already hurt her and she’s trying to deal with it. That way, when shadow monster comes back, she can’t just close the portal again because if she uses that much power again, she’ll die. Like for REAL die. Not end of ‘Stranger Things’ fake die.
This way, you don’t have to take away her abilities — just make using them cost too much to use.
5: Don't Reference So Hard.
In the first film, the one popular song used was a story point — it was how Will and his brother bonded. It meant something. Besides that, there was mostly the awesome original score.
Now go back and rewatch ‘Stranger Things 2’ and notice how little the score is used (seemingly to me — I might be wrong) and how much pop music is used (especially in the first episode). You don’t have to always play 80s music for us to know we’re in the 80s.
Same with showing signs from the movie theater or the Mr. Mom reference (although Astin’s delivery saved it). Let the world exist, naturally — don’t shove the time period in our face. That’s what crappy nostalgia does.
So, yeah. That’s my rant. I don’t want anyone to misunderstand — I really enjoyed ‘Stranger Things 2’ for the most part. I’ll never watch episodes 1 or 7 again if I can help it (if you start ‘Stranger Things 2’ from episode 2, it works SO much better) but overall, it was good. Honestly, if I didn’t love the show and the characters, I wouldn’t care what they did for ‘Stranger Things 3.’ But come on — let’s keep this show at the level it should be.
Oh, and a post I saw on Reddit said Steve should spend ‘Stranger Things 3’ training to be a deputy in Hawkins. I’m 100% on board with this. Duffer Bros., make it happen.