This week the Screen Junkies team returned from a month of crisis following sexual harassment allegations against Andy Signore, and they released a parody trailer for Stranger Things. In the trailer, the overriding argument is that the show is basically nostalgia porn, a program hand-crafted for 40-somethings to relive their childhood. It’s funny, as they say, because it’s true.
I recently finished watching the second season of Stranger Things, and I can’t say my view has improved since I dismissed the show last year as hollow. Indeed, my view of season two, or, in the show’s too precious formulation, Stranger Things 2: Electric Boogaloo (I’m kidding about the “Electric Boogaloo” part, but not the number), could be ripped word-for-word from my review of season one:
I enjoyed watching the show while it was on, but the minute it ended it sort of decomposed back into its component parts, and no real core remained. I’m sure in a month I won’t remember whether a particular image or scene came from this show, E.T., or a Stephen King novel.
OK, so I’m 36 now, and the current season is set when I was 3, in 1984, but the rest is pretty much the same. In the new season, the Duffer Brothers have flattened the story and removed much of the vague sense of wonder and mystery that lurked around the edges of the first. Inspired by 1980s movie sequels, the sequel series basically demands that we be familiar with—and remember in detail—the previous season for it to make any sense whatsoever. To that end, the characters undergo no development, no growth, and no enrichment—excepting the character of Steve, necessitated by the producers’ desire to give the actor a more heroic story than originally planned. We know them no better at the end of the second season than we did when the first started.
Worse, for a series whose entire purpose in the first season was to treat the psychic Carrie/Firestarter/E.T. fusion Eleven’s relationship with the young boys she befriends as the heart of the show, the second season instead sent her off on her own bizarre side-quest, and keeps the cast separated to the point that the conclusion of the series feels less like a season finale than it does the closing scene of the first act of an ’80s sequel, when the gang gets back together and the real action starts. Indeed, the villainous monster—the same as last year’s—barely suffered more than a minor setback and the entire season served up little more than setup for the inevitable third series.
Ultimately, what bothers me about Stranger Things is the disconnect between the extreme care put into the production of the show, from casting to wardrobe to set design (just look at the effort that went into the opening titles), and the flatness, shallowness, and superficiality of the narrative. It is entertaining but hollow, an evocation less of either the real 1980s (which I but barely remember) or even the cultural experience of 1980s pop culture as it is an overly detailed recreation of watching old ’80s movies on TV and loving them as an evocation of a distant, partially unknowable time when the world seemed more mythic because it exists just beyond memory
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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