Binge watch–Is the second season of Stranger Things better than the first?

Review by C.J. Bunce

First of all, let’s be clear:  For goodness sake don’t read anything anywhere about this new season of Stranger Things if you haven’t seen it yet.  Pin this and come back when you have.

There are many problems with shows that drop at once as with the Netflix original series (other channels have done this as well).  For simple discussion purposes, whether you’re on social media, whether you’re a critic or commentator, or whatever, you don’t quite know when it’s time to delve into a discussion of a show.  The other thing is that from a cultural standpoint, how many times have you defined a period of your life with reference to a season of a television series?  I grew up as a kid with the networks and a black and white television, followed by the introduction of cable channels and color TV sets.  Much of my memory can be tied to the Magnum, p.i. and Simon & Simon years, the Buffy years, the Voyager years, the Chuck years, etc.  With one-drop seasons that you gobble up in one bite versus savoring over a few months, that kind of life reference may drift away.  Is it important?  Not really, but it’s mildly interesting that we may be in some kind of transitional phase, from a pop culture standpoint.

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Still here?  Let’s chat about Stranger Things, Season Two.

As a lover of all things retro, and an uber fan of John Carpenter movies, I thought the first season of Stranger Things was a great first season.  But I wasn’t convinced it was the real deal–that the Duffer Brothers were going to be able to pull it off again in a second season.  After the anticipation and wait, I couldn’t have been happier with the result–except for one factor, but more on that later.  In fact I think Season Two was better than Season One.  Probably not lots better, but enough that I had more fun with the show this round.

So what did I love about Season Two?

Sean Astin as Bob the Superhero.  From Episode One and the first scene with Sean Astin as AV-expert Bob “the Brain” Newby having a romantic relationship with Winona Ryder’s Joyce Byers, I knew the Duffers nailed it.  Can you imagine thinking back to the days of Ryder and Johnny Depp as a romantic duo, and foreseeing a future where Hollywood would pair Astin and Ryder in a show and the result would be pop culture perfection?  For me Astin made the season, which is why my only major issue with the series was his fate in his final episode.  The stakes for the main cast were handled with a bit of fan service, because none of us wants to lose any of these great characters, especially when we have so few episodes per season to get to know them.  But somehow all of them made it past the Demogorgon and the Shadow Monster and the Demodogs.  Having the leads make it is certainly consistent with many series and films of the 1980s, so I’ll just go with it.  But like Season One and Barb’s fate, now with Bob’s fate in Season Two, you just don’t want to be the innocent, purely good character whose name begins and ends with the letter “B” in season three.  Yep, we should have known this was coming by his last name “Newby.”

Steve Harrington as Season Two’s other hero.  You can almost see the writers room at the beginning of the year.  What can we do to make the jerk of season one into the hero of Season Two?  Happily for viewers, they figured it out, and Joe Keery’s Steve didn’t miss an opportunity all season long, whether it was doing right by Natalia Dyer’s Nancy or mentoring Gaten Matarazzo’s Dustin, facing Demodogs with his bat, or confronting new BMOC Dacre Montgomery’s Billy Hargrove, and taking many bruises for the team throughout the season.  We got a satisfying wrap-up for Billy, but I admit I was hoping he’d get buried in the backyard by the end of the season, along with his stepdad.  But last year’s version of Billy really delivered for fans this time.

Will Byers takes center stage.  Leader of their Party in season one, Finn Wolfhard’s Mike really took a step back to allow the absent Noah Schnapp’s Will Byers to step forward in season two.  And Schnapp proved he’s a young actor who can really act.  The writers gave the character about every emotion this year, and his role allowed Ryder’s role as his mother to shine as well.  Ryder is the best she’s ever been, and when she was fed up with the monster inside her kid we were all cheering her on.  All along Schnapp was making up for his lack of screentime last year.  And what a role for a young actor!

Eleven and Sheriff Hopper confront their pasts.  Early on it seemed like it was going to be difficult to like David Harbour’s Sheriff Hopper again.  It was a bit creepy–hiding this young teenager out in the woods for 300+ days, and he was pretty unlikable, despite his good intentions, constantly berating Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven.  But as a set up for Eleven to meet her mother, get her name back, and meet her sister, to return to save the day in the end?  That’s the recipe for satisfying television.

Dustin stays true to himself.  Dustin was probably written as the most interesting of the younger kids this season.  He alone brought Steve Harrington into the guts of the show.  And although Mike and Eleven got together and Caleb McLaughlin’s Lucas linked up with newcomer Sadie Sink’s Mad Max, Dustin (sort of) ends up with Nancy Wheeler?  How great was that?  His character didn’t veer from his goofy tiger growl to his loyalty to a strange new pet to going for it and taking Steve’s advise with the hair goo.  Nancy saving the day at the winter dance was priceless.  Dustin deserved a good ending.

So what were the best scenes of the season?  For me nothing was better than Sean Astin’s Bob taking us back to his moment in The Goonies with his “What’s at the X?  Pirate treasure?” reference.  A close second is Bob and Sheriff Hopper underground as they simply acknowledged each other after the Sheriff’s rescue–“Hey, Bob,”–in that kind of awkward exchange only a couple guys can do.  And then there was Bob completely going with the strangeness of Will’s tunnel art draping nearly every part of Joyce’s house, and his revelation that he knew what it all meant as the others remained puzzled.  Yes, Sean Astin really made Season Two (and it will go down as a fantastic Samwise Gamgee-level role for his career, no doubt), although the story, the episodes, the characters, the writing, and the music were all superb.  And not only were the background themes nicely John Carpenter-esque, but how about those plentiful pop songs?  Normally inclusion of a barrage of pop tunes means a weak story, but not so here–it only added to the great retro vibe–and what a great selection to define the era!

Was this a perfect season of TV?  I don’t think so, but it was certainly excellent, and Stranger Things will be in contention for best series in our year-end wrap-up here at  Episode Seven really slowed down the momentum of the series, although it was also necessary to get Eleven engaged in the story–when you only get nine episodes it leaves little room for a one-off diversion trip to Chicago episode.  But with the 1980s Steven Spielberg sense of wonder that the series conjures, I will take a season like this over pretty much any other series.  It had the same look and feel of its first season, but somehow the characterization was really amped up, the action more exciting, and the tension pretty much perfect.  Stranger Things really has it all, and with a second season that eclipsed the first, it proved it is the real deal.

Stranger Things season two is available now only on Netflix.

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