When does a meme die? Or if not die, at least grow stale, recurrent, tiresome? It can happen awfully quickly, passing around the Internet and proliferating until some kind of critical mass has been reached in mere days or hours. We chew on and degrade things with alarming speed, which is why Stranger Things 2 movie — as the second season of Netflix’s smash hit sci-fi show is insisting we see it — has such a struggling, perhaps impossible, task set before it.
Stranger Things first season of the show, from the Matt and Ross Duffer brothers by way of a zillion old-school sci-fi and fantasy titles, was a surprising pleasure, an unexpected summer phenomenon that cleverly trod a tricky path between cute and cloying. The main kids of the show — Finn Wolfhard, Caleb McLaughlin, Gaten Matarazzo, Noah Schnapp and especially Millie Bobby Brown — turned into near-instant viral stars, the novelty toasts of town. The buzz machine worked loud and fast. Too loud and too fast, perhaps. At some point last year, I sort of forgot that I actually loved the first season of the show, that it was charming and evocative and delivered a rare kind of decency. Instead Stranger Things got memed into an irritation—a quite real danger of loving something in this content-flood time.
That has a major effect on Stranger Things’s second season, which is available on Netflix from October 27. Picking up a year after what’s left after last season—which found an inter-dimensional monster, a telekinetic young girl, and bunch of scrappy kids with a few scrappy adults working to save the day — Season 2 sees our heroes got older, perhaps wiser, and definitely more self-aware. Eleven, the poked and pushed experiment subject portrayed by Brown, has been gone after using her powers to defeat a monster. Her geeky friends all miss her, especially Mike (Wolfhard), but they are also happy to see their friend Will (Schnapp) returning safely to their group. Though the finale of the last season implied that not all is right with poor, sensitive, moon-eyed Will. And indeed it is not. He’s gay!
No, I’m just kidding. (Though there is some subtextual, allegorical stuff one could use to support that claim.) What’s wrong with Will is that he’s still connected to the scary Upside Down dimension he was trapped in last season. He finds himself having hallucinations or visions of some approaching darkness, one he’s both petrified of and inexplicably drawn to. And so everyone, kids and grown-ups, is dragged back into a journey of sorts, calling on knowledge of nerdy arcana — and handful of small-town, blue-collar gumption — to sort things out. Like last season, only weighted by a year’s worth of anticipation.
Which isn’t fatal to the show. Stranger Things 2 is still captivating from the beginning to the end — Netflix graciously made the entire nine-episode season available to critics — and shows plenty of wonderful performances. Even though the early-mid-80s world of the series is probably a bit too over-articulated this season, things still look great, all earth-toned, autumnal, and wistful, in their way. The plot featuring the older kids, played charmingly by Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, and an underused Joe Keery, is sweet and satisfying, a great continuation of a narrative from the first season that doesn’t depend too much on the clichés of its characters.
I suppose that’s because the bulk of the cliché comes in the form of the younger boys. McLaughlin’s Lucas and Matarazzo’s Dustin get more screen-time this time around — Lucas falls for a cool tomboy new to school, Max (played by the flawlessly named Sadie Sink), while Dustin takes in a dangerous pet, and pines after Max himself. It’s nice for the actors that they get a little more screen time. But after a year of having these ragamuffins paraded in front of our face, I wasn’t entirely anticipated to spend more time with them. Same for Eleven, who, no, is not dead, and who goes on a journey into the past in this season, finding a new punk-rock rebel style in the process. Okay, sure; yay for the kids growing up and kicking butt. But it’s nearly impossible to be as enamored of these characters as the show expects us to be. They’re not iconic; they’re just kids.
I won’t spoil any more of the mystery of Season 2, but I will have to say that much of it plays like a lukewarm rehash, with a bit more red meat thrown in to make for the mustiness. It’s a classic sequel form, really. There are actually some welcome inventions — especially in casting Paul Reiser as a kindly government scientist, a neat counterbalance to Matthew Modine’s rival from last season. But for the most part, the show just repeats itself, making Stranger Things Season 1 another of its reference points, joining the likes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Aliens, and Jurassic Park, all drawn into this season.
Yet the trouble is, Stranger Things still hasn’t earned canonization the way those hallowed properties have — so the second season’s self-regard lands poorly; it’s premature. Having the great David Harbour and Winona Ryder do the same desperate shtick from the first season and hoping we’ll affectionately say, “Oh, right, remember?” doesn’t really work when the thing only aired last year, and when the series has been ubiquitously joked about and parodied since. This is a common threat, but it’s especially concentrated here, this feeling that the show exhausted itself after its own success.