Stranger Things is back with a second season that isn't just better than the first, but one that manages to correct the show's overly-aggressive nostalgia problem.
When Season 1 of The Duffer Brother's genre mashup was first released in July 2016, it was to little fanfare. That's certainly not the case for Season 2; after becoming the breakout TV hit of 2016, Netflix's headline series returns as a bonafide cultural phenomenon. Now, the show became so big in no small part thanks to the first season being a genuinely enjoyable eight hours of televsion, although in the fifteen months of hype since we may have lost sight of some of its damaging flaws.
One of the major selling points of the first season (before word-of-mouth kicked in and everyone realized it was just plain good) was the 1980s nostalgic mixtape aspect; this wasn't just a show set in the 80s, it was a show set in pop culture's 80s. The visuals, the music, the opening titles and even the writing felt straight out of Stephen King/Speilberg. More than that, though, Stranger Things was full of overt references and callbacks to the media its audience grew up with. Some of it was in-universe - a reference to X-Men comic here, a The Thing poster there - but a good amount was within the text itself: homage.
Now, homage is a very powerful creative tool that, done right, can elevate a film, show, book, game or other. Star Wars and the entire work of Quentin Tarantino wouldn't exist without the repurposing of ideas and images (and that's nothing of how Pixar and The Simpsons adopt classic cinema to the point it becomes funny in a new context). Closer to Stranger Things, It Follows is a new-age Halloween, which was itself taking liberally from giallo and Psycho. Crucially, what all those examples have is the offer of something more. They're not just replaying what came before, they're twisting or evolving it to tell a new story. The same couldn't quite be said of Stranger Things 1.
Stranger Things' Season 1's Nostalgia Mistake
Of course, Stranger Things' astute nostalgia awareness made it immediately accessible, but the deeper you got, the more the show seemed to fall back on simply calling out famous scenes of a fondly-remembered movie and hoping audience enthusiasm would carry it forward. Will trying to burst through the wall a la Poltergeist/Nightmare on Elm Street, the Demogorgon's Alien-esque facehugger, the constant hammering that Eleven is an E.T. parallel; they were all more reference than they were Stranger Things moment. It's a strange mixture of metatextuality and text, one that never felt fully in tune; there's a massive difference in effect between embracing a 1980s setting with nods to pop culture by the characters and trying to remake said pop culture in the media itself.
Things reached their epoch in Season 1's seventh episode. Eleven flipping the CIA truck over the boys on their bikes should have been the series' defining moment, but because the entire sequence around it was so clearly aping E.T.'s chase scene - and this section specifically the film's most striking image of the flying bikes - it felt little more than derivative. The whole run was full of relatable characters and a believable world, yet often when trying to pay things off we just got a redo of something we saw decades ago. You can bring to mind Stand By Me all you want, but if you're simply showing friends on a journey along train tracks without taking it to any formed conclusion - Stand By Me was all about the permutability of friendship - then it's not enough.
This lack of substance to individual moments grew to hurt the greater whole. Stranger Things 1 at first presents itself as a mystery drama: where is Will, where does Eleven come from, what is the facility? Those questions drove the plot forward. The immediate suggestion is that Will is in an alternate dimension and Eleven came from the facility that was involved in telekinetic experimentation akin to MK Ultra. The twist? There isn't one: Will was in an alternate dimension, Eleven was from the facility and they were experimenting with telekinesis. The only subversion of expectation was that instead of being akin to MK Ultra, it was just straight up MK Ultra. The entire plot, even the parts not clearly lifted for cult sources, was predictable from Episode 2, but the show acted like it was always hiding something.
You can say the throwbacks are a distraction to this, or that they're the point and the narrative is purposely obvious because it's just filler, but either way it wasn't a harmonious flow. Stranger Things was a remix of things you knew, but never quite did enough to fully stand by itself; look at how its biggest meme - Justice for Barb - came from the mocking of a fundamental oversight.
Don't take this as a damning takedown of the first year. As already stated, it was overall pretty good - you don't become an unexpected smash without getting multiple things right - and nailed a lot in terms of feel. Its wonderful characters and world were simply underserved by these showcase moments. Thankfully, Season 2 doesn't just address this, it adds so much more.