Stranger Things 2 is a great example of a safe sequel. It’s good, and whenever Sean Astin is on screen it flirts with being great.
But it’s good without trying anything new. It wears a mask of novelty that hides how utterly derivative it is. Being derivative isn’t inherently a bad thing, but unlike the first season, which paid tribute to a bevy of 80’s properties, the second season references the first. Again. And again. And again. Never to the point that it feels boring, but enough that it feels safe. Too safe. And that’s never more apparent than with the nerd analogy.
We’re getting into spoilers from here on, so finish the season before you continue.
Stranger Things season 1 relied on the tried and true method of bookend storytelling to create a cohesive theme. It opens and ends with Mike, Dustin, Lucas, and Will playing through a session of Dungeons & Dragons. This also establishes their nerd analogy for the season: D&D, and RPGs in general.
The group of kids attempt to understand the traumatic and dangerous situations that unfold in Season 1 by creating an analogy to the pastime they engage in. They even classify themselves this way: Eleven is referenced several times as “the mage.” They understand the Upside Down as a fantasy plane within their game. And most famously, the name the creature that has terrorized the town after their D&D boss monster, the demogorgon.
This analogy served a greater purpose than comedic effect. It allows the audience to understand the boy’s actions and motivations. It draws a connective line between the audience and the protagonists, and the consistency helps keep everything straight.
At first, Season 2 seems to do the same thing. Dustin frantically searches for quarters as the kids run to the arcade, another staple of ’80s “nerd” culture. Dig Dug, Centipede, and Dragon’s Lair are all mentioned by name and seen. Episode 5 is even called “Dig Dug.”
And that’s it. That is the last time those things are used to any explicit degree. They are referenced in subtle ways: the demodogs become many from one like in Centipede, the kids literally go underground to defeat the monsters like in Dig Dug, and Dustin is unable to woo Max, i.e. “win” the “princess,” like in Dragon’s Lair.
But the arcade thematic, the idea of players, points, reaction speeds, or supporting the current player (as opposed to a group effort) are not used. The group doesn’t use this connective idea to understand the unfolding plot, and therefore provide a unifying idea for the audience.
And that could have been OK. The kids are older now, and they’ve been through the stress of the previous year. It makes sense that they wouldn’t rely on a “childish” analogy to understand things.
Except the kids did still need one. And they did still reference it. It became very important later on, to provide an analogy for the viral nature of the creature. And that analogy was Dungeons & Dragons.
While thoroughly entertaining to hear Dustin explain mind-flayers to the older kids and adults (it’s worth the watch to hear Sheriff Hopper suggest throwing fireballs), this analogy was already used. We’ve been through this before. It’s fun, but not new. And had they decided to continue using D&D as the connector, essentially paralleling the plot to a new campaign every season, that might have been OK.
But they didn’t. Instead, they push Ghostbusters, and the in-fighting between the group as they argue over which character they are. Dustin builds a trap, they talk about streams, etc. Then there’s Mad Max, the newest member of their group. Again, a chance for them to use an existing fiction to make metatextual commentary. A chance that, by the end, is lost.
Instead, Season 2 ends with the Snowball Dance, a reference to the first season, and Mike’s desire to take Eleven, and show her at least one normal day. But the dance has no significance to Season 2. It comes out of nowhere, and creates some cute character development between Dustin and Nancy, Mike and Eleven, and Lucas and Max.
As cute as it may be, it creates no sense of continuity of theme. Season 1 used this continuity to great effect, and while that doesn’t need to be replicated part for part, it should have been replaced with something something. Instead, we were given piecemeal of old and new ideas.
To keep things fresh for Season 3, Stranger Things would be served to continue using this connective idea. But they need something new, something different. They need to take a risk. There’s no end to the ’80s properties that could be used: TV/toy series like Transformers, G.I. Joe, Voltron, movies like Back to the Future, Indiana Jones, or the ’80s horror flicks, or even music, as the kids tastes grow and change.
In any case, the show needs to be willing to take risks. They’ve proved themselves to audiences; we’re not going anywhere. So be willing to try something new, and keep us surprised.