Stranger Things 2 hits Netflix this weekend, so chances are good that your weekend plans, like mine, consist of:
1) Stranger Things 2
2) eating and sleeping at some point, probably
Unlike the first season of Stranger Things—which quietly appeared on the streaming service, then grew into a cultural juggernaut—this season is arriving with fanfare and hype, all of it promising what worked the first time around: a weird, fun, ’80s-set series that mashes up horror, sci-fi, drama, and comedy. With Stranger Things’ first season, creators the Duffer Brothers captured something addictive and memorable, though it’s hard to nail down what. Stranger Things swiped its story from Spielberg’s E.T., borrowed its outcast kids from Stephen King’s It and Stand by Me, and lifted its moody, synth-driven creep-outs from John Carpenter. The show felt new, even if its bones were old; at each turn, the Duffer Brothers balanced retro (kids listening to the Clash!) with contemporary (CGI monsters and drawn-out, mystery-based storytelling!). It felt both fresh and nostalgic.
Commodifying nostalgia isn’t anything new—Hollywood’s been doing it for the past decade. So far, America’s 10 biggest box-office hits of 2017 are nearly all sequels, remakes, adaptations, or franchise entries, with each relying on audiences’ affection for earlier entertainments. Beauty and the Beast. Wonder Woman. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Spider-Man: Homecoming. It. Despicable Me 3. Logan. The Fate of the Furious. The Lego Batman Movie. So far, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is the only original film in that top 10—and it’ll get bumped off by the upcoming sequels Thor: Ragnarok, Justice League, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
In an age of aggressively replicated entertainment, part of what made Stranger Things so welcome was that it felt complete. In eight episodes, the Duffer Brothers told stories that began, intensified, and ended.
That’s not to say some of those rehashes aren’t or won’t be good: Logan and Wonder Woman served as welcome jolts to the superhero genre, and it’ll be fascinating to see what former indie directors Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople) and Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) will do with Thor and Star Wars. But retreads aren’t usually so intriguing—while Stranger Things was smart enough to bake nostalgia into its narrative, nostalgia’s usually just a marketing tool. What’s a sequel or remake if not an exploitation of audiences’ warm, fuzzy memories of the original?
Yet in an age of aggressively replicated entertainment, part of what made Stranger Things so welcome was that it felt complete. In eight episodes, the Duffer Brothers told stories that began, intensified, and ended: the wary adoption of a pint-size science experiment, Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), by a trio of D&D nerds. The shuffling weariness of Hop (David Harbour), a small-town cop rediscovering long-lost purpose. The axe-wielding intensity of Joyce (Winona Ryder), who stopped at nothing to find her lost son. Along the way, there was John Hughes-style teen romance and X-Files-worthy conspiracies, and then—with an actual ending—it all wrapped up. If it weren’t for a few tacked-on teasers at the end of the first season’s final episode, audiences would’ve thought Stranger Things was done—a satisfying, self-contained story, with its talented creators ready to move on to newer, and hopefully even stranger, things.
But they didn’t. So Stranger Things 2 is in a weird spot. Sure, everyone wants to know what’s up with those Eggos in the woods, and if anybody’s gonna puke up any more of those mouth-slugs. But an even bigger question is if Stranger Things will work as an ongoing series—if the first season’s perfect blend of old and new can continue when Stranger Things itself no longer feels new. Let’s hope so, since the Duffer Brothers are already talking about Stranger Things 3 and Stranger Things 4. Going back to the well, after all, is what nostalgia’s all about. And it’s how franchises are made.