Reeling it in: Make time for ‘Stranger Things’

“Stranger Things 2”


There’s no denying that, over the last 10 years or so, television has improved by leaps and bounds. Even mediocre TV today is better than some of what used to pass for hits in the ’70s and ’80s.

The problem is, who has time to watch all this great content? If I hear that a movie is great, it’s not a huge deal to carve out a couple of hours and give it a try. But these new series, even limited as they are, sometimes run 12 hours in length. That’s a big commitment. And that’s just for the eight- to 10-episode shows like “Game of Thrones” or some of the stuff on Netflix.

There’s still stuff on network running 20 episodes, and what about all those series you’ve yet to catch up on? Every media provider is now creating brand new content, from Hulu to Amazon — next we’ll hear that Frigidaire and Xerox are jumping into the game.

That is to say that, no matter how often I hear that a show is great, whether it’s “Orange is the New Black,” “Veep,” or the latest British mystery about a WWI-era vicar solving a series of cobblestone murders, I only have so much time. Which is why my recommendation that you set aside eight hours to check out the latest season of Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” is both ironic and not to be ignored.

If you missed out on “Stranger Things,” the first time around, you should probably start there. Netflix releases their programming all at once, so it’s a simple matter of finding the first episode and just working your way through them.

I’m going to assume those of you worried about spoilers will have stopped reading at this point, so I can sum up the first season thusly. A bunch of kids in the 1980s rescue their friend from a nightmare alternate dimension with the help of a bull-headed cop, a psychic tween, and Wynona Ryder. That’s basically the gist of the show, and it’s great.

Showrunners the Duffer Brothers have created the perfect aesthetic with this series, brilliantly epitomizing 1980s pop culture without succumbing to the challenges often faced by that era’s genre entertainment — i.e., bad writing and rudimentary special effects. I loved “Stranger Things,” so I was thrilled to hear they were making another season.

This time around, the show returns to the town of Hawkins where, in the aftermath of the bloody climax of the last season, everyone is walking on egg shells. Ryder’s character, Joyce, is nervous to let her just recently recovered son, Will, out of her sight. Psychic El has escaped from the Upside Down and is now living in hiding with police chief Hopper. And the AV Club is trying to get back to normal, but tensions run high. If you don’t know the show, that won’t make a lot of sense, but suffice it to say, things are on edge.

Things go from bad to worse, however, when a bunch of farmers start showing up with ruined crops. Their fields are poisoned, but is it a malicious neighbor, the weather, or is something going on over at the creepy Hawkins Laboratory, where all this mess started in the first place? One thing’s for certain, nothing stays quiet for long in Hawkins.

I notice that IMDb lists this show kind of as a whole instead of as two separate entities. Where that might work fine for “Seinfeld,” “Stranger Things 2” is very much a sequel, in the best tradition of 80s sequels. You can draw a direct line from “Aliens” and “Terminator 2” to these nine episodes.

In the first “Stranger Things,” there was one monster, and he was really scary, and barely seen. The sequel, on the other hand, features dozens of that first monster, the Demigorgon, all of them in thrall to a larger, shadowy evil that seems more insurmountable than before. This monster, the shadow creature, even kind of looks like the Alien queen from James Cameron’s hit “Alien” sequel.

There are returning characters and new characters, and no one is necessarily safe. And, much like the 80s literature that this series also draws from, there are tangents and diversions that don’t always go where you think they will.

Part of what makes this series so successful is that it manages to homage the 80s so perfectly, without depending on mere technical tricks. The opening credits look like they are copies off of VHS, and it’s cool, but that’s the only time the filmmakers pull a Tarantino and settle for mimicry.

Instead, this show gets to heart of everything 80s pop culture was trying to achieve, and does it as well as it could be done. “Stranger Things,” parts 1 and 2, are the best Stephen King adaptations, and they don’t come from anything Stephen King wrote. Everything, from the action and horror, to the interpersonal relationships feels both right and immensely entertaining.

It probably doesn’t hurt that I am the exact age of the characters in this show. In 1984, I was 11. I had a bike like these kids do, and I imagined myself on the kinds of adventures these kids actually go on.

Netflix’ show is a huge hit, and rightly so. I don’t have time for all the new TV out there, but “Stranger Things” is one I definitely made time for.

Grade: A

“Stranger Things 2” is unrated, but contains frightening creature violence and some language. It would definitely be PG-13.

Chris Jenness is an art teacher, freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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