TV Review: Stranger Things 2.01 "MADMAX"


SYNOPSIS: As the town preps for Halloween, a high-scoring rival shakes things up at the arcade, and a skeptical Hopper inspects a field of rotting pumpkins.

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REVIEW: Last year, Stranger Things came out of nowhere and blew audiences away. As an early fan of the show, I sang it's praises and tried to convince everyone I could to watch it. Today, the second season of Netflix's pop culture phenomenon hits the streaming service and word of mouth is no longer necessary. But, like any good sequel, Stranger Things had a lot to live up to. The good thing is, patient and die hard fans of The Duffer Brothers homage to the 1980s will find a lot to love in the sophomore run of the drama. But, they have to be patient. Where the first season kicked off with a bang with the disappearance of Will Byers, season two starts out with a much more mellow episode that catches us up with where our main characters are one year after their journey to the Upside Down. A lot has changed in Hawkins, Indiana but there is a lot that is still the same. Taken individually, the premiere episode of Stranger Things 2 is probably not what a lot of viewers expected but that is not necessarily a bad thing.

"MADMAX" picks up 352 days since Eleven disappeared. Dustin and Lucas seem to be the most adjusted following their exploits the previous year with the group focused on setting records at the local arcade on games like Dragon's Lair and Dig Dug. They soon find that their high scores have been replaced by someone bearing the name MADMAX and they eventually find out it is the new girl in town, Max, whom both boys become infatuated with. We don't learn much about Max aside from the fact she is a bit of a tomboy and her older, mulletted brother is not her favorite person. Taken by the perspective of Dustin and Lucas, things seem to be pretty normal in Hawkins, but that is not the case for other characters, especially Will. Throughout the episode, we see that the visions of the Upside Down that Will started experiencing in the season one finale have gotten worse. At the arcade, at school, and even at home during a sequence that is a clear homage to CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, Will begins seeing horrific visions of the Upside Down featuring a massive creature that makes the Demogorgon look like a kitten.

Mike is also having a tough time after losign Eleven. His mother mentions he has been plaigarizing tests, defacing property, and stealing from his sister. All the while, Mike sits in the basement and keeps his walkie talkie tuned to a station, waiting for Eleven to return. It is sad but also demonstrative of the strong bond Mike formed with the mysterious Eleven, one we all know will be a big factor in this second season. Barb also plays a significant role in the story, but more as a spectre. Nancy and Steve are still going strong, the chagrin of Jonathan, and visit the parents of the late Barb who are convinced she is not dead. Having hired a conspiracy theorist reporter named Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman), they are hopeful their child will return to them. This is difficult for Nancy to face knowing the truth but they power though.

We also see that the burgeoning romance between Hopper and Joyce Byers never came to fruition. Joyce is now dating the milquetoast Bob Newby (Sean Astin), a childhood classmate who owns a local Radio Shack. Bob seems harmless but poses a barrier between Joyce and Hopper. Despite Bob, the pairing of Joyce and Hopper are serving as protectors for Will as they take him to the Department of Energy facility, now run by Dr. Owens (Paul Reiser). Reiser plays a much more friendly and approachable character than Matthew Modine's Brenner, but we also see that he is still investigating the Upside Down for undisclosed reasons. A soldier is seen entering the gateway at the facility and burning the pod-like mass that is there. Does this mean that Owens is truly the friend he purports to be or is there a more sinister motive behind his actions? The scale of this episode already feels much larger than anything last season, especially with the opening scene set in Pittsburgh where we see a crew of thiefs escaping from the police. One of the women demonstrates the same abilities as Eleven and has a tattoo of 008 on her wrist. The Duffers promised the scale would get bigger this year and with just that one scene they show how wide-ranging this story is going to be.

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But what about Eleven, you say? Well, after investigating a bizarre crime where an entire pumpkin patch is decimated by some sort of blight, we follow Hopper home. His paranoia seems to still be at the height it was as season one ended but a wave of relief comes when we see the food he left for Eleven in the woods has resulted in the cop taking on a parental role for the girl. Her hair grown in and her love of waffles as strong as ever, it is nice to see these two characters engaging in a father-daughter relationship. It also shows how, one year later, everyone has moved forward with their lives even if they have not moved on. The overall mystery inherent to Stranger Things this season is the same as it was in the previous one: The Upside Down. What is the horrific dimension and what does the government really want to use it for? While this show is rooted in Stephen King and Steven Spielberg, you can also draw a paralle to the Harry Potter franchise in that Stranger Things is following the same group of kids in a successive year as they deal with new problems that all return back to an overarching narrative that connects each season.

Stranger Things 2 is a fitting name for this as it feels like another volume rather than another chapter. But, both King and Spielberg shied away from sequels because it is hard to replicate an original idea. Stranger Things 2 feels like more of the same thing we got last year with new characters and a lot more period references. It almost feels like the 80s callbacks are more in your face this year as a result of the fan connection to the nostalgia of the show. But, I am confident that the season as a whole will be as rewarding and fun as last year. There are enough questions posed in this first episode that it doesn't feel like the Duffer Brothers are hitting us over the head with exposition and I laud their decision to drop us into the story as if it continued without us for an entire year. Will fans be disappointed with this episode? Some will but everyone who is willing to invest in this second season will find something new (and a lot of old) to love.

Next on Stranger Things: 2.02 "Trick or Treat, Freak" - After Will sees something terrible on trick-or-treat night, Mikewonders if Eleven is still out there. Nancy wrestles with the truth about Barb.

Source: JoBlo.com



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