FILM ARTICLE: Stranger Things 2 and The Franchise Pit of Despair!

FADE IN:

INT. CABIN – NIGHT

A ramshackle lodge. We pan across the cluttered floor – empty containers of Eggo’s lay strewn amongst crude drawings of dark monsters. We slow down as we slide up to a bed. A WOMAN lies sleeping, her closed  eyelids fluttering in deep REM sleep.

The cabin door opens violently. Dust motes whip frantically in the stifling room from the recently disturbed surge of air. We’re still low as we see a pair of boots enter the lodge. They move forward, with purpose. A MAN looms over the bed, a gnarled beard belying his middle-aged years. He has piercing, dark eyes. He lays a deferential hand on the WOMAN’S shoulders, stirring her.

MIKE

El?

The WOMAN’s face contorts and she lets out a small moan, as if fighting nightmares away.

MIKE

El…wake up. It’s me…Mike.

ELEVEN’S eyes snap open.

ELEVEN

Papa?

MIKE

It’s not Dr. Brenner, El. He died in series 6, remember?

ELEVEN

Oh God. What series are we on now? How many times do I need to brain-fart to show my nose bleeding in order for you to sort Hawkins out, Mike? What about the Mind Flayer?

MIKE

Don’t you remember, El? We destroyed it in series 4…not before it killed Dustin though…Poor toothless sonofab_t+h Dustin.  The MINDFLAYER gave birth to a BEHOLDER, which opened a time portal,  so we had to battle the DISPLACER BEAST in order to get it closed, but when you bottled that gateway, it threw us all into Medieval England. Don’t you remember? We had a banquet with mouldy turnips and potatoes and Jonathan jousted for Nancy’s love. Poor guy, he never saw Steve coming with that javelin stick embedded with nails….It was around the same time when Lucas and Max married and eloped to France to have kids, but then had to battle the LICH-KING for possession of Will’s eternal soul. That guy never catches a break. I’m actually really surprised he’s still alive.

ELEVEN

That sounds vaguely familiar.

MIKE

But we have to go now, El. Hopper needs our help!

ELEVEN

Didn’t Hopper die in the cliff-hanger of the last episode?

MIKE

He was brought back from the dead! The Cosmic Cube of Immortality?

 ELEVEN

How many times have I used my powers over the years, Mike? You know there’s no such thing as a Cosmic Cube of Immortality.

At this, MIKE steps back. A mirthless grin spreads across his face.

MIKE

Clever girl…

His flesh suddenly tears off to reveal  Bob Newby. All this time, all these battles…it had been Bob all along. CUT TO BLACK

Deep, heavy synthesised music pumps over the black screen – rattling our brains. 

TITLE:

STRANGER THINGS SERIES 8: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO.

…Okay, so the poorly constructed scene above is taking things a tad far, but as a Stranger Things fan I’m worried.

Seriously worried.

stranger things season 2 poster

I’m anxious for several reasons, but the main bugbear I have is that Stranger Things runs the risk of falling into The Franchise Pit of Despair. You know the pit well, dear reader – like the Sarlacc that swallowed up Bobba Fett in Return of The Jedi, The Franchise Pit of Despair has consumed many a film in its time. It began nibbling at the Alien franchise way back when in Alien3, and even to this day occasionally enjoys crunching on its bones and swilling the remnants around in its gaping maw before spitting out a derivative sequel. The Terminator lineage suffered the same fate after T2: Judgement Day and now there’s rumblings that James Cameron will return to the lacklustre series as a Producer and inject some much needed passion and love into the neural-net processor by bringing Linda Hamilton back into the mix. Super Hero films have also suffered severe blows from The Franchise Pit of Despair, recycling the same storyline again and again, simply swapping out cardboard cut-out characters for posterity. One could argue that last year’s Deadpool helped alter this turgid trend with its quirky, 4th wall breaking, self-referential eye-winking at camera – but unfortunately that shift in tone has now also been absorbed osmosis-like into the studio hive mind, as evidenced by the recent Thor: Ragnarok, a movie booming so full of meta-lols, bromancing and chest bumping and appealing to the masses so much that it won’t be long before there’s an Avengers: British Bake Off film, where The Hulk and Black Widow try to impress Paul Hollywood with their best sweet shortcrust pastries.  

For an industry that is majorly dictated by numbers (hey, this is a business, remember?) where budgets are weighed against box office takings, it’s only money that matters. The first series of Stranger Things was a sleeper hit for Netflix and became a cult favourite within the first weekend of its release. Because Netflix sometimes drop their episodes all at the same time rather than weekly trickle-feed into our infant-like bird beaks, it can be hard to estimate just how much revenue the first series generated for them. However, there’s no denying that it’s one of the most popular Netflix original series of all time, with 8.2 million people watching it in its first 16 days. Given its success, it would have been stupid not to bring it back for a second series, and like a lot of other people last weekend, I binged the second series in two days. I laughed. I howled. I covered my eyes when the demi-dogs were rampaging through the labs. And then it ended. 

It was a good ending. For the most part, things were back to normal – the kids were dancing at their Snow Ball, tears were shed for Bob and then the stinger came…the Mind Flayer may have been sealed off from the ‘Real’ world, but it was still lurking in the Upside Down. We also found out that Dr. Brenner was still alive, apparently. And there’s Eleven’s special ‘sister’, Eight – riding out in the RV with her other outcast friends. Loose ends, eh? Hmm.

It’ll probably be this time next year when season 3 hits – but there’s a slight niggling sensation at the back of my mind already. There’s many things I loved about series 2, but there’s also stuff that bugged me. The first three episodes were filler, let’s not cut hairs about that. They were expositional episodes to let us know where characters were a year after series 1’s events, and also a way to introduce new characters into the mix. That’s fine with me – more time with Mike, Lucas, Dustin, Will, Hopper and Eleven is great – but there was always a pervasive fear of ‘sequel unobtainability’ that lingered – you know what I’m talking about – the sense that the next instalment had to be bigger, better, more ludicrous than the first in order to keep us entertained. But by episode 4 (Will The Wise) when Hooper discovered the tunnels, I knew that the Duffer Brothers were treating us to more of the same and expanding upon their universe.

I felt like we were in safe hands.

stranger-things-season-2-promo-image

Will’s journey in series 2 was a great thing to watch and the slight tip of the hat to 80’s nostalgia was still there, (DRAGON’S LAIR!) but diluted more in this season than the first. It was handled in a way that actually made me smirk (Jonathan and Nancy’s late night Temple of Doom scene. The soldiers getting to the central hub and being attacked by the demi-dogs, ala Apone’s marines from Aliens, the way Will’s door opening to the Mind Flayer was framed like Close Encounters of the Third Kind.) But let’s be real about this: how long can this be sustained?

Nostalgia can only go so far. There’s a reason why the kids from Hawkins appealed to me in the first season. They were the Losers Club from IT. They were the cartoon characters from Dungeons and Dragons. They were the The Monster Squad and The Goonies rolled into one. They reminded me of playing outside with the group of friends I had down my road when I was their age. They’re a fantastical image of what I wanted our group to be like. Do I really want to see Finn Wolfhard’s (Mike) voice crack and break as we trudge into season 4 and he starts dealing with puberty?

No.

Why? Because that wasn’t the appeal of Stranger Things in the first place. Characters in shows develop, I get that – they wouldn’t be able to run without an arc that progresses the character  – but what needs to be said about Mike’s relationship with Eleven has already been said. Young love. I get it. Great. Fantastic. Do I need to see their doubts and insecurities manifest as later episodes reveal when Eleven turns full Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction? Do we really need to witness the potential dissolution of friendship over stinky gross girls?

No.

And how many times can one group of friends fend off monsters from an alternative/parallel world without developing major psychological issues? I think back to the first series of 24 – Man, those were the days.  Not many hit series would end their opening season with the hero cradling the corpse of his pregnant wife. But 24 pulled it off. As did Stranger Things. But let’s skip a few years down the line with 24; it had established an exciting new format, but the show proceeded to repeat itself relentlessly and incredulously, until it all became so predictable that Jack was visibly yawning during some of the later torture scenes and sometimes had to attach electrodes to his nipples and crank the voltage up to maximum just to jolt himself awake. And for the love of Holy Mackerel, don’t get me started on Heroes.

I guess what I’m trying to get at is sustainability. Stranger Things Season 2 is still fresh in our minds, but I feel like it could turn like that large chunk of halibut that got irretrievably stuck in that fiddly gap between the oven and fridge. Things could get messy. And stinky.

stranger-things-poster-1-crop-700x451

As many of the things I loved about series 2, there was also a couple of bum notes. Eleven’s story was essential, I get that – On one (Upside Down #sorrynotsorry) side, by separating Eleven from the group you lost some of the chemistry that made Stranger Things so great. And I totally understand why they did it. It’s like the classic videogame trope of having all powers and inventory taken away at the beginning of the game, rendering the player weak until they grind away through levels to get back all their powers and items. Maybe it makes for a greater journey in the long run. There’s no doubt that story wise it made sense for her to be separated from the other kids. We get to learn her backstory with her mother and her ‘sister.’ Her arc develops and she becomes a stronger person for it. And yet it just wasn’t as engaging as last year. It was just slightly disappointing to have her break up the episodes when the demi-dogs surfaced to the lab. Keeping her away from the main characters slowed down the main story considerably, but yes, the neck hairs stood on end when Eleven was reunited with the rest of the group.

Max and Billy were also new characters that came into the fold but they felt disappointing overall. Max started out as an interesting character but it’s just that the season doesn’t give her much to do. She’s the new girl Lucas and Dustin like and she’s cool, but a bit of a let-down. Steve’s the hero now, so we needed a new human bad – I get it, but Billy didn’t really serve any other purpose than just be a thorn in Max and Steve’s side.

Ultimately, I’m looking forward to series three. But maybe, like the Ricky Gervais vehicle The Office, quality is better than quantity. Three is a magic number, but I suspect The Franchise Pit of Despair will sink its greasy, yellowed and gnarled teeth into Stranger Things and we’ll be sitting here, years from now, watching Dustin and co. graduate from University and continuing the fight in the Upside Down, fending off Demi-Gorgans until we simply get apathetic about it all. Which is really a shame, as I love Stranger Things. I hope I’m proved wrong. At the time of writing this, they’ve commissioned season 4 – possibly a series too much? Time will tell. Let’s hope we don’t need to get those electrodes out and attach them to anyone’s nipples.

Article by Anthony Self

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