97 / 100
Watchable Minutes: The second volume of season 4 clocks in at an impressive 235 minutes. And every second of that nearly 4 hour run time is filled with awesome 80s goodness.
I’m fed up with Netflix and their lack of common sense these days so I’m going to rant for a while and then the review will be at the bottom.
OLD MAN RANT:
When I think of Stranger Things, I think of a bygone era where Netflix originals were worth a damn. There are so many of them these days that they’ve oversaturated their own formerly cornered market. Back in 2016 when Stranger Things season one was released, original content from Netflix (or any streaming site) was something to actually get excited about because it was so unheard of. Netflix was like the plucky little underdog taking on the massive century-old studio system model that had dominated filmmaking for years. The online content creator started its catalog with shows like Orange is The New Black, (the ill-fated) House of Cards, Castlevania, Lost in Space, and Mindhunter. These are just the ones I can remember without thinking too hard because it honestly makes me sad. Nearly every original that I’ve been interested in has gone downhill (Lost in Space season 3), had its legacy destroyed (House of Cards), or is on hold indefinitely (Mindhunter). But that hasn’t happened to Stranger Things (yet). While season two was a little shaky and suffered from a multitude of errors, the rest of the show has stood the test of time and proven that quality writing and trust in creators can yield a cultural phenomenon.
Something was bubbling up under the surface in the mid-2010s. Streaming music and video was becoming the main way to consume media and nostalgia for the 80s was just beginning to ramp up with younger generations having such easy access to the classics. Pop culture was rediscovering bands like Journey and Led Zeppelin (at least I was) and classic movies were starting to get the reboot treatment. Nerd culture was becoming mainstream and nerd acceptance seemed to be at an all-time high. It was during this perfect storm that the Duffer Brothers pitched their show to about a dozen different networks and were told to take a hike in various forms. It wasn’t until their script was brought to Shawn Levy (Deadpool, Free Guy, The Adam Project) and Dan Cohen that they found success. They loved the concept and bought the rights then and there. After a pitch with Netflix, the streaming giant purchased the entire season’s worth of episodes and that’s where the magic started. The Duffer Brothers got to retain creative control with Levy and Cohen serving as producers and the original season debuted in the middle of summer 2016. Our media-hungry, nostalgia-addicted society was primed and ready for a throwback booster shot and the show became an immediate hit.
This was just a year after I graduated high school and was working my way through college so my free time was at an all-time low. Taking a gamble on a streaming original series, especially one centered around a bunch of nerdy kids playing Dungeons and Dragons, didn’t really seem like the ideal way to spend that limited free time. Even after the first few trailers came out, I still wasn’t sold. The whole thing just screamed Amblin entertainment wannabe, with way too much reference content. I loved all the pieces of the show in the trailer, but the sum didn’t seem to add up properly. However, it would not be the fate of Stranger Things to fall into obscurity because one amateur critic thought it looked dumb. I eventually took the bait and binged the entire season in just a few days during that summer when I was working at the pool (the first time).
I was genuinely impressed, as were most of the people I spent time with. Everybody seemed to agree on the basics. Each episode was so lovingly crafted with an awesome set design and a killer synth soundtrack plus an incredibly inspired and original story. Plus the whole thing was genuinely creepy. My parents loved the posters and the soundtracks and the not-so-subtle 80s callbacks jammed into each scene. My younger siblings loved it just as much as I did (which usually was not the case) because they were the same ages as the main characters. My friends all liked it and it actually got some of them into DnD legitimately. For me, there was an intensity to it and a sense of something lurking just out of the corner of my eye the whole time I watched the show. It was amazing and it seemed like Netflix could do no wrong. The amazing cast of young actors became superstars basically overnight and soon I began to see them on late-night talk show clips and cast in other movies. Everybody was talking about all the things I loved growing up. It was a great time to be a nerd.
The good times never last though. Even with a lackluster season 2 releasing a year later, Stranger Things retained its stranglehold grip on society and kept chugging along. Season three premiered two years after season two and rocked the societal boat once again. Completly redeeming the show in my eyes, I was excited about the next season. Sadly, we would not get it until 2022 with massive production delays due to the global meltdown pandemic (I’ll get to those thoughts in a minute, but it was well worth the wait). Anyway, I don’t think anybody knew it then but the streaming wars were beginning to ramp up. Prime Video was beginning to make its own original content. Hulu was stepping into the ring to fight with their live TV subscription options. YouTube even got in on it for a bit. A few years later, Disney+ and HBO Max arrived on the scene and dramatically changed the streaming landscape with traditional studio budgets propping up these huge new shows and movies. Instead of making quality original content, the casual observer might have noticed that Netflix opted for quantity.
Netflix started to announce a new original series or a movie every other month it seemed. Big names like Gal Gadot, The Rock, Ryan Reynolds, Adam Sandler, Chris Hemsworth, etc., etc. were attached to star in these random projects that all started to blur together. For a time it was exciting but then many consumers, myself included, started to feel overwhelmed by all the mediocre choices available to us. In just a few (but also incredibly long) years, Netflix has managed to completely swap out its catalog. It used to be that licensed media that originally earned them their incredible market share would dominate the home screen. But now a literal library of sub-par originals is fighting for my attention every time I launch the app.
Like many consumers, I have shifted the majority of my streaming content usage across a multitude of apps. I feel trapped in the modern cable-like system of too many streaming services and packages with tiers. It hurts my wallet to think about signing up for anything else ever again. Poor Paramount Plus and Apple Tv+ will never get a dollar out of me. I don’t care how many Star Trek shows or classic sci-fi novel adaptations they try to make, I’ll just find a different way to watch them. So there ends my 1300-word rant about how much Netflix changed. Maybe they just grew up and realized it was time to start actively making their own content instead of being the librarian. Maybe I grew up and realized my time and attention are worth almost as much as the dollars in my bank account so I have to start reigning in my tangible and intangible spending. Every now and again though, Netflix manages to remember how to make content, and Stranger Things 4 Vol 1 and Vol 2 are the results of that.
Volume 2 of Stranger Things 4 is an incredible piece of content. With two movie-length episodes, volume 2 has become some of the best television I’ve ever seen. The world that these characters live in became so much more interesting in season 3 with the Mindflayer and season 4 took advantage of it to the fullest extent possible. Not only were the monsters and the lore of the Upside Down immensely expanded upon, the characters actually had to battle real-life foes alongside their DnD-inspired enemies. The character interactions of season 4 were some of the best I had ever seen in a tv show, let alone one with a cast as young as this.
The Duffer Brothers have grown as writers and directors alongside these kids and it shows. Each character has a complex relationship with everybody else on the screen and the groups can be mixed and matched at random for totally unique and believable subplots. It’s almost as if the cast of ST is turning into the cast of Harry Potter. The young actors in both properties became so entwined with their characters, that they started to become the same person. When filming one of the movies, the main cast of Harry Potter was assigned an essay and Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley) famously didn’t turn one in because he said that it’s what Ron would have done. I can totally see the cast of Stranger Things behaving in ways that align with their characters and it creates a much more believable production.
I like to do spoiler-free reviews most of the time and this is one to avoid spoilers for. There are so many badass moments, almost Seven Samurai-esque in nature, that permeate the last two episodes that it would be impossible to list them all. From sweet guitar solos and impressive CGI-laden fight scenes to heartbreak and dread-filled quiet moments that drip with tension, Volume 2 has no shortage of things to get excited about. If you love the lore side of things, the origin of the Upside Down and Vecna will leave you satisfied but also hungry for what comes next.