The first season of Netflix original series ‘Stranger Things’ came out of nowhere last summer, yet quickly became culturally ubiquitous as an example of the ‘right’ way to present nostalgia and genre homage. Set firmly in 1983, complete with period accurate design and callbacks, the cinematic eight-part maxi-series claimed its’ well-earned place in the zeitgeist. Anticipation could not have been higher for the following season, or sequel series, as the creators refer to it, this time with nine chapters, picking up one year later. ‘Stranger Things 2’ contains all of the elements that made the first season so engaging, with the added benefit of an increased budget for the special effects and production design, plus a confident cast that convey a reassuring familiarity that also adds to audience emotional investment.
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Events of this sequel unfold gradually and assuredly, picking up with each of the main characters, all scarred from the events a year prior in unique ways. Finn Wolfhard’s Mike is sullen and combative, even amongst his close friends, reeling from the loss of Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven (she shows up later in the pilot leading into one of the season’s effective new character pairings). Will Byers, whose disappearance started the drama last year, is a functioning member of the Arcade obsessed group, but he is especially affected by his harrowing experience, now haunted by episodes of what the adults are calling PTSD, but are actually manifestations of his psychic connection to the other-dimensional Upside Down. Noah Schnapp is the MVP of the new season, a young actor whose talent is now showcased after being sidelined in the previous season. Audiences young and old are rightfully affected by this poor victim’s continued assault from mysterious forces, yet also sympathize with both his mother’s (Winona Ryder giving another stellar performance as the rattled Joyce Byers) overprotective nature and Will’s own desire to be treated normally (he is regularly referred to as Zombie Boy by the locals, perplexed by his apparent return from the dead). The friendship of fan favorite Dustin (Galen Matarazzo, a goofily winning presence) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) is tested by the arrival of new cool girl Max (an emerging Sadie Sink) and, in a direct reference to the kid/creature movie trend of the 80’s, a mysterious life-form living Dustin’s garbage can. In an almost direct response to an SNL joke, we are also introduced to Lucas’s family this year, most notably his hilariously nagging little sister (more Priah Ferguson please). The teenage characters of Nancy (Natalie Dyer), Steve (Joe Keery), and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) respectively wrestle with guilt over Barb’s death, a strained one-sided relationship, and pining for a relationship that never came to be. This season also sees changes in these characters’ interactions in both expected and unexpected ways.
The progression of ‘Stranger Things 2’ is a nice combination of character driven plot advancement and expansion of the Upside Down mythology. Due to these turns, some character journeys work well and others not so much. Eleven’s arc is much more limiting as her interactions are only with Hopper (David Harbour) for much of the season – while this new parent/child relationship is both endearing and contentious, therefore providing a nice new emotional foundation for these damaged characters, viewers are itching for a reunion with her cohorts. The season is also not favored by a thematically wildly careening episode that removes Eleven from Hawkins, Indiana altogether. In particular, this course of events really short changes Mike’s involvement this time around, although he does have some good scenes with Will that set up their protective relationship. If last season revolved around Will’s abduction, this season’s driver is Will’s horrifying interaction with the denizens of the Upside Down, a welcome expansion of this strange mirror dimension.
The season comes to a close with two incredibly riveting climactic chapters that fully cement the thrilling nature of this special series. Under the guiding hands of the Duffer Brothers, ‘Stranger Things’ continues to be much more than an exercise in nostalgia. The talented writer/director team know exactly how to mine the memory banks without cheese, yet subvert the very tropes they emulate. This season echoes disparate source material ranging from James Cameron’s ‘Aliens’ and Spielberg’s ‘E.T.’, ‘Jurassic Park,’ & ‘Temple of Doom’, to the teen oeuvre of John Hughes, with references to ‘Ghostbusters’, ‘Back to the Future’, and ‘Dig Dug’, but never feels like a rip-off. ‘Stranger Things 2’, while maybe not reaching the wonder and emotional heights of the first set of chapters, is nonetheless an ultimate success. It hinges on an investment in three-dimensional characters, taking them on logical arcs within a grounded sci-fi setting (with a few stumbles), preparing the continuation of their journey, and finally fostering excitement for future installments . . .
* * * 1/2 (out of 4 stars) -OR- B+