The first season of Stranger Things seemingly materialized from nowhere: an unhyped show from a pair of obscure creators who nonetheless had the pretensions to bill themselves as “The Duffer Brothers,” starring a cast of unknown kids (plus Winona Ryder and Matthew Modine in supporting roles), paying tribute to the Duffers’ favorite sci-fi, horror, and fantasy stories of the ’80s, that somehow became one of the most beloved, talked-about shows of last year. The surprise of it was nearly as appealing as Stranger Things itself — which managed to be so much more than an exercise in nostalgia — because in today’s media landscape, how often does something appear out of the blue like this and turn out to be this good?
The last show to sneak up on the audience and entrance them to the degree Stranger Things did was True Detective, and we all unfortunately know how that show’s oversold, overstuffed second season turned out. Any sequel to a beloved property runs the risk of feeling too derivative and/or busy, and the danger seemed especially high in the case of Stranger Things, not only because the first season arrived with no expectations, but because that season told its story so effectively and simply that revisiting these kids and their small Indiana town seemed redundant. Better to use the Ryan Murphy anthology approach, perhaps, or else take another page from Stephen King and revisit Mike and his friends as adults
With the new season (it debuts Friday on Netflix; I’ve seen all nine episodes), the Duffers are leaning into all these expectations. They’ve dubbed the season Stranger Things 2, as if it were a movie rather than a TV show — a delusion that’s caused storytelling problems for a lot of Netflix dramas — they’ve larded the new episodes with as many echoes of season one as they can, and at one point they even have two returning characters describe last year’s plot to a newcomer, who takes it for a made-up story and says, “I really liked it. I just felt it was a little derivative in parts. I just wish you had a little more originality, that’s all.”
The whole thing could very easily fall prey to all the worst symptoms of sequelitis, but despite some bumps along the way — one bad storytelling choice in particular — Stranger Things 2 largely justifies its existence. The first season’s epilogue left me with no interest in returning to this world, yet I had an enormous smile on my face for a lot of the new episodes, and particularly the last two, which turn out to be a tighter and more exciting climax than we got last time around.
The action picks up about a year later. Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), and Will (Noah Schnapp) are all a bit more mature — and swear more than they did last time — but still obsessed with D&D and other bits of nerd culture. (On Halloween, they dress up as the Ghostbusters, which leads to a great bit of business where Mike and Lucas argue over who gets to be Venkman; “No one wants to be Winston,” complains Lucas.) The four of them, Will’s mom Joyce (Ryder) and brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), Mike’s sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer), Nancy’s boyfriend Steve (Joe Keery), and weary sheriff Jim Hopper (David Harbour) have all been sworn to secrecy about the other-dimensional incursion they fought off in season one, and everyone is doing their best to go back to normal… if only Will could stop experiencing flashes of what the kids dubbed “the Upside Down,” where he was imprisoned and nearly died. And none of the kids have seen Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) since she appeared to die while killing the demogorgon monster at their school.
The Duffer brothers and their collaborators(*) have constructed a lot of the season using the interlocking principles of “the same, but slightly different” and “the same, but more.” Again and again, there are echoes of things the audience responded to the first time around. Where once the walls of the Byers house were covered with Christmas lights that Joyce used to communicate with Will while he was missing, this season it’s a series of crayon drawings that take a while to decode. The big new catchphrase is “now-memories,” which — like the Upside Down — seems silly on paper but works in context. There’s another three-person hug, another strange visitor hidden and fed a particular junk food (Three Musketeers replacing Eggos, which were themselves an homage to the Reese’s Pieces from E.T.) With Eleven away from the group and Steve reformed from his bullying ways, their old roles are filled by a pair of step-siblings — respectively, skateboarding video gamer Max (Sadie Sink) and wispy-mulleted/mustachioed troublemaker Billy (Dacre Montgomery) — just as the government lab has been taken over by another actor with lots of ’80s credibility in Paul Reiser as Dr. Owens.
(*) Two episodes are directed by core Pixar helmer Andrew Stanton, taking another turn at live action after the overbashed John Carter.
Given how much the series was already riffing on the works of Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, John Carpenter, and more, paying homage to season one could very easily come off as a copy of a copy, containing the basic shape of the original, but not enough detail to be worth looking at. Fortunately, the Duffers have a collection of vividly drawn characters, and a terrific ensemble to play them, which gives weight to all the allusions to both ’80s pop culture (the Aliens homages go well beyond the casting of Reiser) and season one.
This is the advantage of not doing the anthology approach or even copying It and having a middle-aged Dustin swagger back into town. The kids and the adults are all well established at this point, and the creative team learned what their actors were capable of a year ago. So there’s a lot more of both Dustin and Lucas than we got the first time around, as the two of them vie for Max’s affections, while Steve becomes more complicated and entertaining as a reluctant hero than he was as the cruel jock with the impressive hair. (Steve and Dustin become the oddest of odd couple pairings for the season’s second half, and it’s wonderful.) We’re invested in this group of people, and after a bit of a slow burn start, season two pays huge dividends for nearly every character, both the ones returning and the newbies(*) who get nearly as much storytelling love and care as the originals did last time.
(*) As Joyce’s dorky but kind new boyfriend, Sean Astin — whose turn in The Goonies was one of the biggest inspirations for the series in the first place — is playing a man literally named Bob Newby. I enjoy this show, but it ain’t subtle.
Ryder got a lot of deserved plaudits last time out because she was great, but also because the audience was so happy to see her back in the middle of things (and in a show set around the era where she first made a name for herself as a teenager) after a long stretch in the career wilderness. But the lesser-known Harbour was equally important to all the things that made the first season work, both as a convincing avatar of early ’80s masculine archetypes and for the innate decency he brought to a role that could very easily have come across as a cynical burnout. The new season leans even more on Harbour, and he shoulders all of it — as do Ryder, Astin, Reiser, and all the younger actors. As much as it’s about nostalgia, Stranger Things is a testament to the power of good casting, and also to learning more and more how to write for the performers you’ve cast.
Expanding the world and beefing up the roles of some of the supporting players doesn’t come without a cost. Eleven is separated from her friends for a large chunk of the season — including one episode that goes against the usual Netflix “the season is one long movie” ethos, in which Brown is essentially the only cast regular to appear — which is frustrating for both her, the viewer, and Mike, who has become much more petulant and withdrawn while the other boys take the lead for a bit. (This is an occupational hazard in YA stories that cover many years; even Harry Potter’s pretty insufferable for much of The Order of the Phoenix.) Given the importance of Eleven’s friendship with the boys in season one, it’s easily the new season’s most annoying decision, even if Max turns out to be a pretty good character in her own right; it’s not a coincidence that things perk up significantly almost as soon as the original group’s reunited.
And Nancy and Jonathan spend a lot of time in a subplot that exists entirely as fan service to the many viewers who complained that season one did a poor job of portraying Nancy’s grief over the abduction and death of her best friend Barb. This was a reasonable complaint at first (the different way that Barb and Will are treated is one of season one’s most glaring flaws), but somehow wound up turning a non-character into a martyr, who in season two is treated as the second coming of Poochie.
Though season one’s eight episodes felt like the perfect length for the story being told — and a length more Netflix dramas should consider if they insist on the “each season is just a really long movie” ethos — adding one more hour doesn’t really slow things down too much. (Especially since you can look at the Eleven spotlight episode as that extra hour.) There’s not a huge inciting incident this time like Will’s disappearance, but rather a series of smaller mysteries that build and build. The narrative’s not quite as propulsive early enough as a result, but the character work largely compensates for it. And even the various slow burns converge into a huge, thrilling flame for the season’s climactic hours.
There will come a point where the Duffers and Netflix are pushing their luck with this series, where there will be too many characters and too many plot twists that evoke eye rolls and moans of, “Oh, this again?” Thankfully, it’s not there yet. (Though the season’s closing shot again triggered some mental alarm bells, so this feeling may never entirely go away.) Not all sequels live up to the original; this one does better than I ever would have imagined. The show itself couldn’t possibly sneak up on me a second time; how entertaining it continues to be absolutely did.