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.