Creators: The Duffer Brothers
Starring: Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton
Netflix sci-fi horror Stranger Things may only have begun last year but, as clearly demonstrated by the fevered anticipation for its second series, it’s already become something of a phenomenon. And yet behind the hype lurked a certain dread, the fear that after its enthralling first season the follow-up would disappoint. Fortunately Stranger Things 2 largely, if not completely, lives up to expectations.
Opening a little under a year on from the events of the first series, our return to the rural Indiana town of Hawkins finds young Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) still struggling with the traumatic after-effects of his time spent trapped in the alternate dimension netherworld known as the Upside Down. As the anniversary of his abduction approaches, he finds himself experiencing increasingly frequent hallucinations of the Upside Down, now occupied by a titanic black tentacled creature, much to the concern of his mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) and brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton).
These are not nightmares. This is happening.
Meanwhile, the gruff Police Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) is reluctantly forced to cover up the strange goings on at Hawkins National Laboratory, now run by Paul Reiser’s suspiciously friendly Dr Owens. That cover-up is placing a strain on the relationship of high-schoolers Steve (Joe Keery) and Nancy (Natalia Dyer), the latter of whom is overcome with guilt at her role in hiding the true details of the death of her friend Barb (yes #justiceforbarb supporters, your calls have been heard).
As for Will’s friends – the true heroes of season 1 – they’re having girl trouble, as Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) compete for the attention of new girl Max (Sadie Sink), and Mike (Finn Wolfhard) mourns the disappearance of Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), who might not be as far away as he thinks.
Hey kiddo, would you like a balloon?
As before, Stranger Things makes hay with its 80s setting. It’s a lovingly crafted stew of nostalgia, from the arcade games (Dig Dug!), to the Ghostbusters outfits the boys wear on Halloween, to the synth-laden score, to the endless references to 80s films like Aliens, The Goonies and Temple of Doom – not to mention that Stranger Things remains above all else a homage to the earlier works of Stephen King. Wallowing in nostalgia like this can be problematic – a rose-tinted view of the past can often come across as corny, or even, at worst, as a rank re-writing of history. But Stranger Things’ creators the Duffer Brothers somehow manage to pull it off, in part because their vision of 80s America feels more like a knowing wink to the audience than anything else, lending their show a fun sense of time and place.
More importantly, the second season is as compulsively watchable as ever. After a slightly slow start, things kick into gear: it might all feel slightly familiar (more experiments gone wrong! More hideous beasts stalking Hawkins! More telekinetic little girls!) but it’s all enjoyably spooky (if never exactly scary) and the twisting, turning plot is continuously gripping.
I need my paddles!
The second series throws a host of new characters into the mix, most of whom fit in nicely: Brett Gelman, in particular, is great fun as a conspiracy theorist investigating Hawkins, and Sean Astin gives a hugely endearing performance as Joyce’s nerdy new boyfriend Bob, It also builds on some of the relationships established in the first series. I particularly enjoyed an unlikely partnership between Steve and Dustin – Keery (elevated now to series regular and making the most of it) and Matarazzo make a hugely entertaining double act.
The cast as a whole continues to be really quite phenomenal. The quality of the performances from the likes of Harbour, Ryder and Reiser is, perhaps, unsurprising from such veteran actors. But its Stranger Things’ youngest performers who do most of the heavy lifting and they are, largely without exception, remarkable. Schnapp’s performance is a particularly wonderful surprise. Side-lined for most of the first season, he wasn’t given much of a chance to show what he could do. This time out his role has been hugely expanded and it turns out he can do an awful lot. His performance is mesmerising, even haunting, and he handles some very emotionally difficult scenes with the composed ease of an actor many times his age.
If we’re both going crazy, then we’ll go crazy together, right?
There are some flaws that mar the final product. With Matthew Modine’s sinister scientist from the first season out of the picture, the show lacks a convincing human antagonist. Max’s bullying brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery) is set up as the primary foe but then – a superb scene with Mike’s mother (Cara Buono) aside – is given virtually nothing to do until far too late in the game.
The Duffer brothers also really don’t seem to know what to do with Eleven, despite how intrinsically interesting her character is. Held back from the action for much of the series (an early sub-plot involving her and Hopper seems frozen in place) only late in the series does she get an episode centred on her and it is, unfortunately, comfortably Stranger Things’ worst. Taking place outside the confines of Hawkins – and thus, irritatingly, away from the far more exciting things going on back in the show’s principle setting – it’s a badly misjudged effort that serves no real narrative purpose and which derails the show’s momentum at a crucial point.
Thankfully things get back on track for the show’s thrilling final episodes. At its best Stranger Things remains one of the most purely enjoyable shows on TV, the epitome of a ‘one more episode’ series. Mostly nailing a perfect blend of comedy, creepiness, warmth and nostalgia, this compelling return to Hawkins is a Halloween treat – a second series that’s definitely bigger, even if it’s not quite always better.