Before it was the word-of-mouth sensation of summer 2016, before Barb became a normcore icon and the rest of the unknown young cast transformed into red carpet sensations, before it was an awards juggernaut and an Emmy winner, Netflix's Stranger Things was a good TV show.
Maybe it wasn't a great show, but Stranger Things was surely a great surprise, an unassuming and genuinely under-the-radar success that blended originality and boundless nostalgia, a triumphant combination of writing and casting that yielded a half-dozen characters instantly verging on beloved. It was a little scary and just as much heartwarming and funny.
Stranger Things debuts its nine-episode second season on Oct. 27, and Netflix sent critics the entirety of what it's calling Stranger Things 2.
Stranger Things 2 is quite good and, if your expectations are in check, largely satisfying. The Duffer brothers fall into very few traps of self-importance or self-awareness, and they deliver a second season with an expanded assortment of '80s influences, an expanded cast of instantly embraceable characters and some expanded Stranger Things mythology without the bloat that inevitably dooms sequels.
We return to Hawkins, Indiana, as Halloween 1984 is approaching. Will (Noah Schnapp) is still recovering from his adventures in the Upside Down and he's being treated somewhat tentatively by his mother, Joyce (Winona Ryder), and friends Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin). Will is making visits to the mysterious Hawkins Laboratory, where a scientist played by Paul Reiser is making sure the ill effects, like spells in which Will sees a freaky tentacled creature looming on the outskirts of an apocalyptic version of town, are limited. Are Will's visions PTSD or warnings of a coming threat?
Hopper (David Harbour, the cast's steady anchor) is still huffing and puffing and maintaining order in Hawkins, a complicated process since a muckraking journalist (Brett Gelman, adding second season comedy) is beginning to poke around into some of last season's peculiar events.
Netflix has a litany of things they don't want revealed, including at least one thing that can't be spoiled relating to the first scene of the entire season and just about anything relating to the still-exceptional Millie Bobby Brown's Eleven, such as what she's been up to since the first season or where we find her to start the second season, but I think it's fair to say that she's not assimilated into the Hawkins social scene or the local school district. And she's still prone to nosebleeds.
What else can I tell you? Joyce has a new boyfriend. His name is Bob (Sean Astin). And there are new kids in town, a ginger-haired tomboy named Max (Sadie Sink), who has some things in common with Will and the gang, and her brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery), a basketball-playing, muscle-car-driving bad boy who may be a threat to the high school alpha status of Steve Harrington (Joe Keery).
Working for the first time with awareness of fan responses and expectations, the Duffers thankfully don't confuse "sticking with that works" with "feeding the audience's gaping and demanding maw."
There's some awareness of things that viewers liked in the first season. Eggos. The dorky every-kid appeal of Dustin. Steve's hair. The Duffers are tapped in, but they don't pander, or at least they don't pander any more than Stranger Things always pandered, successfully, to Gen-X and millennial viewers.
Take, as we must, the cult of Barb. The vocal obsession with that character somehow even led to an Emmy nomination for Shannon Purser, but the Duffers don't lean heavily on previously unseen flashbacks. They don't introduce Barb's identical cousin Debra from Gary. The Ghost of Barb doesn't become a helpful guide for Nancy (Natalia Dyer). However, a lot of what happens in the second season hinges on what happened to Barb in the first season. It's acknowledgement of the character's relevance and memorial worthiness, rather than a violation of the rules and stakes of the narrative universe for purposes of fan service.
It wouldn't have been surprising for Stranger Things to emphasize the nostalgic pastiche even more, playing up the Steven Spielberg and Stephen King and John Carpenter of it all. This season contains overt nods to Gremlins and, particularly, Aliens, with Reiser's presence and at least one direct dialogue quote. It has the same affection for '80s video games and music. It hasn't, however, become nonstop homage.
The show also hasn't forced Netflix to back up the Brink's truck to add budget to an aesthetic that often thrived on frugality. There's definitely more money on the screen in the second season, with additional screentime for CG creatures and bigger stunts, but the show still lives in creepy mood-setting and thrives on unsettling sound design and the threat of the unseen. Stranger Things is still a show that functions best when characters are navigating dark hallways, hunkered down in cramped cabins or shining flashlights into obscure storm cellars, and the Duffers, directors of four episodes, make sure that subsequent helmers Shawn Levy, Andrew Stanton and Rebecca Thomas are all on the same page. (Thomas and Pixar veteran Stanton are the newcomers to this world, and they're responsible for the fifth through seventh episodes, which are when the season becomes most exciting.)
And it wouldn't have been surprising for Stranger Things to leverage buzz into distracting A-list casting. Instead, Reiser and Astin both bring their own '80s bona fides; they're used both to evoke and because they're perfect casting. Sink and Montgomery continue an uncanny success rate with the casting of young actors who both look period-appropriate and fit in with the established ensemble.
It's that ensemble that still makes Stranger Things hum. Matarazzo and McLaughlin may have a little extra exposure this season, and their ability to resist getting hammy remains admirable. Schnapp was offscreen most of the first season, but assimilates immediately, and he and Wolfhard do well when the plot intensifies. The writers have wisely focused on the things that make Steve likable and the things that make Nancy badass, and both actors benefit. In two seasons, Stranger Things has yet to reach the limitations of its diminutive stars, and it's the coming-of-age side of the story for which I have an insatiable appetite.
Netflix's list of things not to be spoiled in reviews points to the show's continued central problem for me: It's not especially rich in terms of its mythology. It's a show that asks very little of viewers when it comes to mystery or anticipation, and the story, told over nine episodes this time, is very close to that of the first season, becoming most redundant in the arc for Ryder's Joyce. Some Hawkins/Eleven/Upside Down details are filled in, but the pleasure is in the execution of the simple and considered arc and in the interactions between the characters. I'm reasonably convinced you could tell me every "surprise" of the season in advance and it wouldn't impact my viewership at all.
Also, as much as I've enjoyed both the first and second seasons, I'd love to see Stranger Things leave Hawkins Laboratories, the Upside Down and demogorgons behind for future seasons.
Then there are the little things that are going to bother me and nobody else, like why the 1984 presidential election has been woven into the plot only as far as a production designer pondering which of our characters logically could come from homes with Mondale/Ferraro signs. The question of why this story, tightly swaddled in signifiers of the past, is so comforting in 2017 is one the Duffers prefer not to engage with.
Some repetitiveness of plotting and the lack of thematic value found in the period setting aren't quibbles that kept me from tearing through all nine episodes almost as quickly as I received them. The first few chapters may have some tablesetting slowness, but they have strong cliffhangers pushing from one episode to the next, building to a breathless finale.
In the ways that count, there's no sophomore slump for Stranger Things.
Cast: Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Noah Schnapp, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, Joe Keery, Sadie Sink, Dacre Montgomery, Sean Astin, Paul Reiser
Creators: The Duffer brothers