Last year’s Stranger Things was the breakout TV hit of the year. A huge win for Netflix, which, while cranking out some excellent original series for a few years, never quite made the same mainstream splash that they hungered for. While shows like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black were critical darlings, they were still niche dramas, limited in viewership by both the subject material and mature content (most of Netflix’s original content aimed for a TV-MA rating to compete with adult drama cable behemoth HBO). Stranger Things meanwhile, is much easier to distribute to the widest possible audience (and watch in the living room before the kids’ bedtime).
However, what Stranger Things did not do was sacrifice compelling storytelling. The power of Stranger Things was not in the particular market value of a TV-14 show on a network who couldn’t seem to bridge the divide between populist comedies (ala Fuller House) and gritty, adult-themed dramas (ala almost all of the “well-received” bunch of Netflix’s live-action repertoire), but rested in the superb storytelling efforts of the Duffer Brothers to bring the 80s back onto our TV screens in glorious HD, exchanging the VCR player for the world-wide-web. The entire first season pulled off the glorious intermingling exhilaration of fear and discovery that permeated much of 80s sci-fi, including Spielberg classics like ET, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and The Goonies (which, while not directed by Spielberg, was partially written by him and showcases his unique storytelling flare). Stranger Things, emulating these classics, embodied some of the best classic Hollywood escapist storytelling I’ve seen in a long time, leaving you at various times clinging to the edge of your seat or uncontrollably giggling in youthful anticipation at how the heroes we grow to love will respond to the next move of the villains we’re conditioned to hate.
When it was announced that Stranger Things’ second season was announced (officially titled Stranger Things 2) I knew one thing for certain. It could never outdo the first season. Not because it couldn’t be a better season, but it couldn’t take what the first season did successfully and improve on it.
Luckily, Stranger Things 2 did exactly what great sequels do. Instead of improving on the first installment, it just changed the formula a little. Instead of making the scares better, they made them bigger. Instead of reuniting all of the “Party” at the beginning, this season divides it before bringing the whole gang back together for the season’s climax. The change reminds me of how different 80s classic Alien (referenced in the first season) and its sequel Aliens. Instead of reinventing the successes of the former, the successor expanded the scope, escaping the trap of drawing too many comparisons. This shift in structure has mostly successful results, with a few missteps. One is an almost-great stand-alone episode that ends up wasting the talent of its two leads and a subplot that would feel like a dead-end were it not for the ratcheting up of romantic tension for two characters.
Once again, one of the greatest strengths of the series lay in its performances. Millie Bobby Brown is predictably excellent, with her tense exchanges with David Harbour’s Hopper particularly thrilling examples of her ability to balance the rage and vulnerability that made her such a thrilling performer in the first installment. However, the breakout performer of the sequel is Noah Schnapp playing a tortured Will Byers, who, after spending most of the first season absent from view, gets his just reward in a much meatier role. I don’t want to give too much away, but Schnapp manages to convincingly portray a boy split between two worlds, between light and darkness.
The rest of the cast manages to bring back the characters we loved with appropriate gusto, but also convey believable growth in their personalities. All of the original party would have their hands full dealing with the dramatic onset of puberty even if it weren’t a year after a nearly universe-shattering event and most of them play these little transformations very well. One sad exception is that of Finn Wolfhard, who plays Mike, although this deficiency is more the fault of the scriptwriters than the actor. Struggling to retain his authority in “The Party” Mike spends most of the season acting like an angry brat, although the character does eventually get some redemption in the latter half of the season.
The new additions are all welcome, albeit not all well-executed. Billy and Max, who play the “new kids in town” do provide some great material and new conflicts, but they are still more like pretty cardboard cutouts than people. Max is by far the stronger character, although Dacre Montgomery hams it up successfully as a kind of proto-Steve Herrington with serious anger issues, giving us a human antagonist, although in his case, not a well-rounded one.
That being said, speaking of Steve, Joe Keery returns with his gravity-defying hairstyle and infectious smirk, continuing his personal journey from the sometimes insufferable hard-partying persona of the first season to a relatable high school senior struggling to find his place in the world. His unlikely bonding with Dustin (played excellently by Gaten Matarazzo) during several later episodes providing a great example of the character’s dramatic growth.
The other, more technical elements of production are also excellent, although the original score does leave something to be desired after the excellent original music from the first one. The directors brought in for this season also did a bang-up job on helping create a tone, that while consistent with the first season, quickly takes us to new territory emotionally and thematically, forcing us to think about familiar characters in different ways. We even get two excellent episodes directed by none other than Pixar alum Andrew Stanton (WALL-E, Finding Nemo). Overdone CG of the upside down (the result of the increased budget of this season) can become tiring and disconcerting (and not in a good way) after a while, especially in the first few episodes.
To conclude, Stranger Things 2 provides a satisfying return to Hawkins, Indiana. I’m honestly divided on whether I consider the first season better or not. They say you can’t fall in love with the same girl twice, and I think that’s true of TV shows too. The thrill of discovery does fade, but just like good relationship partners, Stranger Things isn’t too worried about recreating the first few dates in an effort to recover the distant magic of new love. Instead, it encourages us to fall deeper in love, enveloping us into a world that is bigger and scarier, while also being more hopeful, as greater threats help inspire greater heroes.