This is a SPOILER-FREE preview of Stranger Things 2. Check back to the site on Friday for more detailed analysis of the season.
What is Stranger Things 2?
In this follow-up to the phenomenally successful Netflix show, it’s 1984 and the citizens of Hawkins are still reeling from the horrors that the Demogorgon brought to their town. In spite of the fact that the locals successfully rescued Will Byers from the Upside Down, their ordeal isn’t over, with a larger threat coming for those who survived.
More of the Same
Stranger Things was one of the TV events of 2016. Set in a small Indiana town, the story concerned a young kid going missing at the hands of a malevolent monster from another dimension, and revolved around the efforts of his mother, his friends, and the local police chief to get him back. The series was set in the early 1980s, and wore its pop culture influences on its sleeve, feeling like the best TV show a young Steven Spielberg never made.
The brainchild of brothers Matt and Ross Duffer, the show received acclaim, but was also criticised for being derivative. Yet while it was filled with references to the movies, shows and trends of the time, it managed to tell a tale that felt new and fresh and original.
This small screen sequel — set a few months after the events of the original — tells a very similar story, so at times it feels like an imitation of itself. Indeed, aside from one stand-out episode late in the run, Stranger Things doesn’t look like it’s evolved, but rather seems to have stagnated, with too much feeling all-too-familiar.
Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way
When proceedings commence, life has calmed down for the kids of Hawkins. They’ve progressed from board games to arcade games, swapping Dungeons and Dragons for Dig Dug and Dragon’s Lair. But things have largely gone back to normal both at school and at home. For everyone but Will Byers.
It was clear from the end of Season 1 that the Upside Down had somehow changed Will, and the fallout from that experience provides some of Season 2’s best moments. It starts with Will having visions of the sky above Hawkins turning fiery red, then a huge, cloud-like monster appearing on the horizon, seemingly ready to attack. Which coincides with death and decay laying waste to the local crops, suggesting that something is rotten in the earth.
As Will becomes more confused and scared, it quickly becomes clear that he’s now somehow connected to the Upside Down, seeing what the Demogorgon sees, and feeling what the Demogorgon feels. And with that bond going both ways, the threat that was previously confined to another dimension is suddenly much closer to home, putting all of Hawkins in danger.
Trouble is, said threat seems somewhat vague, with the monster’s intentions never fully clear. Season 1 concerned a race against time to save Will, the ticking clock mechanic filling the show with tension and suspense. Here Will is once again in danger, but while the stakes might be higher this time around, it rarely feels that way.
Awesome New Characters
That said, it’s still fun spending time with the Stranger Things kids, as Mike, Dustin and Lucas endeavour to help their friend and save the town. The interplay between the boys is still honest and real, while the young actors are as charming as they are believable.
Stranger Things 2 also introduces a bunch of new characters, all of whom make their mark. Standouts include Max (Sadie Sink) the badass new girl in town, who drives a wedge between Dustin and Lucas, her brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery), a bully seemingly intent on making Jonathan’s life miserable, and Murray (Brett Gelman) a hilarious conspiracy theorist convinced that the Russians are responsible for everything odd that’s happening.
A couple of famous faces from the 1980s also appear in juicy roles, with Aliens star Paul Reiser showing up as a shady doctor from Hawkins Lab, and Goonie Sean Astin playing Winona Ryder’s love interest, a character who becomes increasingly important as the story progresses.
And if you love the family films of that era, they also play their part, with Ghostbusters all over this season, Gremlins a clear influence on Dustin’s storyline, and Will’s connection to the Demogorgon mirroring Elliot and ET‘s. While the hell that Sheriff Hopper goes through mid-way through the season harks back to the Alien flicks.
The Return of Eleven
But what of Eleven, the breakout character from Season 1? Well, the trailers have already revealed that she’s back for Season 2, and while we won’t explain how here, we will say that the journey she goes on is gripping, delving into the mysteries of the character’s past, and helping to expand and extend the Stranger Things mythology.
Indeed there’s a single episode that revolves around Eleven and is a massive departure from what has gone before and what comes after. It’s a little jarring, upsetting the flow and rhythm of the series. But it’s also the season’s most exciting 45-minutes, spinning the storyline in a new direction, and hinting at where the show could go if its creators are willing to sever ties with the past. Or at least spend a little more time outside of Hawkins.
Is Stranger Things 2 Good?
There’s an element of Stranger Things 2 that’s very much ‘more of the same.’ As it’s the same kids in the same town doing battle with the same foe. The threat is larger but doesn’t feel as real or pressing. And frequent flashbacks to Season 1 serve as a reminder of how strong that series was, and how this one doesn’t quite reach those heights.
Yet while the first few episodes frequently feel like they are going through the motions, the dialogue is still terrific, the performances spot-on, and the new characters as strong as the old. The show cleverly builds to a finale that allows everyone to have their moment. And concludes with a genuinely touching scene that packs an emotional punch, and serves as a reminder of what makes Stranger Things so great.
The result is entertaining television that’s a solid if unspectacular sequel. But if the show wants to fully take flight, the Duffers will have to seriously shake things up for Season 3.