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‘Stranger Things 2’ Review: Bigger, Darker, and Nostalgia-er…but Not Always Better

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CREDIT: Netflix

Network: Netflix

Showrunners: The Duffer Brothers

Main Cast: Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Millie Bobby Brown, Finn Wolfhard, Noah Schnapp, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Sadie Sink, Joe Keery, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, Dacre Montgomery, Carla Buono

Notable Guest Stars: Paul Reiser, Sean Astin, Brett Gelman, Linnea Berthelsen

Episode Length: 34-60 Minutes

There’s something to be said for the element of surprise. Last year, when the first season of Stranger Things was released by Netflix, no one knew about it. Before long, word of mouth began to spread via social media: this great show about kids in ’80s suburbia getting involved in a sci-fi adventure, that reminded you of E.T. and Stephen King and all sorts of beloved nostalgic properties, with the killer analog synth score that you couldn’t get out of your head, with charming kid actors who acted (and cursed) like real kids, that provided the perfect escapism from a political and social climate that feels more and more like the Upside Down every day. Stranger Things was a throwback in so many ways, but perhaps the most important way was that it represented a very rare phenomenon for the 21st century: a smash hit that everyone seemed to agree on.

This past Halloween weekend, Netflix released Stranger Things 2. No element of surprise this time: the leadup to the second season was massive, with trailers and press tours and ComicCon appearances, no longer was the element of surprise on the show’s side. However, if anyone is going to understand the cultural implications of a sequel, it’s this show’s creators, Matt and Ross Duffer, aka the Duffer Brothers. And so our return to sleepy Hawkins, Indiana one year after the events of November 1983, has all the hallmarks one would expect from a sequel to a big hit: Stranger Things 2 is bigger, darker, and, uh, nostalgia-er than its predecessor, but sometimes sags a bit under the weight of its own ambitions.

Now it is 1984, and our main characters are haunted. Joyce (Ryder) can barely let son Will (Schnapp) out of her sight since he was brought back from the Upside Down, and is desperately trying to maintain a normal relationship with the sweet but dorky Bob (Astin), while working with Dr. Owens (Reiser), the chipper new head of Hawkins Laboratory, to figure out why Will is plagued by visions of being back in that decrepit netherworld. Mikey (Wolfhard) is heartbroken over the loss of Eleven (Brown), his telekinetic, genetically altered crush, who sacrificed herself to save the gang from the Demogorgon, and honestly he’s being kind of a whiny jerk about it. His older sister, Nancy (Dyer), is feeling deeply guilty over the death of Barb, and doubting her relationship with Steve Harrington (Keery), despite his perfect hair, fearing that she missed out on a good thing with Will’s artsy weirdo older brother, Jonathan (Heaton). Meanwhile, Sheriff Jim Hopper (Harbour), when he isn’t investigating a mysterious rot that’s killing the town’s pumpkins, is stashing away a big secret of his own.

Speaking of secrets, Dustin (Matarazzo), complete with new front teeth, is hiding a bizarre lizard-like creature in his room, which he feeds nougat and names Dart (short for D’Artagnon). He’s also nursing a crush on the new girl in town, Max (Sink), a feisty redhead who just beat his high score at Dig Dug at the local arcade. Lucas (McLaughlin) also finds himself pining for Max, but can’t help coming off like a bit of a stalker. Unfortunately, Lucas has a bigger problem than that, in the form of Billy (Montgomery), Max’s racist, psychotic, mullet-sporting older brother, who’s always looking for an excuse to take his violent rage out on anyone unfortunate enough to be near him. And then there’s Will, who is sick of everyone treating him with kid gloves since his ordeal last year, and so downplays the severity of his connection with a giant, evil shadow monster that haunts Will’s visions of the Upside Down, and eventually stakes out a viral bond to him that must be broken, or all of Hawkins will be destroyed.

From there, we’re off to the races: Joyce, Hopper and the gang must save Will before the shadow monster kills him, while also stopping the spreading of the Upside Down, which is no longer contained to Hawkins Laboratory. Nancy and Jonathan head off on their own mission to avenge Barb, with the help of a disgraced gonzo journalist (Gelman), while Dustin and Steve end up paired up in an effort to neutralize the threat that Dart becomes, in what amounts to the most unlikely and ultimately rewarding subplot of the season. These actors now know their characters inside and out, and they all do a great job showing how they’ve grown and matured since the first season. Plus all the new characters get wonderful moments to shine on their own, and all fit very well into the Stranger Things universe, especially Astin’s Bob, whose arc from well-meaning schlub to genuine hero is a joy to watch.

Sadly, the show stumbles the most in how it deals with season one’s breakout character: Eleven. Turns out, Eleven escaped from the Upside Down following her climactic showdown with the Demogorgon, and has been hiding out in Hopper’s cabin ever since, eating Eggos and missing Mikey. So the show sends her off on her own crusade, first tracking down her catatonic birth mother, and in what is by far the show’s worst episode to date, heading off to Chicago to get involved with a punk rock crime gang (seriously), led by Kali (Berthelsen), a similarly gifted government test subject, who provides a glimpse into the life Eleven could’ve lived were she motivated by revenge and anger, instead of a need to help those she cares about. Ostensibly, while this is supposed to be motivation to send her back to Hawkins in time for the final showdown, the whole arc just feels as though the Duffer Brothers and co. had no idea how to integrate Eleven into the season’s plot, and since her mission leads her to basically the exact place she was at the end of last season, it ends up being unbelievably anti-climactic, and just a little bit embarrassing.

But really, all of Stranger Things 2 loosely hews to its predecessor, narratively speaking, but revs everything up just a bit. That includes the pop culture references, which are both more prevalent and more overt than last season. In addition to the myriad hat tips to Steven Spielberg and Stephen King, we get shout outs to the likes of Star Wars, Aliens, The Exorcist, Friday the 13th, Ghostbusters, The Goonies, Brazil, and countless others. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, one could begin to fear that Stranger Things may just continue to coast on nostalgia as the show goes on (one of the best gags of the new season is when Lucas recounts the entire arc of season one to Max, only for her to dismiss it as “a little derivative”). But for now, for the times that we live in, there’s nothing wrong with a little bit of entertaining comfort food, which Stranger Things 2 provides in ample helpings. Let’s just hope the Duffer Brothers have some more substantial tricks up their sleeves, lest that comfort food start to give us a stomach ache.

How Does It Compare to Season One? Stranger Things 2 is bigger, darker, and, uh, nostalgia-er than its predecessor, but sometimes sags a bit under the weight of its own ambition, not to mention no longer having the element of surprise on its side.

Best Episodes: “Trick or Treat, Freak,” “Dig Dug,” “The Spy,” “The Mind Flayer,” “The Gate”

Stranger Things 2 is Recommended If You Like: ’80s Spielberg, ’80s Stephen King, ’80s Cronenberg, ’80s sci-fi, ’80s horror, ’80s sitcoms, the ’80s.

Where to Watch: Both seasons of Stranger Things can be streamed exclusively on Netflix.

Grade: 3.4 out of 5 Demodogs, which is like, a Demogorgon crossed with a dog? Demodog? Get it? Pretty cool, huh?

For more of our full season TV reviews, click here!

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