Review

SERIES REVIEW: Stranger Things 2

4-stars

Damn you, Duffer Brothers!

You had us binging out the palm of your hands and then left us out in the cold for a whole year, with nothing but a serious case of 80’s nostalgia and an unhealthy craving for Eggos waffles. We weren’t sure we’d ever fill the void left by a young girl with a rather runny nose and a band of loveable nerds – there’s only so much bike-riding and Dungeon & Dragoning one can do to try and fill the time. And walkie talkie-ing with yourself doesn’t really work all that well…

But our bitterness was quickly turned upside down when the folks over at Netflix dropped the first teasers for the hugely anticipated return to Hawkins. Sure, we had questions. Some of us may even have had reservations. But we were all hoping the warm, fuzzy, retro goodness would be once again turned up to eleven.

So, does the notoriously difficult second album live up to expectations?

Well, let us start at the beginning.

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After a seemingly unconnected high-octane car chase in Pittsburgh, it’s business as usual in Hawkins, Indiana. Hallowe’en is a’coming, and strange things are once again afoot. Someone has smashed Dustin’s (Gaten Matarazzo) PB on the arcade game Dig Dug; Mike’s (Finn Wolfhard) heart is still on the mend after Eleven’s (Millie Bobby Brown) sacrificial departure last season; and Hopper (David Harbour) is asked to inspect some rather unappealing looking vegetable patches (that’s not a euphemism, honest). But, most intriguing of all to returning fans will be learning what has become of that which was largely absent first time around. Yes, Will Byers is back (and in Noah Schnapp we undoubtedly have this season’s standout performer), but after the whole sinister looking sink slug cliff-hanger at the end of last years’ finale, is this the same Will his friends and family know? Suspicions are quickly confirmed, as it becomes abundantly clear very early that something ain’t quite right – unless harrowing apocalyptic visions of a red-skied, raging wasteland and a large, tentacled monster are people’s idea of normality.

And on hand if Will is ever two-seconds too long in the bathroom, Winona Ryder’s Joyce Byers is once again tested to the limits of motherhood, as her understandably over-protective nature has led to her young son now attending regular therapy sessions with the unnervingly cheery Dr Owens (Paul Reiser) – who you can bet your bottom dollar has some ulterior motives up his sleeve.

Elsewhere, Hawkins’ very own brat-pack teen trio – Nancy (Natalia Dyer), Steve (Joe Keery), and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) – remain firmly in a love triangle that none of them are willing to admit. Eleven still loves Eggos, and still goes through Kleenex like the clappers, but this time may have acquired a new ‘Papa’ on her road to self-discovery.

Once again bringing the bitchin’ blend of scares, swears, funnies, and feels, it’s clear from the outset that Stranger Things 2 unashamedly revels in all that made season one such a deliriously entertaining ride. And in building on the narrative foundations – and pop-culture checklist – laid down a year ago (even to the point of something that might resemble justice for Barb), it’s a move that is an assured and sensible one – after all, why fix something that ain’t broke?

But this is an altogether darker, more ambitious venture, complete with a handful of new faces and some rather unexpected new partnerships. There’s new kid on the block Max (Sadie Sink) – a skateboarding, take-no-shit tom boy who is perfect 5th team member material; and her borderline sociopath step-brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery), sporting one hell of an attitude, and one hell of a haircut. And last but by no means least, there’s friendly RadioShack manager, and long-time Hawkins resident, Bob Newby (Sean Astin) – an aptly named do-gooder who’s got a heart-warming positivity and go-getting outlook, as well as a nifty knack for solving puzzles.

However, the debutants prove to be a real mixed bag. While Max adds a welcomed new dimension to the team of socially hapless Demogorgon – and part-time ghost – busters, her narrative relevance slowly fades to little more than a romantic target for a pair of young, bickering Romeos. Billy is equally underdeveloped; but whereas in others’ hands, his conventional gruff demeanour and explosive temper would quickly brand him season 2’s official human antagonist, The Duffer Brothers just about do enough to give his character some penultimate episode greying – in the form of a fleeting, fiery domestic confrontation.

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It’s nice-guy Bob who is the real revelation here, however. Sean Astin (the part has quite clearly been written for him, and him alone) is a wonderfully ingenious piece of casting. After all, who better to appear in a series that is basically one extended homage to The Goonies than the star of that very film? It might be shameless tacked-on fan-pleasuring, but Bob’s Mikey Walsh-esc optimism, practicality, occasional naivety, and all-round good intentions are a joy to behold, and only the most stubbornly loyal members of team Gollum won’t find themselves smiling every time he’s on screen.

Casting playfulness aside, Stranger Things 2 doesn’t come without its fair share of unwanted narrative baggage, however. While the decision to remain faithful to the first season in both story and style is a welcome one, there are times – perhaps inevitably – when it feels as though we are going over the same ground, only in different ways. In particular, an early season revelation involving some impressively robust crayons and a forests worth of paper has a Byers’ season one Christmas-light display written all over it. Similarly, the final showdown reeks of déjà vu, and a climatic dilemma which is swiftly resolved by nougat feels a tad cheap. There’s also a mid-season, episode-long narrative deviation that promises much, but ultimately fails to offer anything more than clichéd, unnecessary story-fleshing that feels entirely out of sync with everything that has come before.

All in all, though, The Duffer Brothers have crafted an intelligently layered, confidently accomplished, and joyously satisfying follow-up. Stranger Things 2 more than matches the first season for moreish entertainment, even if it lacks that same organic freshness. And as darkness festers on the horizon of Will’s visions throughout, so too do future trips back to Hawkins, we hope.

 

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