“Stranger Things” season 1 was nominated for 18 awards during 2016’s Primetime Emmy Awards. (Courtesy of Netflix)
The first season of Netflix’s “Stranger Things” was one of the best TV shows to premiere last year. With an intriguing mystery, an eclectic and immediately endearing cast of characters, and an 80s sensibility that harkened back to the works of Spielberg and Carpenter, the series quickly proved itself to be one of the best pieces of media to come out of pop culture’s current fascination with the age of Schwarzenegger and synth. After its immense success, a second season was practically guaranteed, and now one year later it is finally out. But with the series’ main mystery practically solved by the end of last season, and with most of the series’ leads having completed their character arcs already, can this new season push the story forward in meaningful ways or is it just a sequel for its own sake?
“Stranger Things” is an 80s-themed science fiction thriller that follows the residents of the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana as they try their best to live normal lives while fighting off supernatural attacks on their community. The first season focused on the friends and family of Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), a 12-year-old boy who went missing under mysterious circumstances, as they attempt to both rescue him and uncover the mystery surrounding a girl named Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), who appeared in town shortly after Will’s disappearance and has an assortment of psychic powers. Season two picks up a year after this, with Will home, Eleven missing and presumed dead, and the town at large trying their best to put the traumatic events of the previous year out of mind. This relative peace is quickly dashed however when Will begins having mysterious visions of a new, otherworldly threat that if unchallenged has the potential to destroy Hawkins and the entire world as they know it.
Unfortunately, the story of season two is not quite as strong as the first. While the show remains tense, has some cool twists and turns, and feels like the next logical step for the story and the world to take, a lot of the suspense that made the first season so binge-able is absent this time around because there is very little new to learn about the threat the characters are facing. The main mystery also takes much longer to get moving, leading to stretches in the beginning where it feels like the characters are just biding their time in weaker subplots until the story finally kicks in. That is not to say the overall story of this season is bad, just that its lacking some of the magic that made the first season as magnetic as it was.
That being said, the show’s supernatural aspect was never the main draw. That honor is unquestionably the character writing. While every member of the main cast can vaguely be fit into one or more of the classic 80s stereotypes (bad boy with a heart of gold, overprotective mother, etc.), very rarely are they defined solely by them. Rather, the characters are elevated beyond their stock archetypes through both clever subversion of their traditional roles in the story and a script that treats them as people first and plot devices second. To use an example from the first season, Will’s mother Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) perfectly fits the stereotypical overprotective/hyperactive mother role that would normally be a hindrance keeping the characters from saving her son or the cause of the problem in the first place. But here, the show subverts the trope by making Joyce surprisingly capable and characterizing her as a single mother trying to do her best in a messed-up situation, leaving her incredibly sympathetic.
This strong writing holds true this season as well. While it is true that many of the characters completed their arcs last time around and do not have much new to do, the show sidesteps this by pushing those characters into a supporting role to give previously under-utilized characters such as Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Steve (Joe Keery) more room to develop on top of introducing new members to add some new perspectives to the main group (Sadine Sink’s portrayal of Maxine Mayfield is a particular highlight). This works well for the most part, even if some of the new cast members do not work quite as well as intended.
The returning cast remains just as stellar here as they were last time around. Harbour and Ryder continue to be the series MVP’s, but there is not a weak link in the returning cast. Special mention must be given though to Noah Schnapp’s portrayal of Will, a character that for all his importance to the DNA of the series has not really gotten the chance to shine up until now. Without getting into spoilers, Will’s character goes psychologically dark this season, and Schnapp does not miss a step on the way there.
All in all, season two of “Stranger Things” is a solid follow-up to an electrifying original. Some of that new-show magic is gone, and the story as a whole is not quite as tightly constructed as it was the first time around, but everything that made season one worth watching is still there. If the series wants to continue into a third season, hopefully it can find a story that feels more consequential next time around, but for the time being this works too.
Final Grade: B