Review: Been there, done that in ‘Stranger Things 2’
Second verse same as the first as the hit Netflix show returns for its second season
In its second season, “Stranger Things” feels more like scattered things.
The follow-up to the last year’s smash hit faces a dilemma similar to every sequel to a surprise, out-of-nowhere success: how do you capture lightning in a bottle a second time?
The answer is you don’t. The very things that make an original hit so endearing become a hindrance when attempts are made to duplicate it. Ace Ventura, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and every other property that has slapped a “2” after its title will tell you the same: once is a charm, twice is a chore.
And no one saw “Stranger Things” coming, which is what made it such a pleasant surprise way back in summer 2016. An orgy of ’80s nostalgia with elements of “E.T.,” “The Goonies,” “Firestarter,” “Stand by Me” and much, much more baked into its DNA, it arrived with no fanfare whatsoever and became a genuine word-of-mouth smash.
In online terms, where so much of its fandom lives, it went viral. And soon its cast was on every red carpet, playing mindless games with Jimmy Fallon, and probably even showing up at your doorstep in the form of costume-clad trick-or-treaters.
Now, a year and some change later, comes “Stranger Things 2”; that’s how its title card refers to it, so that’s what we’ll do here.
After a jarring opening sequence set outside the “Stranger Things” world, we return to Hawkins, Indiana, a year or so after the events of Season 1. It’s late October 1984, Ronald Reagan is about to be elected for a second term, and “The Terminator” is in theaters. (“The Terminator” opened Oct. 26, 1984 — “Stranger Things” is nothing if not meticulous in its detail.)
We catch up, again, with the gang: Will (Noah Schnapp) is back from the nether world known as the Upside Down, but is still haunted by visions; doctors chalk it up to “The Anniversary Effect,” which is alternately a clever way for the show to acknowledge its repetition of similar beats.
Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) are pining after a New Girl at School, Max (Sadie Sink), while Mike (Finn Wolfhard, who graduated from “Stranger Things” to “It”) pines after Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), whose whereabouts are locked down from press reveals by Netflix confidentiality agreements. (“Netflix and chill” does not apply to the company’s NDA policies, we can assure you.)
Joining the cast are Paul Reiser, who plays a doctor, and ex-Goonie” Sean Astin, who plays the new boyfriend of Will’s mom, Joyce (Winona Ryder). Sheriff Jim Hopper (David Harbour) is called to investigate disturbing occurrences with the town’s pumpkin crops, while Nancy (Natalia Dyer), Steve (Joe Keery, he of the mighty coif) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) are locked in the same love triangle from before. Internet fave Barb (Shannon Purser) is gone, but hardly forgotten.
With everything in motion, “Stranger Things 2” seems frozen in time. The disappearance of Will in Season 1 gave the plot an engine that drove the entire narrative; the second season spends a lot of time spinning its wheels and covering similar terrain. The references here are even more blatant than before — the extended “Ghostbusters” homage can be explained by the movie’s 1984 setting, and of course the kids would be fans, but it feels overly obvious — and the show feels unwilling to take big risks or up the stakes for itself. By episode four, Joyce is back to being bug-eyed and twitchy, a comfort blanket for anyone who wants to see things on their favorite show stay just the way they remember them.
Nostalgia is of course a key element of “Stranger Things” and a huge factor in its success. “Stranger Things 2,” however, feels nostalgic for the show’s first season, like creators the Duffer Brothers did everything they wanted to do the first time around and are now running a victory lap.
There is now a longer timeline to consider, of course: “Stranger Things” has been tapped for at least two more seasons. And the things it does well — era-specific production design, ace music cues, its meme-worthy title sequence — still make it fun and give it a touch of authenticity. (Sidebar: the just-released Season 1 DVD set, made up to look like a worn VHS sleeve, is the show’s finest achievement to date.)
Yet there’s something about “Stranger Things 2” that feels stuck, happy to exist in the present, but unwilling to move forward. Maybe it’s the anniversary effect, but it seems too early for “Stranger Things” to be just going through the motions.
‘Stranger Things 2’