TV Review: ‘Stranger Things 2’ is a Slow Burn Blockbuster Sequel

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There are few seasons of television that have ever been more anticipated than the second season of “Stranger Things,” Netflix’s surprise hit in 2016. The series became a summer phenomenon in ways that few series have in the modern TV landscape. The combination of 70’s/80’s nostalgia and Stephen King-inspired storytelling seems like an obvious choice in entertainment today. The return of the series showcases a slight pacing shift, yet the “sequel” is fitting and worth the wait.

The second season of “Stranger Things” returns the audience to Hawkins, Indiana, a small town with a troubled and supernatural history. We slowly catch up with the boys from season 1, starting with Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), and Will (Noah Schnapp). When we turn to Mike (Finn Wolfhard) we can see he is still mourning the loss of Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown). We also catch up with Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Steve (Joe Keery) who are struggling with the memory of Barb. Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) is still a loner. A new family has moved into the area, bringing the violent Billy (Dacre Montgomery) and video gamer/thrill enthusiast Max (Sadie Sink) into the young adult stories.

There is plenty going on for the adults as well. Sheriff Jim Hopper (David Harbour) is snarky and secretly caring. He cares for Eleven, who he has hidden in the woods for over a year. Perhaps most surprising is that Joyce (Winona Ryder) has found a new hubby, the awkward but charming Bob (Sean Astin). A new doctor, one Dr. Owens (Paul Reiser), is working with Will, Joyce, and Hopper while trying to understand the Upside Down. He is unaware of Eleven but continues to push experiments in the dangerous world.

Once again, the acting in this series is superb. Ryder and Harbour are the standouts again from a performance standpoint, with Harbour owning multiple moments throughout the season. He may not win an Emmy, but his talent is undeniable. Ryder is far more in control this time around and her agency is asserted to remind us why she’s such a strong character.  Astin and Reiser also provide strong veteran roles that help balance the story and raise the stakes of later scenes.

The kids are where the show could falter, but again simply rises above its competition. McLaughlin is the king of the group and seems like he has the timing to become a star as he continues to develop. Matarazzo once again showcases his comedic chops to make Dustin the most loveable character of the group. Bobby-Brown isn’t given as much to do this time around, but an episode later in the season is devoted entirely to her. If she grabs another nomination, it will be because of her showcase moments there.

Montgomery and Sink are excellent additions to the series, and Montgomery is intimidating as hell. Unfortunately, Wolfhard is not given material to stretch his character. Keery is so charismatic and fun to be around, it might be hard for him to transition away from Steve. That said, he is one of my favorite characters to spend time within the season. He continues to be a sour kid, but after seeing “It,” this feels like a waste of his talent. He does what he can, but outside of a single outburst, he’s not given strong material this season.

One of the more brilliant things about this season is the pairings the writers create. Some conventional storylines make their way into the season, such as a continuation of the Jonathan/Nancy/Steve love triangle. However, some fracturing between characters gives us a new view of our beloved characters. Easily the best pairing comes from Steve and Dustin’s relationship, which yields surprisingly funny results. Nancy and Jonathan finally get alone time, while Lucas attempts to woo the new Max. While racism is never explicitly stated in the season, Lucas deals with it on several occasions. Eleven also finds her way to an entirely different world, which will result in new stories in future seasons.

As with last season, the direction and production design are top notch. The world is simultaneously unique, yet comfortable. It is easy to identify the influences, everything from “Aliens” to “Jurassic Park,” to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” The design elements bring the world to life. Both the Upside Down and Hawkins are fully fleshed out in their design, and the crossing between the worlds strikes up an undeniable atmosphere of danger. Furthermore, the production aspects extend to heavy CGI and visual effects work. While the visual effects are larger this time around, it’s the ways in which the camera moves that allow them to work. The cinematography is gorgeous and creates more shadows for the effects to hide in. It’s a smart tactic that also works to hide our monsters and build suspense.

As far as the actual narrative at hand there are some flaws in the mix. The season begins extremely slowly, but as it builds, the narrative becomes almost impossible to turn away from. There’s something funny about how the season is laid out, as the show itself slowly built in the culture until it became a behemoth. During the slower episodes, the groundwork for our finale laid out and meticulously planned. By investing the time to form new relationships, we get a greater payoff at the end.

The new season of “Stranger Things” may not appeal to everyone for a handful of reasons. Like most “sequels” the blockbuster mentality of “bigger is better” creeps in throughout the film. To call this season as anything other than a continuation of blockbuster TV would be naive, as the season heavily takes cues from the “Empire Strikes Back” and “Aliens” in its construction. The slow start will turn some audience members off but is necessary to set the pieces. There is also more gore in this season than the last, with a higher body count and more blood throughout. It’s not bloodier than films like “An American Werewolf in London,” but it still is shocking compared to most TV.

Finally, there is a bit of an issue with fan service in the season. Some plot points simply feel pushed in so that fans will be happy at the end of the day. Perhaps the biggest example is the Barb storyline, which is almost entirely residual from the outcry regarding her death last season. What’s even worse about the story, is that it serves as background for other characters to separate themselves from the larger group. The plot could have served as an emotionally driven A or B storyline, especially with the supernatural elements already in place for this series. Instead, relegating it to the background, we only explore the plot on the surface.

Overall, the new season is gratifying for the audience. It’s certainly got a built-in level of appeal, which will help the series continue to grow in popularity. It’s tough to say the season is better than the first, but the most recent is another fun and exciting journey. Stakes are raised, and the series takes a darker, more violent tone. All this is the hallmark of great storytelling, and if you enjoy season 1, you’ll be in for an amazing treat.

What do you think? Does “Stranger Things 2” live up to the hype? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

“Stranger Things” season 1 and 2 are now available on Netflix.

GRADE: (★★★½)