Television’s most hair-raising homage to ‘80s pop culture is back, and just in time for the Halloween weekend too. The much-anticipated sophomore season of Stranger Things will debut at a Netflix near you on Oct 27. And this is about 11 months (see what they did there?) since the breakout series first dragged us into the Upside Down, setting off a phenomenon that has both fans and critics hankering for more.
We return to the small town of Hawkins, Indiana, around Halloween in 1984, a little under a year since the events of the first season. Our favourite bunch of nerds Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and a recovering Will (Noah Schnapp) are back to being kids again as they graduate from playing board games to hitting the town arcade.
Now that Will is safely back from the Upside Down, his frantic mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) struggles between being an understanding and protective parent, but finds hope in a burgeoning romance with a lovable electronics salesman Bob (Sean Astin). The teens of the story – Nancy (Natalia Dyer), Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) and Steve (Joe Keery) – are still navigating a complicated love triangle.
But not all is well in the once-sleepy town. The Upside Down is not quite done with Will, who has terrifying visions of a giant spider-like shadow creature. And while scientists, led by one Dr Owens (Paul Reiser), continue to clean up the mess at the laboratory, the town’s crops seem to be hit by a mysterious plague, confounding the sherif Jim Hopper (David Harbour) and his colleagues.
I know what you’re thinking: where’s Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown)? Well, from the trailers and the clips we’ve seen so far, I can safely say that she’ll be back but I’m unable to offer any further details. To avoid spoilers, parts of this review will be more cryptic than I would’ve liked.
Taking its cue from movie sequels, Stranger Things 2 makes a conscious effort to be bigger, meaner and more thrilling. It has everything we loved about the first season but dialed up several notches. The stakes are higher, the story arcs expanded and the mythos more visonary.
Even the cast has grown – in addition to Reiser and Astin, Sadie Sink plays Max, a pretty tomboy who disrupts the group dynamics just like Eleven in the previous season, Meanwhile, Red Ranger Dacre Montgomery is Billy, the school’s new resident bad boy. There are a few other significant characters added to the stable who deepen the story and will be sure to excite the fandom.
One of the advantages of Stranger Things being a television series is that there is ample time for character development. We get to see fan favourites El, Will, Dustin, Joyce and Jim grow, and the actors who play them have the chance to flex their acting muscles. Even Steve, who previously annoyed me, matures this season and the ever-adorable Matarazzo hones his impeccable comic timing as the curious and hilarious Dustin, who is always a joy to watch.
There were several points when the cast’s performances had me choking back tears and I think this is one of the main strengths of this season. The show is not just out to give you a good scare but it’s after your heart as well, especially when it profoundly explores the notions of home, family, love and friendship.
An element that continues to be a big part of the series’s appeal is, of course, the references to classic genre movies of its era. This season is brimming with them particularly E.T., Gremlins, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and most notably Aliens and Jurassic Park. In fact, one of its creators Matt Duffer revealed in an interview with Entertainment Weekly that James Cameron was a huge influence on the second season.
If you think Stranger Things is eerie but you can’t quite pinpoint why, it’s because the series borrows the iconography from the darkest corners of your childhood. We all know that the Demogorgon was not unlike the Xenomorph from the Alien movies, but there are also more familiar nods to sci-fi horror movies such as a close up of a hissing ginger cat and otherworldly “plant” life. Even Reiser’s casting is one giant reference. I wouldn’t dismiss them as sly wink-and-nudge pop cultural references but actual clues that inform the plot.
One minor drawback: because there are more characters and their stories are being expanded, the pacing at the start is a tad uneven and the action only truly kicks in from the middle of the season onwards.
But once it finds its footing, there’s no stopping this thrilling roller coaster ride of a show that is still binge-worthy. Simply put, if you loved the first season then it’s very likely that you will enjoy this one – it might just take a bit more time to get into it.
Stranger Things 2 debuts on Netflix this Friday, Oct 27. Will you be tuning in?