Stranger Things first came out in July of 2016, the heart of Hollywood blockbuster season, and the traditional dead period for new television. But Netflix’s ’80s-set period horror/sci-fi/fantasy series, mashing up the best and/or most familiar Stephen King and Steven Spielberg tendencies, took over culture in a way that dwarfed most of the big screen efforts last year.
That’s no easy feat, especially when you think about just how bad Stranger Things would have been if it hadn’t nailed just about every beat of its story, characters, and world. The show took plenty of fire for its apparent willingness to traffic in nostalgia, and sure, there were plenty of nods to nerd culture of the period. It was a series with main characters designed to remind viewers of what it was like to be an ’80s kid into things like Dungeons & Dragons.
That criticism missed a very important point: Stranger Things worked incredibly well not because of nostalgia winks or genre tropes, but because the show used the nostalgia as enhancement to its own unique characters and story, and because it subverted genre tropes in rewarding fashion.
(Spoilers for season 1, which you really should have watched if you’re reading a season 2 review, but hey. There aren’t any significant spoilers for season 2, but by talking about it some might emerge naturally.)
One example stood out for me both times I’ve watched through the first season. Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) suspects her son’s disappearance has a supernatural element to it, and has those suspicions confirmed by a number of creepy moments; a disturbing phone call, lights flickering, and finally, a shape pushing through the wall. The audience sees all these things, and the audience also knows the disappearance is indeed of a supernatural origin, thanks to a dimenson-bending experiment gone wrong at a local Department of Energy installation.
None of the other characters know this, though. That’s a standard setup for a few episodes of one of my least favorite plot devices, where one character and the audience knows something is true, but the other characters don’t believe her. It doesn’t create any tension, because the story can’t really advance until we get to the inevitable point when other characters either see what we have seen, or choose to believe her. Stranger Things got to that point quickly in the show’s first season, and without knowing much about the show, I was set to be turned off. But instead of dragging it out, the show very smartly moved right into other characters believing her.
Police Chief Hopper (David Harbour, possibly the show’s best performance) is dismissive after that weird phone call that ended with the phone blackened by an electrical charge, offering the typical power surge explanation. But when Joyce asks incredulously if he doesn’t think it’s weird, Hopper responds with “Nah, it’s weird.” He isn’t all the way convinced, but he’s not just writing Joyce off as crazy, because that’s how normal people would react in that situation. Because it was weird, on the way to being a whole lot weirder.
That one line said a lot about the kind of show The Duffer Brothers (weird billing and all) were giving us, a show of characters, not plot devices. Stranger Things 2 is more of the same; an even more difficult task, given the standard issues with sequels living up to expectations.
The second season continues with nods to the world of sci-fi/fantasy/horror, including with its casting choices; Paul Reiser (Aliens, in addition to Mad About You) is on board as the friendlier face of the Department of Energy, while Sean Astin (Lord of the Rings for fantasy, The Goonies for ’80s nostalgia) is the slightly dorky new boyfriend for Joyce. There’s also a new girl at school, a welcome addition to the main gang of four boys who are all back.
That the kids all give great performances is not nothing; bad kid actors would tank this show, but they all deliver. The adults deliver too, with Harbour’s Hopper harboring a few new secrets. But in addition to the new mystery spreading through Hawkins, Indiana (the show is, as you’d expect, set in the runup to Halloween; a local pumpkin patch loses its yield to a sudden rot, Dustin is menaced by some odd noises, and poor Will Byers continues to have visions of the Upside Down), the show takes the time to invest in the characters, kids of various ages growing up, talking to girls for the first time, or getting ready to go to college, or being a new kid in town with a shitty family life.
Stranger Things does the weird of growing up just as well as it handles the weird of psychic children whose powers have been enhanced by lab experiments battling encroaching monsters from another dimension let loose by shadowy government personnel. That’s why it works.