Stranger Things 2: retro teen sci-fi show's return is as delightful as ever

Netflix have thrown more money at last year’s surprise hit, and the knowing 1980s references and charming cast deliver another slice of nostalgia

There is a weight of expectation on the shoulder pads of Stranger Things 2, the follow-up series to Netflix’s revival of, and homage to, the adventurous spirit of 1980s films like The Goonies, Stand By Me and ET.

It made superstars of its young cast, was credited with re-energising the career of Winona Ryder, and won multiple awards, though its enormous impact seemed almost to take everyone by surprise, including Netflix.

The power of nostalgia is certainly strong enough to paper over the series’ flaws: though charming and undoubtedly stylish, the first season didn’t quite match up to the might of its opening episode. More sweet than scary, it was carried along by a clever eye for an iconic moment, likable characters and incisive tributes to its cinematic inspirations.

Stranger Things 2, then – its creators, the Duffer Brothers, have styled the title this way in a nod to the movies it references – asks more of itself and its audience. It is bigger in ambition, bigger in story – and now bigger in budget, thanks to its success.

It certainly looks more expensive, though the special effects are never desperately showy, and its child stars are given emotional storylines demanding greater depth, to which some step up – Noah Schnapp as the long-suffering Will is extraordinary – and some just about manage.

The action isn’t only confined to Hawkins, Indiana, and we’re introduced to several new characters in an attempt to broaden the show’s scope. It’s impossible to discuss the plot in much detail – another sign of its success is that episodes were released early only to reviewers who agreed not to mention a list of proscribed storylines, which turn out to be the bulk of the series.

Winona Ryder’s career was rebooted with the first series of Stranger Things.
Winona Ryder’s career was rebooted with the first series of Stranger Things. Photograph: Jackson Lee Davis/Netflix

It would be no fun to spoil anything, though, and Stranger Things 2 really is a delight, once it finally hits its stride. It’s only when the final four instalments start to tear into the action that you realise quite how slow the rest of it has been; there’s a standalone episode that takes place in another location that puts a criminal dent in the pace by taking us away from the central gang at a crucial moment.

Some of the additions to the cast, too, fall wide of the mark. There’s a marauding gang of terrorist-punks who are more fashion-mag shoot than public menace; and Billy, a bullying big brother who seems like a composite of every character Kiefer Sutherland played in the 80s, is even sillier than his hairspray mullet would imply. He doesn’t even have the worst hair on the show.

But there’s a lot to admire in what the Duffers have achieved. It’s a gorgeous piece of television, in which everything from Will’s stormy-night visions of the Upside Down to a simple shot of new girl Max skateboarding looks meticulously considered.

There will be plenty of spot-the-reference moments for sci-fi and horror fans, particularly as it all starts to go wrong in the lab and the series progresses towards a darker, more perilous climax.

There’s as much to enjoy as admire, too. The most popular character of the first season wasn’t Will, or Mike, or even Eleven, though she was a close second. It was Barb, the plucky underdog killed off too early. This sequel is filled with the spirit of Barb, as the female characters stride to the front.

Though she’s barely in it, Lucas’s little sister lights up every scene she’s in. Max is the street-smart new member of the club (though her pejorative use of the word “stalker” seems rather modern for 1984). Nancy is less simpering and more crucial, and Eleven is off on her own Carrie-ish travels, where she meets more tough girls, though her return from where we left her last season is wrapped up a little too neatly. Even Winona Ryder’s Joyce seems more focused on getting the job done this time, though it’s hard not to feel for her house, which once again ends up looking like a Blue Peter activity gone very badly awry.

Stranger Things can feel as if it straddles two worlds, just as in the show. It’s part retro teen drama, with plenty of adolescent angst, and part gruesome sci-fi horror, with this season in particular ramping up the thrills. Sometimes these elements can hit a tonal barrier, in which neither is given space to fully breathe. But compromise, as police chief Jim Hopper gently explains to Eleven, means “kinda halfway happy”. Though there remains a frustrating sense that if only a few kinks were ironed out, this could be one of the best TV shows around, it would take a cold heart not to warm to Stranger Things 2.


Rebecca Nicholson

The GuardianTramp

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