It took a special occasion (vacation), but I temporarily put aside my movies-only mentality and actually watched a popular streaming television series. “Stranger Things” seemed like an obvious choice and it ended up blowing me away with its phenomenal first season. Sure it was episodic like most television, but it played out like a well-constructed movie. So much so that it was easy to review as one continuous whole.
Right out of the gate Season 2 feels much more like a television series. Unlike the previous season, here we get some episodes that are clearly weaker or stronger than others (with one being distinctly bad). That’s a key reason why “Stranger Things 2” lacks the cohesion and steady movie-like flow that made the first season so intensely riveting.
Now don’t get me wrong, those who are more attuned to the structure of episodic television may not see those gripes as a big deal. But considering how well every episode of Season 1 gelled together, this is a noticeable difference. Even the writing in “Stranger Things 2” lends itself to a small screen style of storytelling. But lets be fair, it’s no easy task building a second season when the first one felt like a completed story in itself.
Things start a lot slower this time around and it takes a couple of episodes for the story to really get going. Show creators the Duffer Brothers return and immediately begin threading together loose ends and setting the foundation for what is to come. Season 1 had a firm centerpiece – the disappearance of Will Byers (Noah Schnapp). This season doesn’t have that tight story focus and spends far more time developing characters and introducing new ones.
Interestingly, some of the main characters from the first season are back-burnered this time around (Finn Wolfhard’s Mike instantly comes to mind). Instead its those formerly in supporting roles that get more attention. Those benefiting most are Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin). They are given some much needed depth despite there being some kinks in their storylines. Also Steve (Joe Keery) avoids being the stereotypical bitter ex-boyfriend and grows into a fun and fully-realized character.
A lot of time is put into building up new characters as well. We’re introduced to the new girl in school Max (Sadie Sink) and her ‘bad boy’ step-brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery). We know he’s bad news because he smokes cigarettes, listens to hair metal, and constantly peels the tires of his Camaro. Max is a fun addition but Billy comes across as a weirdly out-of-sync caricature.
A new character who manages to avoid caricature is Sean Astin’s Bob, the boyfriend of Joyce (Winona Ryder). He’s a bit of a goof but an earnest one. At first he seems like an easy character to pigeonhole but the writing mixed with Astin’s warmth subverts our expectations. You can’t help but like the guy. Paul Reiser (who is no stranger to science-fiction) is a nice fit playing the new head of the Hawkins Laboratory.
David Harbour as Chief Hopper was a true strength of the first season. He’s still really good here, but his character arc isn’t nearly as compelling and he’s often relegated to a background player. Even Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), who was a linchpin of ST1 and still very relevant here, disappears for huge chunks of the season. These aren’t critical flaws but still disappointing.
It’s a good thing when a show invests time to grow its characters and the relationships between them. However in “Strangers Things 2” there is a negative effect. The narrative itself lacks the depth of the first season and you could say it retreads some of the same ground. Instead of rescuing Will from the Upside-Down, here it’s from a sinister supernatural virus. And the similarities to the X-Files mythology (government cover-ups, secret experiments, etc.) which I loved so much is ST1 pretty much vanish in Season 2.
Yet despite all of that the Duffer Brothers, along with their team of writing and directing collaborators, still manage to get their hooks in you and pull you into their ever-interesting sci-fi world. We still get so many wonderful 80s references scattered throughout which are tons of fun to discover and which add a thick layer of realism to the timeline. And once again we get to spend time with these characters who ST1 introduced so well. It all makes for a good follow-up season that may not live up to enormous strengths of the first, but does enough to keep us interested and excited for what comes next.
VERDICT – 3.5 STARS