Upside Down: ‘Stranger Things – Season 2’ reviewed

❉ It’s that difficult second album…

That difficult second album is a tough thing to get right when you have a hit on your hands. For both Netflix and creators the Duffer Brothers, a sequel to their 2016 smash hit SF-Horror series Stranger Things was always going to be a no-brainer. Basically the tale of a group of young boys, the telekinetic girl they befriend, and the search for their friend, lost in a spooky dimension they dub the ‘Upside Down’ – it was a winning combination of 80s nostalgia, a cocktail of Steven Spielberg and Stephen King. Crammed with arch cinema references and cosy period detail, it managed to be both a warm story of childhood friendship and a chilly nod to bad science like the shady MK Ultra project and the inherent shadiness of government spooks. The young main cast were likeable and funny, whilst Winona Ryder (who it seems, does not age like normal people) made a comeback in a big way with a brilliant performance as Joyce, the distraught mother of the lost Will Byers. Boosted by word of mouth and a nifty viral marketing campaign, it was a huge success, and was immediately greenlit for a sequel.

A little over a year later, here it is. Expanded from eight episodes to nine and given a clear budget injection, Stranger Things 2 has a bigger ensemble cast and a wider scope to contend with. Picking up a year after the first series, we rejoin the residents of Hawkins, Indiana as they readjust to their perilous run-in with the unknown. Young Will (Noah Schapp) has returned from the Upside Down, but he hasn’t come back alone, suffering from ‘episodes’ that the adults of the piece reject as ‘flashbacks’ that leave the boy almost paralysed with fear, as it becomes apparent that the Upside Down isn’t so far away.

Meanwhile, the other boys are well into that awkward stage where adolescents become teenagers, Mike (Finn Wolfhard) is in the worst state, angry, raw, lashing out at everyone and everything, missing Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) since her disappearance into the Upside Down. Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) have their own girl trouble, as they both awkwardly circle the new girl at school, snarky skater girl Max (Sadie Sink). The greatest growing pains are experienced by Eleven. The superb Millie Bobby Brown manages to say more with minimal dialogue and facial expressions than most of the remaining cast together. She spends much of ST2 on her own journey, struggling to control both her increasingly fearsome powers and her anger, which as it turn out, go hand in hand.

In fact, the broader canvas, higher stakes, and new characters mean that most of the cast get separated off into their own subplots, some of them spending several episodes totally unaware of what their friends are up to. Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) go off to avenge the death of Barb in the first series by blowing the whistle on the events of the first series, leaving Nancy’s sensitive-jock boyfriend Steve behind in the process as they grow closer. David Harbour’s grouchy, rumpled, but good-hearted Hopper tries to keep his town safe whilst juggling an epidemic of rotting pumpkins and some tough-love parenting. Joyce is in a new relationship with sweet, square Bob from Radio Shack (Sean Astin), whilst fretting over Will.

The new characters are a mixed bag. Astin is likeable as Bob, while Paul Reiser is an avuncular chief scientist. Max’s uber-douche brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery) falls a bit flat, as he’s only really there to be both ripped and unpleasant, a one-dimensional jock who seems to combine every scowling bully character played by the young Kiefer Sutherland.

The first series of Stranger Things came in for some criticism for being ‘derivative’, which ST2 cheekily acknowledges. There’s a multitude of film references to spot, riffing on Ghostbusters, Gremlins, Aliens, and strikingly The Exorcist. There’s also visual nods and sight-gags to The Empire Strikes Back, The Shining, Teen Wolf, and a bang-on nod to Animal House that comes hard on the heels of an 80s teen party straight out of Weird Science. There’s some fun business with the un-hip music favoured by the adults, all Kenny and Dolly and Jim Croce, and some Dad-dancing too.

It’s also not afraid to joke at its own expense. “Well, I mean I had a few issues,” Max says to Lucas when he tries to recap the events of the first series to her. “I thought it was a little derivative in parts.” Steve also lets Dustin in on the secret of his preposterously gravity-defyingly mane of hair.

Of course Stranger Things isn’t the ‘real’ 1980s. It’s a lovingly curated grab-bag of music, fashion, and pop culture references from the period. It takes the nostalgic and familiar and creates something that you think you remember rather than the real thing, but Stranger Things does it artfully, and with far more style than the in-your-face “There goes Mad Lizzie drinking a can of Tab Clear on a Sinclair C5” references that were crammed into Ashes to Ashes. The fashions and haircuts are tweaked and sharpened up to reflect 1984. Jonathan Byers no longer looks like he’s been given permission by Neil Young to be twenty on Sugar Mountain, and now has something of the look of a young River Phoenix about him, while Nancy looks like she’s about to star in a movie about babysitting. The only times that the ‘80s references are really reaching is the presence of the cliched anarcho-punk fashion plates that Eleven falls in with in the ‘cutaway’ episode set in Chicago, who look like they’ve just stepped from a Gap Jeans advert. Just to remind you that it’s now, and not then, there’s also some timely swipes at the whistleblowing likes of Wikileaks, and Fake News too.

Does it work? Mostly, yes. The writing is still smart and snappy, while the already-impressive visuals take a turn for the spectacular. The performances are great, with particular kudos to Ryder, Harbour, Brown, and the unnerving Schapp, who positively radiates both childlike panic and menace in places. There’s laughs, and sad bits, and some surprisingly visceral horror. But it should have been ten episodes, rather than nine. The additional episode is there for an out-of-Hawkins excursion that falls flat due to aforementioned punks (a homage to the sewer-dwelling Morlocks from Chris Claremont’s 1980s-era X-Men, perhaps) being so dislikable. There’s a lot of business to cover, a further extra episode would have given some breathing space for such a plot-heavy series.

So, Stranger Things 2. Overall a success, highly enjoyable, goes new places whilst shining a light on the old, it’s certainly no disgrace to the original. It isn’t perfect though. Its legacy will probably be heated future arguments over which series was better, echoing the still-raging battle of hearts and minds that’s been going on for decades between Back to the Future parts I & II. Even if that’s its only legacy, the Duffer Brothers would probably be proud.

‘Stranger Things’ 2 is a Netflix Original.

❉ ‘Martin Ruddock has written for ‘Doctor Who Magazine’, the ‘You And Who’ series, and is a regular contributor to We Are Cult. He lives in Bournemouth with a beautiful, very patient woman and teetering piles of records and nerd stuff. He loves writing, and may write something for you if you ask nicely.

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