The sophomore year is always the hardest. The Karate Kid Part II (1986), Poltergeist II – The Other Side (1986), Short Circuit 2 (1988), The Howling II (1985), The Cannonball Run 2 (1984), Teen Wolf Too (1987), Beverly Hills Cop 2 (1987), Friday the 13th – Part 2 (1981), Grease 2 (1982), Ghostbusters 2 (1989) and Crocodile Dundee II (1988) – all second albums that struggled after their landmark debuts. So as eager TV viewers take a big canary yellow school bus back to Hawkins, Indiana, the sophomore pitfalls loom nearly as large as the black tentacles of a shadow monster at night. But to liken this second season to a bad follow-up is totally missing the point of the Duffer Brothers’ Stranger Things project. It is all about ‘bad’ sequels. Its very DNA is an Eighties world of movies whose titles have simply added a number (not even a roman numeral – because only adults do that). Why create a new research lab of shadowy intrigue when – just like Poltergeist II – we can go back to the original location and see it from a different angle. Why spend a whole new season depicting new teachers when Grease 2 got it right by bringing back the same staff, corridors and graffiti-strewn restrooms. And why keep Eleven in Mike’s bedroom when we can do what Short Circuit 2 and every Eighties sequel did and relocate her for an adventure in the city!
It is the Fall of 1984. It is Halloween and young Will (Noah Schnapp) is still haunted by the events of Season One where his world turned upside down and left him there for dead whilst his adventure-minded AV Club pals Goonied their way to a home-made, movie-inspired rescue. Mom Joyce (the ever wonderful Winona Ryder) has now got a real Goonie in her life in the form of Sean Astin’s kind-willed Bob, and the first of Hawkins Middle School to start our gang’s cherished AV Club. Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) is now living in secret with kind hearted, but blunt Chief Hopper (the ever solid David Harbour). And teens Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Will (Finn Wolfhard) are living a new life with the returned-but-not-quite-right Will, Ghostbusters fandom, new teeth, new pets, scene stealing sisters and a new skateboarding girl who has trumped them on the top score on their favourite arcade game. A deadly vision or two later of a town flanked by a deadly shadow monster not even those responsible for letting it in to our world can fathom, the Stranger Things boys are very quickly propelled back to a world of hastily dumping their bikes on kerbsides, running past studious girls clutching school folders, walkie-talkie urgency and crossing the streams to work with the older kids in the neighbourhood.
So have the Duffer Brothers and producer Shawn Levy caught lightning in a can of Tab again? Yes. Very much so. But not without – like all Eighties sequels – a few casualties along the way. The very beauty and globally adored brilliance of the first eight episodes of Stranger Things was not just soaking in all those Eighties movie references (E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, It, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Thing, Stand By Me, The Goonies, Poltergeist and First Blood). It was slowly realising the show did not actually need them to work. Stranger Things works because of its writing and casting. The wildly mature skills of Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven immediately anchored this project in compassion, kindness and vulnerability. It was a total antidote to the sometimes harsh, bloody and rapid cut vagaries of American Horror Story, Black Mirror and Game of Thrones. And it wasn’t the boys of Stranger Things who let us into this nearly familiar Eighties milieu. It was Eleven. Coupled with Winona Ryder’s heart-wrenching efforts to find her missing son Will (aided by the likes of Peter Gabriel and his soaring cover of Heroes) and the emotions and plot of Stranger Things was suddenly hinged on what no Eighties hit had really achieved before – girls. A year later that dynamic very much remains. But in introducing a new girl (Sadie Sink’s feisty Max), the show very nearly dilutes that team effort so that it takes a while before we see our boys working, talking and thinking together. Drop in a rather odd motif of Joyce allowing Will to be regularly checked up in the very same facility that led to his disappearance in Season One, a rag tag ensemble of mutant vigilantes that screams of Sense 8 and the flabbiest ‘they made us like this’ eye-rolls of Heroes and a new family that has no clear narrative momentum beyond the households we already know – and not all of the Season Two upgrades work. And ultimately that final coda of the shadow monster looming large over Hawkins is pretty much no different to how Season Two started. Gone is the corporate villainy, Max Zorin hair and power dressing of Matthew Modine’s Brenner. However, Eighties suit Paul Reiser (Aliens) playing Brenner’s ultimately benevolent replacement should not work in a second series that suddenly has no human enemy beyond the homo-baiting buff and mulleted Billy. But it does. And even the new, but brutish Billy (Dacre Montgomery) has more depth to his meat-headed advances in a ploy that is not just lifting the queer drives of 1985’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 2, it is a delicious ruse for the gays who rarely got any fun Eighties movies or shows made for them that didn’t involve health epidemics. Stranger Thighs anyone?! The bored, coiffured Hawkins housewives know what I mean!
It is not just the Eighties tunes, jackets, mousse-heavy hair or Jaws posters that mark out Stranger Things 2 as a coy, ever-rotating View-Master reel of that most Day-Glo of decades. It is there in how each scene and each new exchange takes it time, how story arcs are not forever teased like DVD Easter eggs and how Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein’s glorious score takes prominence over any cheap and obvious Eighties Greatest Hits bought by a dad down the gas station. The grey November skies, bare trees, pumpkin flecked front yards and lumberjack coats are straight from 1983’s The Dead Zone. Yet, Dixon and Stein’s ever-synthy, ever John Carpenter-savvy score accompanying a character walking home speaks Eighties more than any track by Toto or Dustin’s prom night attempts to change his hair. Top marks must also go to production designer Chris Trujillo who has known from the start that most mid-American households, kitchens and bedrooms of the Eighties were as much about Watergate-era beiges of the Seventies as they were any polka dot, rainbow statement about 1984. And don’t get me on the delicious title fonts that time-travel this show quicker than a Back to the Future style van racing through the streets of Pittsburgh.
Maybe it was too prescient and too damn depressing to properly feature the ’84 Presidential election backdrop so touted on the front lawn placards. But there is still an immediacy to this show. It operates as a 2017 piece of television before it does a homage to 1984 or 1985. It has to. The beautifully unfurled Snow Ball, its Time After Time poignancy and finale skills bows Season Two out on an utterly warm and character astute note. There could have been more shared screen-time between Will and Eleven – the Elliott and E.T. of Stranger Things – but that is what Season Three could be for. And Season Four. And any show that brings us the deliciously sassy Erica Sinclair (Lucas’s hilarious sister) gets a thumbs up from this Eighties kid. I am paying good money for a cat fight between her and Eleven…maybe in a Dynasty style ornamental fountain (!). I am not sure Eleven would win that one.
Keeping with the now vibe, the visual effects are notably not that of Eighties rubber masks, rod puppets and fake blood gore. But they are achieved with the same soul and the same story intent. A Gremlins inspired sidebar story – including borrowed bars of Jerry Goldsmith’s score – is nearly redundant. Again, the soul of it and how it is woven into the whole season totally works. Likewise, repeating the home-made, fairy light communication motif of Season One with Winona Ryder papering her walls with crayon drawings (does that woman not have a budget limit for wallpaper?!) should feel samey. Yet, under the control of the Duffer Brothers and producer Levy, Stranger Things 2 cleverly adds a new well of homage to drink from – namely itself and Season One. The winning grip of nostalgia is now that for Stranger Things just as it is E.T. The Extra Terrestrial.
Shows and audience adoration like Stranger Things do no come along often. Part of the nostalgic wonder and glory of the whole Stranger Things project is how it has got people talking the next day in the school yard, on the bus and with dropped, slightly jealous jaws at anyone who has still yet to see any of it. That is just as Eighties as any coyly-used Brit hit from the era, some Farrah Fawcett hairspray or a stonewashed pair of jeans. “Do we deserve a second chance” ponders Olivia Newton John over the final episode’s final act. After these freshman and sophomore years, the reply is surely a big yes. The junior and senior years ain’t afraid of no ghosts.
And yes – there is justice for Barb.
Stranger Things 2 is now available to watch on Netflix.