Thumbs up for the Upside Down: ‘Stranger Things’ cracks the sequel formula

By Jim Sabataso
Correspondent

In season two, “Stranger Things” demonstrates just how well it understands the milieu in which it lives. The popular Netflix series, about a gang of kids who battle extra-dimensional monsters in 1980s suburban Indiana, returned late last month with a second season that followed a predictable sequel formula, that nonetheless delivered a thrilling and satisfying season of television.

A pastiche of classic 1980s horror and sci-fi films, the series is a massive dose of nostalgia that manages to feel fresh as it plays with familiar narrative tropes and sprinkles in dozens of pop-culture Easter eggs and homages to the era which inspired it. “Stranger Things” is rarely nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake; rather, it’s a mash-up of sorts — taking disparate pieces of genre films and reassembling them into something that is greater and fresher than its parts.

The Duffer Brothers remain the dominant creative force here. They co-write and -direct four of the season’s eight episodes. The rest of the episodes are directed by some ringers best known for their work in film, including Andrew Stanton (“WALL-E”), Shawn Levy (“Night at the Museum”), and Rebecca Thomas (“Electrick Children”).

Following the sequel formula, season two ups the stakes while returning to familiar characters and story beats in new ways. While there are moments where things feel a bit too similar to season one, it mostly works.

The story picks up a year later with Will (Noah Schnapp) still being haunted by his time in the Upside Down, a dark dimension where he spent most of last season. However, what his doctor — played by a very welcome Paul Reiser — has dismissed as PTSD, turns out to be residual effects of his time there. He has developed a symbiotic relationship with the monsters of the Upside Down, which complicates things as a rift between the two dimensions opens and more monsters spill out.

As a character, Will remains little more than a walking McGuffin. Despite his importance, he gets the least development of the core group. A close second is Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Will’s loyal best friend, who spends his free time pining for the still missing Eleven. Mike is determined not to give up on Will or El, but for all his smart ideas, he’s just not that interesting.

Thank god for Dustin and Lucas. While the other two members of the Party, as they call themselves, didn’t get much time in the spotlight last season, this season gives them their due — especially Dustin, who is a standout. Gaten Matarazzo is fantastic as the group’s big brain. His foul-mouthed exasperation with everyone around him who can’t keep up is so damn funny, and adds some good laughs amid all the horror.

Caleb McLaughlin’s Lucas also gets more development, as he and Dustin spend much of the season on various side missions getting and chasing down the monstrous demi-dogs who are menacing the town. We also get a glimpse of Lucas’ family, including his sister Erica (Priah Ferguson), who has no patience for Lucas and his friends’ nerdy BS, and is a damn delight.

Winona Ryder continues to dial her anxiety up to 11 in every scene as Will’s mom Joyce. It would be easy for her character to veer into hysterical and shrill, but Ryder keeps it on the rails.

David Harbour returns as Hopper, the gruff sheriff who’s been hiding Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) for the past year. Over that time, the two have developed a tender father-daughter relationship. However, El is starting to bristle at Hopper’s protectiveness. Bored, lonely and isolated, she misses Mike and the gang, and is not content to spend her life in hiding. Brown continues to make El a compelling and sympathetic character. She’s a great young actor who brings real emotion and passion to the role.

Meanwhile, Mike’s sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Will’s brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) unite once again to get the truth out about what happened to Barb, Nancy’s BFF and victim of the Upside Down. Their story is typical teen romance territory that is thankfully elevated by their pairing with newcomer Brett Gelman, who plays Murray Bauman, a conspiratorial journalist investigating Barb’s disappearance.

Joe Keery’s Steve Harrington is the odd man out in this love triangle, but that’s not a bad thing. Free of dealing with relationship drama, Steve and his magnificent locks are free to join up with Dustin and Lucas for some solid “Goonies”-style adventuring. The evolution of Steve’s character from jerk-ass boyfriend to badass babysitter is one of the strongest developments of season two, if only because it gives us the Dustin-Steve pairing, another comedic highpoint.

There are several new faces this season. Sean Astin shows up as Joyce’s boyfriend — a nice, nerdy guy whose hokey efforts to win over Mike and Jonathan are endearing. Yes, Astin, who’s been in “Goonies” and the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, is a bit of geek-culture stunt casting, but he’s a welcome addition.

Less effective is Max (Sadie Sink), a skateboarding, video-gaming girl who slowly becomes part of the Party. Max is a flat character; she’s the typical cool girl who likes the things the guys like and seems to have been included for the sake of adding another female character without bothering to develop her.

Thankfully, Max leads us to her step-brother Billy, a ridiculous parody of Rob Lowe’s character from “St. Elmo’s Fire.” As a character, he’s a bully with a fast car, an aversion to wearing shirts and little else. However, there is enough subtext to raise questions about his sexuality — is his behavior, especially his abuse of Steve, merely overcompensation? A post-basketball practice shower scene with not-so-subtle shades of that volleyball scene from “Top Gun” makes a good case for it. Given the lack of homosexual characters on the show, it would be an interesting thread to explore in season three.

Story wise, the season is mostly solid. After spending some time checking in with its characters and establishing the status quo, it kicks into high gear at the end of the third episode and mostly keeps pace until the end.

To be sure, there are some flaws here and there. A late-season spotlight episode on Eleven in which she locates her similarly powered “sister” from her time in captivity stalls narrative momentum while adding little of interest or significance. Kali (Linnea Berthelsen) has allowed her trauma to curdle into something dark, as she seeks vengeance for her former captors. However, the subplot is undercut by the comically generic gang of punk types surrounding her.

Overall, Eleven is largely undeserved this season. She is kept separate from the Party for too long — first in hiding with Hopper, then on the road with Kali. It robs the story of the sweet moments between her, Mike and the rest of the kids. I get that keeping them apart is a deliberate effort to maintain some narrative tension, but it goes on longer than it felt necessary.

The series is also showing signs of too many characters having plot armor — that is, when a character is too important to the story to die. Here, the show also has to deal with how many of the characters have become fan favorites. Eleven, Dustin, Steve, even Erica, have become memes on social media. So, despite the high stakes of season two, there is never a sense that anyone we care about is going to die. Sure, by season’s end, we do get a couple deaths, but I don’t think anyone will be surprised by whom.

Still, “Stranger Things” is so much fun it’s hard to find fault. Compared to everything it gets right, these criticisms amount to minor quibbles. It’s one of those rare genre shows that has gained mainstream popularity without sacrificing what made people love it in the first place. While I’m not sure how many more seasons it has before the returns begin to diminish — and the cast ages out — I’m happy to stick around until it does.

CHECK IT OUT
Season two of “Stranger Things” is now streaming on Netflix.

Jim Sabataso

Jim Sabataso is a freelance writer living in Vermont.

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