Cast of Stranger Things in a classroom
Stranger Things

TV

Stranger Things is back. And it’s the escapist viewing we need right now 

The second instalment is even soapier and warmer than the first, says Helen O’Hara

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By Helen O'Hara on

Stranger Things was, by some distance, the most talked-about show of last year. The Duffer Brothers’ creation came almost out of nowhere to take the world by storm with its ’80s pop culture references and weirdly compelling kidnap plot about a boy taken to a nightmarish other world, the Upside Down, and the strangely powerful little girl who helps to rescue him. Stranger Things 2 (not “season two” like a normal show; the makers consider this akin to a film sequel) takes the solid decision to develop the mythology only a little but to double-down on the characters. The result is soapier but more likeable than last time, with less self-conscious ’80s nostalgia and considerably more warmth.

There’s a long list of things that Netflix considers spoilers for this show, and one of them happens five minutes into the first episode, so this piece will be talking in very general terms. We can say that the Upside Down remains a threat to the people of the small town of Hawkins, and that the government’s research programme on it has resumed despite the disasters of last year. This will, obviously, prove to be a terrible idea.

The heart of the story remains a plucky quartet of teenage boys. Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Mike (Finn Wolfhard) all get their own story arcs this time. Dustin has finally gained his two front teeth but is still, bless every curly hair on his adorable head, making terrible decisions that have unexpected consequences for the gang. Lucas bonds with bad-girl newcomer to the school Max (Sadie Sink) and squabbles with his fabulously obnoxious little sister, while Mike spends most of his time pining for Eleven (Millie Bobbie Brown), the psychokinetic little girl who became last year’s break-out star. It’s no spoiler – if you’ve seen even a poster – to say that Eleven returns from the Upside Down and struggles to find her place in the world.

Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven
 

Then there’s the fourth boy, Will (Noah Schnapp). After spending most of last season stuck in a nightmare while his mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) frantically looked for him, he is home but haunted, tormented by strange visions and subject to his mother’s hovering attention. If you expect Will to be victimised by the monsters once again, and for Joyce to once again turn her house upside down (no pun intended) to help him, you won’t be disappointed.

Overall this season is funnier and more affectionate than last year, and there are some unexpected character beats that work brilliantly: older cool kid Steve (Joe Keery) taking Dustin under his wing, for instance, or Sean Astin turning up in Samwise mode as Joyce’s loyal new boyfriend, or the expanded relationship between Sheriff Hopper (David Harbour) and Eleven. New additions like Max and her odious young-Rob-Lowe-with-a-mullet brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery) generally work well, though it takes a long time to fully reassemble the gang we knew last time. Along the way they keep us busy with love triangles, one for every generation of the cast to some degree or another, and a few delightful ’80s teen movie beats – particularly in the final episode.

Along the way they keep us busy with love triangles, one for every generation of the cast to some degree or another, and a few delightful ’80s teen movie beats

This is a show that isn’t really about anything. Game Of Thrones, for all its dragons, can boast interesting ideas about the use of power and long-term versus short-term goals, while this year’s absolute best shows – stuff like The Handmaid’s tale and Big Little Lies – are dripping with meaning and relevance. Stranger Things just wants to entertain you, to tell a scary story (episode seven is a straight-up horror movie) about things that go bump in the night and give you a little thrill. Like Stephen King’s It, such a huge hit in cinemas earlier this autumn, it makes us fall in love with a group of bickering, funny, silly kids and then puts them through – almost literal – hell. And heck, that works.

Maybe it is limited in its ambition, but the bigger scope of the monsters this season and a gradual widening of focus beyond the town of Hawkins suggests that that limit is only temporary. Stranger Things 2 offers us escapist fun in the company of an increasingly funny and likeable cast, and that counts for something when the real world is already upside down.

Stranger Things 2 is on Netflix

@HelenLOHara

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