'Stranger Things' is back, better than ever in Season 2

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment

Stranger Things Season 2, which starts streaming on Netflix Friday, is a sequel that gives sequels a good name: It affirms all the reasons you liked the first Stranger Things, and deepens your knowledge and affection for its storytelling and characters. Arriving a little more than a year after the first one, Season 2 is set in 1984, and as one character says in the trailer, “It’s not like it was before — it’s grown.” He’s referring to … well, I’m not going to tell you what he’s referring to, but for sure, Stranger Things itself has grown: Its youthful cast of characters is that much older, and the show’s budget that much bigger, so that you feel the stakes are a bit higher here.

Creators Matt and Ross Duffer are aware of all this — if there’s one thing that’s both a sure strength and a potential weakness for the Stranger Things franchise, it’s that the Duffer brothers are hyper-aware of how their creation fits into both pop-culture nostalgia and 21st century show business. When you add the first Things’ knowing ’80s-movie nods to the second season’s acknowledgment that you’re now familiar with its protagonists, the whole enterprise could have collapsed under the weight of overconfident familiarity. Instead, Things 2 is an earnest and efficient piece of entertainment.

Like the show’s premiere date, the story begins near Halloween, and the gang of boys is preparing for the big night by perfecting Ghostbusters costumes. (No-spoiler guarantee: All plot details cited are only ones that can be seen in the trailers Netflix has released.) Will (Noah Schnapp) is back from the Upside Down, but still seems shaken by it; his pals Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) are as loud and incorrigible as ever — but where’s Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown)? And who’s this new redheaded girl riding a skateboard (Sadie Sink)? Police chief Hopper (David Harbour) and Will’s mom, Joyce (Winona Ryder), are prominent, and they’re joined by Goonies graduate Sean Astin, a highly enjoyable addition. There’s a lot of amusingly ominous mysterious-scientist stuff going on, with Matthew Modine swapped out for Paul Reiser, but the latter definitely is not reproducing the former’s character. There’s a big spidery shape appearing in the sky, and “Reagan-Bush ’84” signs dotting suburban lawns. It doesn’t take too long for things to start going kerblooey, with lots of running and screaming. The kids are now supposed to be around 13 years old, and the surge in early adolescence angst is usefully exploited: When everything around them seems to be exploding, raging hormones only add to the chaos.

There are creatures great and small, an awareness of dear departed Barb, a cabin in the woods, a plug for 3 Musketeers bars that will surely boost sales, Devo’’s “Whip It” on the soundtrack, and the priceless cry of an always-agonized Joyce: “Get the hell out of my son!” The best things about Things 2 are that it is totally free of irony, that it does without any hip posturing, and that it’s not trying to be cool. It just wants to tell a story in the most efficient way possible, while surrounding you with a wide variety of characters you care about. Success all around.

Stranger Things 2 begins streaming Friday on Netflix.

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