The much anticipated second season of “Stranger Things” is even stranger than the first, at least in terms of plot twists and endearing references to fantasy films from the ’80s.
But the Netflix series isn’t a stranger itself this year: This time around, we know the show, the characters, most of the cast and the imaginative concept at the inviting heart of the series.
All of that ups the ante for “Stranger Things” creators the Duffer brothers as the nine-episode second season becomes available for streaming on Friday.
Matt and Ross Duffer ended the first season with a perfect balance of resolved and unresolved elements. Joyce Byers’ (Winona Ryder) younger son, Will (Noah Schnapp), survived a visit to another dimension known as the Upside Down, but he isn’t the same since his ordeal, and he has brought a friend with him, a tiny creature he coughs up.
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The fact that Will survived offers a slim hope that Barb (Shannon Purser), who disappeared in the first season as well, may still be alive in the Upside Down and could be rescued.
As the new season begins, it’s a whole new year, icon-loaded 1984 — Ronald Reagan is running for re-election and Halloween is just around the corner. But Will and his friends Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) have other things on their minds. They don’t know the whereabouts of the strange girl they call Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and want to find her.
After spending the first season in panic looking for Will, Joyce has a moment or two of calm with her new boyfriend, Bob (Sean Astin), who manages the local Radio Shack and is working (too) hard to try to win over Will and his older brother, Jonathan (Charlie Heaton).
Joyce’s moment of normalcy is quickly shattered when another key figure in the story goes missing. Meanwhile, that cute little salamander Will brought with him from the Upside Down … well, let’s just put it this way, do you remember the 1984 film “Gremlins”?
Although there are moments when the script edges toward over-plotting, the Duffers have earned our trust and we stick with the craziness, knowing that our questions will be answered soon enough — some of them, anyway.
While it’s fun to spot the sly references to great ’80s fantasy films, those references are merely guideposts to what the Duffers are really up to, which is to tap into the inner kid in all of us, not to mention creating something actual 21st century kids with no ’80s frame of reference can enjoy.
We’ve become sophisticated about sci-fi and fantasy, and that’s too bad. Filmmakers seem to figure that they have to create complex CGI effects, often with lots of gore, to get our attention. I often wonder if it’s more about filmmakers and their toys than what audiences will really respond to.
The Duffers may have wondered the same thing. There were real gotcha moments in films like “Poltergeist” and “Gremlins.” “Stranger Things is loaded with them as well, each one designed to replicate the experience of seeing those films.
The series’ primary focus on kids is an important element in making “Stranger Things” work, simply because innocence scares more effectively than sophistication. Yet, at the same time, kids don’t have their lives all figured out yet, their minds are open and hungry, their imaginations yet to be dulled by experience.
We, or our inner kids, identify with them.
There really is a kind of sophisticated genius behind “Stranger Things,” and while others may try to imitate what the Duffers are doing, it’s harder than it may seem. If anything, the pair have moved the game forward in the second season by making the show scarier without losing the wise innocence of ’80s films as embodied by a bunch of kids riding around Hawkins, Ind., on bikes in the middle of a real adventure.
Where to watch
Season 2 of “Stranger Things” begins streaming Friday on Netflix.