×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

TV Review: ‘Stranger Things’ Season 2 on Netflix

Perhaps the most retro thing about “Stranger Things” was the way people found it — via word of mouth.

The country was not inundated with ads and marketing stunts; instead, viewers heard about the show from friends and sank into its immersive world of nerdy kids, nervous parents and evocative mysteries. It was hard not to fall in love with the Netflix drama’s affection for genre storytelling and with its earnest homages to the gnarliest pop culture of a few decades ago.

A runaway phenomenon was born: This time last year, you couldn’t walk into a Halloween party without encountering at least 11 Elevens. How could a second season top the media cacophony around it? Not easily, at least at first.

Until “Stranger Things 2” really gets going — and that takes a while — it trails an air of self-consciousness that veers into strained fan service at times. The good news is, the show’s core cast remains an extremely versatile and effective ensemble, and once the story kicks into a higher gear about halfway through the nine-episode season, a lot of the old magic returns.

Stranger Things
CREDIT: Courtesy Netflix

There are missteps in the second season, many of them revolving around thin or unfortunate writing for some of the new characters. But once you get past the clunky first few installments — which largely restate much of what occurred last season and set up plot points that were easily inferred from the trailers — the drama’s momentum picks up noticeably. As fine as the show’s justly lauded young cast is, the adult actors — especially Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton and Joe Keery — anchor every psychological nuance with subtle skill and ease.

Stranger Things” wouldn’t function as well as it does — or be able to slide past its rough spots and moments of exposition-heavy dialogue — without their detailed, committed work. Keery’s Steve, readily dismissed early in season one as a handsome stereotype with a silly haircut, has evolved into not just a deeply enjoyable part of the series but one of its indispensable elements.

That said, the show’s chief accomplishment — aside from thousands of Halloween-costume tributes to its characters — is getting so many people to greedily binge on a story that is, at its core, about profound and lasting trauma. The men, women and children of Hawkins have PTSD or worse, and the pop-culture trappings help lighten the earnest examinations of painful memories and harrowing relationships.

In last season’s finale, Will Byers, played by Noah Schnapp, returned from his trip to the Upside Down intact — or so it seemed. This season, he is at the center of the narrative — even more so than Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven — and Schnapp proves more than up to the task of portraying Will’s deepening distress. Much is asked of this young actor, and he delivers powerfully in a range of challenging situations that would be confusing for any family. As his mother, Joyce, Ryder once again brings to bear not just her charisma but her intense presence and highly watchable — almost palpable — compassion.

Stranger Things

The Byerses — and their friends — are guardians of many secrets about the seemingly normal town of Hawkins, and much of “Stranger Things” functions as a parable of the ways in which secrets can both unite people and corrode relationships. As mythologies go, the story of Hawkins, the home of a secret government research facility, is a doozy. When one of Will’s friends tells a newcomer about what they’ve all been through, she is dismissive (and in a bit of meta-commentary, notes that the wild tale is a touch “derivative”).

The expansion of the Hawkins ensemble is uneven. Brett Gelman is delightfully frayed and seedy as a freelance reporter trying to figure out the truth about the town, Paul Reiser is perfect as a sketchy scientist and Sean Astin ably embodies the latest in his long line of lovable, low-key heroes. Other new characters are far less successful, and one very uneven episode late in the season that features some of the new characters is full of exciting potential but ultimately feels like a missed opportunity. The problem with a show getting bigger is that some character arcs get smaller — and occasionally sloppier.

Stranger Things

But like El, who has her own methods of getting her way, “Stranger Things” is pretty wily about how it gets past your defenses. Gaten Matarazzo’s comic timing is continually entertaining, Caleb McLaughlin makes the most of his expanded role and Brown’s ability to summon emotion is as impressive as her character’s ability to walk between worlds. And as it wraps up Season Two, it summons some of its most propulsive and emotionally effective storytelling.

Much of the new season asks various residents of Hawkins where their true homes are. It’s not a spoiler to say that they find refuge, as most of us do — if we’re lucky — in each other.

Drama: Nine episodes (nine reviewed); Netflix, Friday, Oct. 27. 60 min.

Executive producers: Duffer Brothers, Shawn Levy, Dan Cohen, Iain Paterson.

Cast: Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Noah Schnapp, Millie Bobby Brown, Caleb McLaughlin, Gaten Matarazzo, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, Joe Keery, Sadie Sink, Sean Astin, Paul Reiser, Dacre Montgomery, Linnea Berthelsen, Cara Buono.

Note: On Friday, I’ll post a more detailed post-mortem on”Stranger Things 2″ for those who have viewed the entire season. 

TV Review: 'Stranger Things' Season 2 on Netflix

More TV

  • Billy Eichner Power of Pride Variety

    Billy Eichner on Taylor Swift's 'Calm Down' Backlash

    When Taylor Swift released her “You Need to Calm Down” music video, it seemed like every member of the LGBTQ in Hollywood was included — except for Billy Eichner. “I’m still not gay enough for Taylor Swift — or too gay — I don’t know what it is,” Eichner joked at Variety’s Power of Pride [...]

  • HIGHWIRE LIVE IN TIMES SQUARE WITH

    TV News Roundup: 'Highwire Live in Times Square' Tops Sunday Night Ratings

    In today’s TV news roundup, ABC’s “Highwire Live in Times Square” tops Sunday night ratings, and “Total Bellas” has been renewed for a fifth season. DATES FX will air the special event “Peabody Presents: Stories of the Year” on July 7. The program will showcase the issues honored at the 78th Annual Peabody Awards Ceremony [...]

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    'Scream' Series Moves From MTV to VH1 for July Debut

    The long-gestating third season of the “Scream” series is finally debuting–but not on its original network. Variety has confirmed that the series will air on VH1 instead of MTV as originally planned. “Scream” will debut on VH1 on July 8 and air two one-hour episodes back-to-back for three straight nights. The third season of the [...]

  • Jussie Smollett

    Video of Jussie Smollett With Rope Around His Neck Released by Chicago Police

    The Chicago Police Department released new surveillance footage and files in regards to the Jussie Smollett hoax case on Monday, including one that shows the “Empire” actor shortly after the alleged attack. In one of the videos, police body-cam footage shows authorities entering Smollett’s Chicago apartment, led by his manager, Frank Gatson. Smollett is found [...]

  • rachel brosnahan Variety Cover Story

    Rachel Brosnahan Signs First-Look Deal With Amazon Studios

    Rachel Brosnahan is deepening her relationship with Amazon. The “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” star has signed a first-look deal with Amazon Studios, under which she and her Scrap Paper Pictures production company will develop TV series exclusively for Amazon’s streaming platform. Brosnahan has won several awards for her performance as Midge Maisel, including an Emmy Award [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content