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Sunday, January 29, 2023
Season two builds on its previous season with new characters and more strong acting performances.

Season two builds on its previous season with new characters and more strong acting performances.

‘Stranger Things 2’ brings ‘80s thrills back to Netflix

Last year, “Stranger Things” was the unexpected frontrunner of the entire TV industry. Relying mostly on word-of-mouth and Netflix’s algorithm, it catapulted into fame without much of a marketing push, which is a true testament to just how good it was. It also meant the showrunners, the Duffer Brothers, had a mountain of expectations to meet the second time around. Along with everyone else in the world, I was a huge fan of the first season, so when I sat down to binge the second season this weekend, I couldn’t help but have this feeling of dread. Though not without its flaws, “Stranger Things 2” is magnificent.

One of the marketing tactics the show used before its release was recreating some of the classic ‘80s horror and sci-fi movie posters, and they continued to do that in the actual show itself. There were even some shot-for-shot tributes to movies such as “Close Encounters From the Third Kind.” Around the third episode, fan favorite Dustin Henderson encounters a mysterious creature in his garbage can, pulls a “Gremlins” and decides to keep it as a pet. The show commits to the ‘80s decade and does so with a passion. The entire series is stuffed with references, making it not only a period piece, but also simply a love letter to the ‘80s in general. And, of course, that means the music as well. The soundtrack was perhaps one of the most lovable characters in the first season, and at times they seem to be hitting it too hard this time around, yet its presence was still an essential element to the show’s world.

While on the topic of lovable characters, this season was full of so many incredible performances. The performance that stood out to me the most — which, in a cast as stacked as this one, is an incredible feat — was Noah Schnapp. Last season, his character, Will Byers, was stuck in the Upside Down, and therefore not all that accessible. But now that Will is back, we finally get to see Schnapp with the rest of the cast, and he certainly held his own. Will is the character who just can’t seem to catch a break, dealing with the aftermath of last season’s craziness. His performance as a little kid haunted by post-traumatic stress and literal possession brought tears to my eyes at moments and had me hiding beneath my blanket at others. Of course, nothing has changed since last season and Winona Ryder absolutely steals every scene she’s in as the greatest TV mom ever, Joyce Byers. Other honorable mentions are Millie Bobby Brown, who gets an entire episode to really showcase her skills, and David Harbour, who somehow makes Jim Hopper even more of a lovable grump this time around.

One of the things I was most nervous about this season was when I found out new kids were moving into town. Last season, the cast ensemble was so tight that I couldn’t imagine why they’d want to disrupt that by throwing anyone new into the mix. But Sadie Sink, who plays new girl Max, acts 10 times as hard just to prove the doubters wrong. Max is your typical tomboy, borderline manic pixie dream girl, a trope that sci-fi just can’t seem to escape, with “Stranger Things” being no exception. She even brings with her an evil step-brother, the annoying yet beautiful bully of the season, named Billy. He was one of the weakest links of the show, a character they could have done really cool things to subvert an overused trope — as they had last season with Steve’s redemption arc — but Billy just fell flat. The only good thing Billy brought to the show was something that has been seriously lacking since the show’s beginning: a conversation about race … sort of. Billy makes really vague threats to Max about her budding romance with Lucas, the only person of color in the main cast. At times, it seems to be racially motivated, but he never says so explicitly. That’s about as far as “Stranger Things” has attempted to approach the topic, unfortunately.

All-in-all, the Duffer brothers managed to make “Stranger Things 2” just as big and exciting as the first, and they did so by taking exactly what made it work the first time — which relied heavily on a fantastic cast — and doing it all over again. Though not everything they tried to take on was ultimately successful — episode seven was a break from the mold and perhaps one of the weaker episodes — they did do some really fantastic things this season. I’ll be here, impatiently waiting for my Dustin/Steve spinoff. Fans of the show everywhere can breathe a sigh of relief that “Stranger Things 2” keeps the heart of the show very much alive.

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