Review: ‘Stranger Things’ Returns, More Familiar but Still Fun

The new season, arriving Friday, picks up just before Halloween 1984, and it spends its first half creating new versions of the first season’s conflicts. Will is back in our world, but tormented by visions of the Upside Down, which, as the first-season epilogue suggested, still has a hold on him.

Eleven, who went missing at the end of Season 1, is still in hiding. So Will’s D&D buddies — Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) — find a new cool girl to be group-infatuated with, Max (Sadie Sink), and a new creepy-crawly menace to battle. As a new extradimensional threat arises, Mr. Modine’s conspiracist scientist is replaced by Dr. Owens (a credibly straight-faced Paul Reiser).

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Finn Wolfhard as Mike and Noah Schnapp as Will in Season 2 of Netflix’s “Stranger Things.” Credit Netflix

The new season’s biggest strength is how it deals with Will’s trauma. He’s a frail kid who’s survived a horrifying experience, and Noah Schnapp, in a bigger role, doesn’t let you forget it. His lingering feeling of being unsafe in his own body is the show’s most effective chiller. Ms. Ryder’s role gets a little smaller as the story expands, but her fear of losing her son again, this time before her eyes, is just as convincing.

We’ve put together a guide to everything you need to know before the nine episodes of Season 2 arrive.

For a breakout hit, “Stranger Things 2” mostly refrains from milking fan-favorite elements. The death of Barb (Shannon Purser), who became a viral obsession, has continued repercussions (which occupy the show’s teen characters for much of the season), but they’re grounded in the story and characters.

And while keeping Eleven separate from the action may be frustrating, credit the Duffers for resisting the temptation to turn the series, on the strength of Ms. Brown’s transfixing stare, into “The Eleven Show.”

“Stranger Things” has a solid ensemble (Sean Astin joins it, as Joyce’s amiably clueless new boyfriend), but its real star is the world it creates. Hawkins, Ind., feels genuine even though it’s made out of movies. Parts of the new season recall “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Gremlins,” “The Empire Strikes Back” and, naturally, the Reese’s Pieces sequence in “E.T.” For one unfortunate episode, the show becomes “The Outsiders,” complete with apocalypse-chic street-punk gang.

When the boys agree to go as the Ghostbusters for Halloween, there’s even a sly comment on the racial dynamic of that movie and of ’80s pop culture. Lucas, who is African-American, refuses to go as Winston, the black Ghostbuster. “No one wants to be Winston!” he says. “He joined the team super late, he’s not funny and he’s not even a scientist.”

The new season jokes about its own referentiality later, when Lucas fills Max in on the adventures of a year ago. She, of course, thinks he’s made up a story. “I really liked it,” she says. “I just felt it was a little derivative in parts.”

That would be a fair critique of “Stranger Things 2,” which reprises many of Season 1’s arcs and twists. (The ingenious device of having Will speak from the Upside Down via Christmas lights is replaced by — well, you’ll see.) I’m not sure “Stranger Things” creatively needed a second season, and for several episodes it seems like “Stranger Things 2” isn’t convinced of it either.

But it’s a still a good time, it’s nicely paced at nine episodes and it blends the suspense of ’80s horror with the heart of an ’80s teen romance. It may be last year’s Halloween candy, repackaged. That doesn’t mean it can’t still be sweet.

[ Read our refresher on where “Stranger Things” Season 1 left off. ]

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