All of this amounts to the most encouraging thing about the season premiere. (Rebel Billy’s starter stache being a close second.) For all of the tres-’80s trappings, Reese’s Pieces and paranormal pyrotechnics, the creators Matt and Ross Duffer have kept “Stranger Things” grounded in the story of a bunch of relatively normal people who went through an extraordinary and cataclysmic experience.
We’ve put together a guide to everything you need to know before the nine episodes of Season 2 arrive.
“Stranger Things” was a kick thanks to its (exhaustively documented) references and Goonie thrills. But it resonated because its tale of monsters and plucky outsiders channeled the heart as well as the aesthetics of its influences.
Market demands aside, it wasn’t clear that the show even needed a second season, and the Duffers’ silly insistence that it be called “Stranger Things 2” — like a real movie sequel! — suggested the sort of showrunner overreach that scuttled the sophomore seasons of other recent summer sensations, like “True Detective” and “UnREAL.”
So it comes as a nice surprise that the second season instead evinces the best of serial television, expanding the story and moving it forward while honoring the characters and the often traumatic paths that brought them here.
On the expansion side we have the aforementioned Billy (Dacre Montgomery), who brought his bitchin’ Camaro, snug Canadian tuxedo and stink of adolescent danger to town from California. His sister (maybe?) Max (Sadie Sink) is a Dig Dug savant, and the obsession of Lucas and the newly toothed Dustin. (Gaten Matarazzo continues to steal every scene he’s in.) The always great Brett Gelman (“Twin Peaks: The Return,” “Eagleheart”) is on hand as an investigator who’s possibly fleecing Barb’s folks, but who also has legitimate-sounding intel about Eleven.
The season actually began with a broadening of the story, tracking a robber gang fleeing the police through the streets of Pittsburgh. After one of them mentally tricks a cop into crashing his and the other cars in pursuit, a “008” tattoo on her wrist reminds us that, oh right, there are potentially at least 10 other Elevens running around to spark telekinetic mayhem and future subplots.
We’ll return to Eight at some point, presumably, but after the brief introduction we landed back in Hawkins, Ind., a few days before Halloween, 1984, not quite a year after the events of Season 1. The boys are budding video junkies, dumping too many quarters into the then-revolutionary but actually pretty lame animated game Dragon’s Lair.
Soon the Upside Down beckons, and Will beholds a fiery storm in the gloom. This becomes a talking point for his next exam at the Hawkins National Laboratory, the source of all the trouble last year, but that’s all transdimensional water under the bridge now, apparently. (That was one thing that didn’t scan for me.)
Paul Reiser, riffing on his duplicitous “Aliens” character, has replaced Matthew Modine as the master of Upside Down ceremonies. He explains that although Will thinks, 1.) he’s dimension-hopping; and 2.) that a malevolent force is saying it wants to kill everyone, what he’s really experiencing is post-traumatic stress.
“I need you to realize I’m on your side,” he tells a skeptical Joyce. (Note: He is probably not on her side.)
With its tendril-like limbs and leafy face flaps, the Demogorgon had a botanical quality: Last year, I called it a monster mash-up of Alien, Predator and a Venus flytrap, and I stand by the description. This time around the menace seems even more explicitly vegetal. Work in the lab involves a lot of pruning via flamethrower while, on the outskirts of town, the pumpkin patches have begun to resemble Civil War battlefields. You don’t have to be Sheriff Hopper to see a connection.
What you do have to be him to see, at least for now, is Eleven. You’ll recall that at the end of last season, he was leaving out Eggos for her — apparently at some point he made contact and was able to take her in.
The arrangement offers a poignant second chance for Hopper, who lost his own daughter to illness, even as Mike and perhaps Eleven suffer from the separation. We’ll see how long it lasts. “Stranger Things 2” (sigh) deserves credit for not immediately defaulting to “Eleven and the Nerds Ride Again,” but you can bet it will get there before long.
A Few Thoughts While We Crank It Up
• The premiere did a decent job of mixing in less played-out ’80s hits, like Oingo Boingo’s “Just Another Day,” with the more obvious ones (“Whip It,” “Talking in Your Sleep”). But sometimes the most obvious option is the best one: “Rock You Like a Hurricane” is the only choice for a denim-clad cheese ball like Billy.
• Nancy switched up her hairstyle, but the thing she really needs to change is sitting next to her, bungling his college admissions essay. That would be Steve, who’s already envisioning working for his dad and settling down. Run, Nancy! It’s too late for Barb — save yourself!
• Disclosure: I haven’t accepted Samwise Gamgee romancing Winona Ryder.