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'Stranger Things 2' brings much of the same joy back, but loses some of the magic

The gang from Hawkins, Indiana is back; a year older and a little bit wiser as they take on a new, but familiar challenge, in the second season of Netflix’s ‘80s love letter, “Stranger Things.”

For all intents and purposes, the latest season, which was released on Oct. 27, is a sequel. Many of the themes and motifs that run throughout these nine episodes are ones that you would see pop up in one of the great, or not so great, movie sequels from ‘80s pop culture behemoths like John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg.

The show leans more heavily into the feelings and troubles that many 8th graders face: romance, independence and maintaining friendships while hormones rage and rumble.

To establish some of those changes in the “Goonies”-esque cast of middle schoolers, a new character is brought on: Max ( Sadie Sink). While the inclusion of another female character on the show is a welcome sight, Max feels like more of a token than the other characters -- which is saying something.

While it’s easy to get behind the feisty redhead, the inclusion of yet another protagonist stretches the already deep cast a little too thin. Sure it’s fun to see her interact with fan-favorites like Dustin ( Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), but it’s hard not to question if that screen time could have been better used focusing on some of the characters fans were so invested in last season.

Unlike last season, which started with a slew of dark, eerie and, yes, strange, events, this season opts for a lighter tone. Sure, the threats to Hawkins are still there, but it’s hard to be as moved by disgruntled pumpkin farmers and other government cover-ups, when we had iconic scenes like Will ( Noah Schnapp) being taken to the “Upside Down” or Barb (Shannon Purser) being attacked at the pool.

But the show could never be what fans wanted it to be coming into this season. If the Duffer brothers decided on the “ Star Wars” route for sequels and started handing out losses to the good guys left and right, then they would have lost what made the show so deeply compelling in the first place.

It might have been a shocking, yet effective twist, to have one of the fan-favorites killed off, but the value of every single one of the younger characters, from Eleven ( Millie Bobby Brown) to Steve (Joe Keery), goes far beyond their role in the plot. Something that the show somewhat loses sight of this season is honing in on those characters, fleshing them out and making them feel like more than just an amalgamation of ‘80s tropes.

And that’s not a knock on the actors. Brown, Keery and David Harbour, the well-meaning, gritty sheriff Jim Hopper, are even more likeable and interesting this season. Every single scene with those actors instantly becomes memorable, meme-able and moving, in a way that stands out on an already captivating show.

But these actors don’t get a consistent enough chance to pull the focus of the show away from the sometimes rote plot that should be the secondary focus, given the power of the characters.

Thankfully, the less-than-innovative sci-fi plot is not enough to put “Stranger Things 2” in a sophmore slump, or anything close to it. Despite a frustrating pace in the first half of the season, the absolute thrill ride that is the culminating showdown, and stellar visuals throughout, make this season a pleasure to watch. Moments like Steve dropping Dustin off at the dance, or Hopper riding in the truck with Eleven, are exactly what makes this show so special.

Sure all the shootouts, chases and movie allusions are cool, but “Stranger Things” excels because of its cast of loveable, utterly human, sometimes over-the-top, character relationships.

While the final shot of the season does convey a sense of sameness for next season’s plot, the changing dynamics among all of the characters presents more than enough reason to return to Hawkins.

Grade: B+


growell@theeagleonline.com


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