‘Stranger Things 2’ Delivers Visions of Doom and Nostalgia

The ever-present sense of doom now common on TV and the big screen gets the nostalgic touch in the second season of “Stranger Things.” Back with its time capsule trip into the 1980s complete with winks at the chart toppers and mullet hairstyles of the era, the new season answers some of the first season’s key questions while placing its heroes in new, even more dangerous terrain. The real world and the Upside Down are now beginning to dangerously come together and new characters help raise the stakes. But like its predecessor, this new batch of nine episodes has a charming human touch that supersedes the ghouls and paranormal activity.

We return to the town of Hawkins, Indiana. The year is 1984, “The Terminator” is playing in theaters and Ronald Reagan is gearing up for reelection. Our pre-adolescent heroes, Will (Noah Schnapp), Michael (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) are back in class but reeling from the first season’s incidents. Will is now firmly rescued from the Upside Down but is haunted by visions of stormy clouds and a mysterious giant creature rising above the town. His mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) suspects there’s something wrong but can’t quite figure it out. Meanwhile the telekinetic Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), also an escapee from the other realm, is being secretly held by a overbearing Sheriff Jim Hopper (David Harbour), who fears that Eleven could soon be found by the Hawkins National Laboratory- the secretive government operation monitoring the Upside Down and its paranormal aftershocks. Recently pumpkin crops have started to mysteriously rot and die, Hopper is on the case and starts to suspect it may be connected to work at the lab. As the other four heroes also sense something big is coming, they are also faced with a new arrival in the form of Max (Sadie Sink), a tough, skateboard-riding student who joins the pack but is unaware of their connection to forces out of this world.

When a show becomes a major hit with its initial season, the big question is if the follow up can possibly do it justice. But Season 2 of “Stranger Things” delivers by maintaining the series’ initial tone and never betraying what makes it so special. The show’s creators (and directors of several episodes), The Duffer Brothers, understand their sources inside out. The episodes are infused with the spirit of classic works by Steven Spielberg, Stephen King or John Carpenter- where all the spooky content is really metaphor for deeper, more human angles. “Stranger Things” is a beautiful show about growing up. In the new season every character is given a new development that feels like life’s natural flows. Joyce now dates a friendly Radioshack employee named Bob (Sean Astin), who connects with Will by sharing his own experiences of being bullied (without suspecting the supernatural reasons for the kid’s problems). Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) and her boyfriend Steve (Joe Keery) start having relationship problems because she can’t process the death of her friend Barbara in the previous season while he seems to have gotten over the whole Upside Down experience coolly. Nancy inevitably draws closer to Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), Will’s brother, who does understand the scope of what happened and proudly defines himself by “being a freak.”  These story developments are written in a way where we can instantly relate to how common it all feels, even as the exciting, main plot hurtles along. Like the best fiction, we love these characters because we can relate to them.

This applies to the four heroes who shine because they feel like real kids. They and the teens in this show feel more authentic than the vapid, plastic personas of something like “Riverdale,” where everyone looks too perfect  or is too goody goodie. Here everyone from Will to Eleven endure the hassles of feeling out of place and keeping secrets from the clueless adults. A story development involving Dustin suddenly finding himself caring for a creature from Upside Down has a lot of suspense, but it’s also tender by combining the plot with that childhood phase of learning how to care for a pet- inevitably it gets more complicated, and dangerous. The new characters immediately make their homes in this world. Max is wonderfully conceived and is a great misfit. Of course she will bring some hormonal tension to the group, and it’s almost more fun to watch these friends deal with real life than with paranormal entities. Another great new character is Max’s mysterious companion and hot car-driving tough guy Billy (Dacre Montgomery), is the ultimate resurrection of the 80s with his hard rock look.  His initial cockiness and locker room swag steals every scene.

But it’s all combined with great storytelling as the show’s plot moves forward and we learn about how Eleven made it out of Upside Down, what the lab is up to in town. Once more and more of Upside Down starts crossing over into our world, the story takes swerves and detours only the cold-hearted would dare spoil in a review. What shouldn’t come as a spoiler is that the show remains a gorgeous piece of nostalgia in its Giorgio Moroder-like music by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, and rich cinematography that evokes films like “E.T.” and “Poltergeist.” When we see flashlight beams searching in a darkened wood, the cinephile heart can only leap.

“Stranger Things” is a great binge package because it combines so much of what makes good storytelling so memorable- great characters, universal feelings, and the fate of the world at stake.

Stranger Things 2” premieres Oct. 27 on Netflix.