Minor spoilers ahead.
While the second series of Netflix's "Stranger Things" didn't manage to make lightning strike twice, I was plenty satisfied with the direction that the Duffer brothers decided to take things. Everything people liked about the first series is back, from the never-ending '80s references to the stellar kid actors. There are a few missteps and some shameless pandering to contend with, but "Stranger Things" remains one of the most wildly entertaining shows currently running on any platform.
A year has passed and it's 1984 in Hawkins, Indiana. Things are normal, aside from the arrival of some new kids in town - tough girl Max (Sadie Sink), who becomes a classmate of Mike and the gang, and her bullying older brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery). Oh, and Will is still seeing sinister visions of the Upside-Down, requiring regular visits to Hawkins Lab, under the new management of the seemingly nice Dr. Owens (Paul Reiser). And then there's that mysterious blight killing local crops that might be connected to a looming shadow monster Will sees in his visions.
Unlike the first year, where the storylines had the adults, teens, and kids grouped separately, this time around the character dynamics see some shaking up. The Byers family mostly functions together as a unit, trying to deal with Will's "episodes." Everyone else, however, gets to combine in more interesting ways. There are some fun new pairings like Eleven and Hopper forging a father-daughter relationship, and Dustin and Steve become unlikely brothers-in-arms. Some of the kids warm to Max immediately, but others don't - notably Mike - creating new tensions and splits. We still have all these stories eventually converging in one big event at the end of the series, but it's a twistier road to get there.
And the approach works pretty well, keeping the plotting from getting repetitive and mostly balancing out the amount of screen time everyone has. Mike noticeably gets less attention this year, possibly because Finn Wolfhard went off to make "It," but he makes the most of the time he does have in the spotlight. And while the new kids could have done with more fleshing out, there's also a sense that the creators are saving that for next season - because this time around everyone knows that there's going to be a next season. The story is more open-ended, and some things are set up that definitely haven't played out all the way yet.
While the budget for special effects has been beefed up, particularly for several CGI critters, the highlights of this year are the performances. Several of these are much improved, notably Winona Ryder, who thankfully takes things down a few notches. Joe Keery is one of the surprise MVPs, who ends up playing the Josh Brolin big brother role to the younger kids' Goonies in the last few episodes. Noah Schnapp gets way more to do this time around, and he's great. I also really enjoyed Millie Bobby Brown's Eleven, who remains the best part of the show, getting to go off on her own adventures for a bit, before rejoining her friends.
We still end up with confrontation scenes that are overly screamy, and nerdy elements that are way too self-indulgent, but the Duffer brothers display an excellent sense of how to keep things fresh and entertaining for their audience. I love the way they manage to mine so much humor out of serious situations, and can't resist poking fun at many old cliches. Nancy and Jonathan's subplot, for instance, would have been a lot more tedious if it weren't for the intervention of a local conspiracy theorist. And I admit, the boys dressing up as the Ghostbusters for Halloween, and nobody wanting to be Winston, is too perfect for words.
"Stranger Things" remains a show of very specific genre pleasures, leaning heavily on nostalgia and familiarity. However, no other show comes close to filling this niche, and few are as consistently entertaining. I can't help feeling uneasy that the Duffer brothers and Netflix are pressing their luck continuing the series, because they're almost certainly going to hit diminishing returns soon. But it hasn't happened yet, so I suppose we should just enjoy the ride while we can.