On the whole, I can’t help but like the new season of “Stranger Things” way more than I liked Season 1. Last year, “Stranger Things” was a cute diversion, but ultimately aimless. For the most part, Season 2 acts with more of a purpose and a vision that feels like it truly belongs to its creators, the Duffer Brothers.
But I also can’t help but feel unsatisfied by how it all plays out because of a pair of plot threads that, for now, never pay off and a third that seems to exist entirely to address a situation that doesn’t really matter. With a tighter focus “Stranger Things” season 2 could have been great — as it stands, we’ll have to settle for almost great, and hope the Duffers are planning to make those apparently divergent threads make sense in season 3.
One big advantage Season 2 has over the original is its starting point. Part of my problem with Season 1 was the same problem we have with superhero origin movies — you get bogged down with the “origin” part, figuring out the specifics of the world and the outlandish situation our heroes find themselves in. Season 2 doesn’t have to torture itself into explaining the basics of “Stranger Things” fantasy. It gets to assume you’re on board and just go. And I like where it goes.
Season 2 is a slow burn, to be sure, with the Duffer Brothers quietly setting the stage while we catch up with everybody. The kids are mostly living regular lives, sad that Eleven isn’t around. Eleven is hiding, sad that she isn’t with the other kids. Nancy and Steve are still together, for some reason, and nobody cares about Barb still.
The folks at the weird secret science lab, now led by a decidedly non-villainous Paul Reiser, spend their days shooting flamethrowers at the dimensional hole in the basement. Joyce Byers is dating a nerd who works at Radio Shack. It’s October but all the pumpkins in town have mysteriously died. Will Byers has PTSD from being stuck in an alternate dimension for all of last season — or is it something else?
It’s something else. Of course. The science guys are not as great at keeping that pesky portal contained as they thought. And Will is experiencing a sort of bleeding effect, experiencing visions of the Upside Down that are being forced on him by some malevolent force.
For about seven-and-a-half of the season’s nine episodes, I was honestly enthralled. Season 2, to me, had the vibe of a slow-burn version of “The Mist,” with an infection slowly making itself known instead of coming all at once. And while I do think the central thread satisfies through to the end, some other threads do not.
My enjoyment of season 2 fell off pretty hard as I realized these ancillary threads weren’t going to add up to much in the big picture (at least not yet). It’s tough to imagine why a season with only 9 episodes would need to spend a significant amount of time spinning its wheels, but that’s exactly what happens here. It’s immensely frustrating.
Helping to dull that pain, at least, are newcomers Reiser and Sean Astin. Reiser’s lab administrator is a company man, like his Carter Burke in “Aliens,” but only until lives are clearly at stake.
Astin’s Bob, Joyce Byers’ new boyfriend that, is the dorky but effortlessly fun dad figure you can’t help but feel comfortable around. Astin kills it.
I also can’t help but retroactively dislike season 1 a bit because of how it sidelined Noah Schnapp for so much of the time. That kid is a revelation in Season 2 as Will offers up the most haunting of expressions at every turn.
For a while, I started to think that “Stranger Things” season 2 was shaping up to be one of my favorite TV experiences of the year. But instead it feels like a disappointment to some extent. Maybe Season 3 can redeem some of those threads.