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Once more into the breach

The second season of ‘Stranger Things’ is far from underwhelming

Noah Schnapp, Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo, and Caleb McLaughlin in “Stranger Things”

Patton Oswalt’s prediction seems on schedule: that true nerd culture (loosely defined as rarefied obsessions being cool because they aren’t supposed to be) will not only die of superficial popularity, but also suffocate creative innovation. Retro-mix tapes substituting for originality. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the ‘80s and Stephen King are still everywhere. The popularity of the first season of “Stranger Things” certainly paved the way for the stunning success of “IT.”

And it seems completely tailored for me. Which is why I should probably hate it.

I’m the Stephen King fan. The Lovecraft reader. My ‘80s was defined by “Star Wars,” “Dungeons and Dragons,” rock, New Wave, and metal bands on MTV, and the sci-fi/fantasy blitzkrieg that was the birth of blockbuster ‘80s genre film. “Stranger Things” isn’t just catnip for nostalgic Gen X’ers, but also latecomers charmed by geekery from before their time. A zeitgeist confection of pop culture callbacks that captured that holiest of Seinfeldian designations—the watercooler show.

Yet, despite my ingrained cynicism toward buzzy nostalgia-porn, I fell hard.

In season one, in the town of Hawkins, Indiana, a U.S. Department of Energy lab houses a covert experiment involving a young, telekinetic girl named Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown). She escapes after scientists open a rift between our world and The Upside Down, a shadowy, “Silent Hill”-eqse mirror dimension, haunted by faceless, screeching monsters. One of them kidnaps young Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), imprisoning him in The Upside Down.

His devastated mom, Joyce (Winona Ryder) joins forces with Will’s brother (Charlie Heaton), his adorable Loser’s Club of nerdy friends (Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin), and the local sheriff (David Barbour) to infiltrate the lab—with Eleven’s help—and rescue Will from the clutches of the Demogorgon. They succeed, striking a wary bargain with the government: their silence in exchange for a vow that the government does everything they can to close the rift.

The new season is as much about the characters’ reaction to all of that as it is a continuation of their story. What it lacks in that sense of discovery, it augments by building on the characters’ connections. It’s a very King thing to do: spend two-thirds of the story hinting at the threat, developing characters that you come to know and love, or sometimes hate, and then drop the hammer on them all.     

What made that first season work is still in full effect. Writer-directors Ross and Matt Duffer have an uncanny deftness with packing the show with nods to films like “Escape from New York,” “Star Wars,” “Aliens,” and many more for the eagle-eyed fan. The music remains delightfully Carpenter-inspired (with a roster of licensed songs that must have cost more than most indie films). The kids are still a blast, their foul-mouthed comradery as charming as ever. Barbour and Ryder’s performances are compelling. As for the plot, let’s just say the rift is still open.

It’s not as fresh as it was, and those who thought the show spun its wheels a bit will find the same to complain about here. But in the last episodes, the Duffer’s go for broke. And when they let loose, it’s a creepy, emotional, and exhilarating thing of dark beauty.

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