LAST WEEK’S HIGHLIGHTS …
ONE of the greatest pleasures of Stranger Things when it first appeared last year was its sheer surprise. Perhaps the most surprising achievement, though, was how its creators, The Duffer Brothers, managed to make something so oddly fresh by unambiguously patching together a bunch of old stuff.
Famously, set in a small American town in 1983, where a 12-year-old boy goes missing, sucked into a sticky nether dimension thanks to the activities of a shady government lab, Stranger Things mounted a ram raid on a generation’s memory of the American pop that mattered most back then, explicitly referencing and replaying Spielberg movies and Stephen King novels, while chucking in everything from John Hughes to John Carpenter via David Cronenberg.
That collage aesthetic is very now. Stranger Things is the ultimate TV expression of the same 21st-century fan spirit that impels inventive souls to spend hours slaving over Photoshop designing maniacally retro movie posters and fake VHS boxes, carefully aged with digital dirt to look like artefacts from the analogue age. If it were simply an exercise in nostalgic style, however, it would hardly be worth the effort. But the Duffers didn’t just replicate the surface: they caught the soul of the period pieces they cherished – excellent storytelling, a sense of adventure and spooky fun, layered with emotion about wounded characters trying to figure their lives out. This is what made it a family hit: parents remembering watching stories like this as kids; children wondering why they haven’t seen stories like this on TV today. The second series can never have that surprise. But Stranger Things 2 is a near-perfect follow-up: it offers more of the same, but more, and plunges deeper, offering new angles on what you thought you knew. Like all 1980s sequels, it seeks to “go bigger”, opening the story out, bringing in new characters, not always entirely convincingly, or welcome. But, more to the point, it cannily suggests what some unmade sequels might have been like. We never got to see ET II, or Close Encounters Of The Fourth Kind, but those characters would have been left changed, even traumatised, which is exactly how we find the gang here.
Particularly troubled is young Will (Noah Schnapp), back from “The Upside Down”, but haunted by it, seeing it breaking through into reality in Lovecraftian apocalyptic visions. The lost boy last year – essentially, a missing centre – this series gives Schnapp more to do, and he responds with a touching performance. Meanwhile, as his mother, Joyce, Winona Ryder is even better, more Winona than last time, forming a double whammy 1980s jolt with new boyfriend Bob, played by your actual Goonie, Sean Astin. Around them, more movie echoes resound, including bits from Alien to The Shining.
The story builds slowly, but is always fun, and addictive. The real peril will be when Stranger Things returns for a third series, and those little kids begin to grow up. For now, as Dustin and the rest ride their bikes to the video arcade, and something nasty infests the pumpkin patch, it’s just a delight to sink back into. Perfect escapism, and a charm for dark winter nights.