With the first season of Stranger Things, the Duffer Brothers crafted a tale that steeped itself in '80s culture even as it explored pleasantly (and painfully) relatable characters and concepts. Franchise staples like Steve Harrington, Nancy Wheeler, and Dustin Henderson subverted their archetypes while characters like Mike Wheeler, Eleven, and Jim Hopper embraced theirs. In its second season, Stranger Things aims for bigger action and higher stakes but often forgets to go deeper. The Duffers knew that they'd inadvertently created a blockbuster series, and it's clear that they tried to top themselves. The result? Sometimes middling, other times fantastic, this sophomore season fights against its wiser judgments, taking risks when it never needed to and pushing Stranger Things closer to mediocrity. The first season introduced a creature that only terrified viewers because it threatened characters we'd come to love as close friends. The second season, on the other hand, seeks more through multiplication, adding more of the same monsters and sapping the series of any real surprise.
While this second season emphasizes its already present horror elements and aims to thrill in ways the first season couldn't, it is significantly less scary, less interesting, and less exciting than its predecessor. By expanding the reach of the many-legged threat at the center of this arc, Stranger Things has sacrificed the terror of close-quartered calamity for a sporadically thrilling yet mostly trite ‘The sky is falling!’ approach that doesn't work quite as well as the Duffers might have hoped.
Drop in quality aside, the second season adds a delightful new dynamic and shifts the focus to characters who really needed fleshing out. Will Byers functions as both hero and harbinger here, allowing for some intriguing interplay between the two juxtaposed roles. He spent the first season choking on slimy tubes in the Upside Down, so it's only fair that he takes on a more prominent role here. The budding friendship between big-hearted, big-haired Steve Harrington and tangle-topped Dustin Henderson shines amidst a dearth of memorable interactions. That's about all the intrigue this season holds, though. The show sends season one standouts Nancy Wheeler and Jonathan Byers off on a quest that was clearly shoehorned into an already crowded script for no reason other than to have them further explore a mutual attraction.
Stranger Things has absolutely seen better days, but what we get here never becomes bad television. It's just ‘meh’ television, and that's a damn shame.