Review: ‘Stranger Things' Season 2 is a gripping (if familiar) tale

Things are stranger all over again.

Stranger Things Season 2 (streaming Friday, ★★★ out of four) is a fitting follow-up to the first, Netflix's supernatural drama, set in the 1980s, that dominated Internet chatter last summer. The new season, still helmed by creators Matt and Ross Duffer, explores new and greater threats to our heroes and the small town of Hawkins, Ind.

It's a more intimate, exciting and character-driven story, but is occasionally hampered by its bloated length and by hewing too closely to the structure of the first chapter. 

The action takes place roughly a year later, and our heroes are still haunted by the trauma of the previous year. Will (Noah Schnapp) experiences "episodes" with vivid visions of the Upside Down that may not be real. Nancy (Natalia Dyer) is wracked with guilt over Barb's (Shannon Purser) death. Hopper (David Harbour) and Joyce (Winona Ryder) are continually monitoring new threats. Mike (Finn Wolfhard) is still mourning Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), who is alive and well, but separated from her friends.

Several major new characters are in the mix this year, including Max (Sadie Sink), a new girl who captures the affections of Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo); her cruel step-brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery); and Bob (the always-enjoyable Sean Astin), Joyce's earnest and awkward new beau.

Although they're all trying to maintain normal lives, Will's episodes, the secrecy of Hawkins Lab and elements of the Upside Down that infiltrate the town turn things, well, upside down all over again.

The new season is often more engrossing and tense than the first, and veers much further into the horror genre. There's a noticeable uptick in jump-scares, and the threat of death is more palpable. A midseason episode that finds several characters running from a threat in a locked building is tense and genuinely terrifying. 

Family is the prevailing theme of the new season, and the series uses its mystic trappings to explore how (and why) bonds are formed. In the season's strongest arc, Eleven, who grew up physically and emotionally abused by a man whom she called “Papa,” sets off on a journey to find out who her family is and what “home” means.

Overall, the new season has a stronger character focus, and some of the supporting roles from Season 1 are fleshed out to great effect, particularly Lucas, Dustin and Steve (Joe Keery), who may end up being the fan-favorite breakout of the year (sorry, Barb).

But the episodes are each a hair too long, which sometimes undercuts the building tension. The new season has nine episodes, up from eight, and at times the plot meanders. 

The new episodes mimic, often too closely, the story beats of Season 1. The Byerses' house, cluttered last year by Christmas lights, is now covered in manic drawings of Will's visions. Later episodes are near carbon copies of the first season's climax, heightened by a bigger threat. For devoted fans, the similarities might be a comforting feature, not a bug, but they also feel a little tiresome, and raise questions about the series' long-term sustainability. Writers can't simply place Will in danger again and again.

Despite these faults, Stranger Things isn't so tired that the repetitiveness overpowers other strong elements. Season 2 is still a mostly satisfying binge-watch that makes good use of a talented multi-generational cast and an intriguing mythology. "Stranger" is right there in the series' title, and it would be stronger by branching into strangeness in more than just its monsters. 

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