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‘Stranger Things 2’ review: Slow-building second season is bigger, almost better

It's a new year in Hawkins, Indiana, but

It's a new year in Hawkins, Indiana, but normalcy remains just out of reach on "Stranger Things 2." Credit: Netflix

THE SERIES “Stranger Things 2”

WHEN|WHERE Starts streaming Friday on Netflix

WHAT IT’S ABOUT It’s 1984, a year after the cataclysmic events rattled a small Indiana town, and everyone is going about business as usual, or almost everyone. Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Will (Noah Schnapp) are intrigued by a new girl at school, the tomboy, Max (Sadie Sink). Her brother, Billy (Dacre Montgomery), is mysterious, possibly dangerous. Joyce (Winona Ryder), the mother of Will and Jonathan (Charlie  Heaton), has a new friend, Bob Newby (Sean Astin). Teens Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Steve (Joe Keery) are still dating. Meanwhile, chief of police Jim Hopper (David Harbour) worries about the same question as everyone else: Is Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) gone forever? Could that new doctor (Paul Reiser) at the mysterious government facility have a clue of her whereabouts? In the first season, she saved Will from the terrifying “Upside Down” realm, but who will save her?

MY SAY “Things 2” stands mostly in place at first. Reintroductions are made. A favorite character returns. Some vital back story is explored. A few new characters are added. Mostly a sense of normalcy returns to Hawkins, Indiana. But it’s a sense only and a superficial one at that. Will straddles two worlds. In one, kids are doing what kids usually do around Halloween. In the other, the hounds of hell are baying at the gates (or are those just the demogorgons?). The Upside Down world has infiltrated the right-side up one. How, where, what and most of all who is doing the infiltrating?

That’s the deceptively placid, pleasing, methodical setup. But madness follows method. That’s also a guarantee.

Nevertheless, that return to normal is a key part of this reset. The show’s creators, the Duffer Brothers, found some magic in fictional Hawkins, Indiana, and the average people who lived there with their average, everyday concerns, circa 1983. Taking a page from one of the many thousands that Stephen King has produced over the years, they established that horror isn’t really so horrible unless it besets real people living recognizable lives. “2” reaffirms that simple truism. At outset, the boys are working on their Halloween costumes. Will’s trauma is still there, buried, tugging at his subconscious, and later at his conscious self. Otherwise, he is preoccupied (so are they) with candy, specifically Three Musketeers, and costumes, specifically from “Ghostbusters.” The Upside Down, meanwhile, has manifested itself in subtle ways — a field full of dying, fly-infested pumpkins, and a garbage can that rattles away at night. Those less subtle ways arrive a little bit later.

It’s not a spoiler to reveal that Eleven returns in a big way in “2.” This season really belongs to her and her back story. Once silent, she’s silent no more. She’s Arya Stark from “Game of Thrones” — a girl on a mission, to find her family, her past, and to avenge those who wronged her. Her story threatens to push “2” into genre overload. At its core, “Stranger Things” is sci-fi/horror coming-of-age, but in later episodes flirts with superheroes and apocalyptic road shows.

The Duffers, however, are really more about homage than rip-off. As usual, they have a lot of love for those who came before, King above all. Beyond him, you’ll need a long checklist to cover all the other landmarks that inspire “2” in ways small and large. Those include “Alien,” “The Lord of the Rings/Fellowship of the Ring,” “The Exorcist” and even that revenge-of-the-nerds masterpiece, “Napoleon Dynamite.”

Ultimately, “2” circles back to the movie at its core, “The Goonies.” At moments you almost expect Astin’s character to blurt out “Mister Frodo,” but the representative quote is from his Mikey Walsh. “Goonies never say die” and these kids don’t, either.

BOTTOM LINE Bigger, bolder, in some ways better — and some ways not — “2” avoids a sophomore slump by sticking with what worked so well.

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