The scariest thing about the Emmy-nominated Netflix series “Stranger Things” is how nostalgic it made us for the ’80s. That feeling isn’t as novel in the second season, which began streaming Friday, but it’s strong enough to help viewers swallow a rather bland horror story that wouldn’t have made the cut on “The Twilight Zone.”
The story picks up a year after Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) has escaped from the Upside Down, an alternative dimension, but he’s still suffering from flashbacks, insightful visions or maybe just a mad crush on Cyndi Lauper. Truth be told, the pop singer in her in “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” costume would be a lot more disturbing than the monsters he keeps seeing during bike rides through his neighborhood.
No one else in the small town of Hawkins, Ind., seems concerned by last season’s proceedings with the exception of Will’s frantic mother, Joyce (Winona Ryder, who seems to have forgotten she once stood up to Beetlejuice). She’s so emotionally rattled that she’s convinced herself she’s in love with a guy played by former “Goonies” star Sean Astin, even though he looks like he ate Frodo for breakfast and says things like “easy peasy.”
The casting agents also score by introducing a new evil scientist played by Paul Reiser, reincarnating the slimeball he portrayed in “Aliens.”
Nods to the Reagan era continue throughout the first three episodes, from the all-too-obvious soundtrack choices (“Whip It”) to more subtle references. Joyce convinces her son that his favorite candy is Reese’s Pieces — an “E.T.” favorite — and that working the desk at Radio Shack is considered a sweet gig. Pay close attention and you’ll see a Mondale/Ferraro campaign sign on one of lawns.
But the greatest throwback to the ’80s is the series’ continued emphasis on its plucky kids, who — just as in John Hughes’ classics — seem to be doing just fine without parental supervision.
The greatest moments have nothing to do with aliens trying to escape the Upside Down. Instead, it’s the gang debating the merits of a 3 Musketeers bar, or arguing about who gets to play Bill Murray’s character when they dress up as Ghostbusters for Halloween.
Eleven (Emmy nominee Millie Bobby Brown), the science experiment with an all-too-human heart, returns with competition in the tomboy department from Max (Sadie Sink), a skateboarding arcade rat with a brother who appears to be representing the entire cast of “The Outsiders.”
In addition to vying for the heart of soulful Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Eleven has to put up with Police Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour), who has taken her in either because he feels protective or he’s mistaken her for Kristy McNichol.
Hopper remains the series’ only fully developed adult, furiously chain-smoking as he supervises his “Police Academy” rejects and lovingly preparing Eggo breakfasts for his new roommate. I’m assuming Hopper will eventually go Sylvester Stallone in the nine-part series, but I’m in no hurry for the showdowns, not as long as the kids are still discussing whether they’d rather hang out with David Bowie or Kenny Rogers.
That battle is a lot more fascinating than any generic blobs oozing out of the underworld.