The global success of Stranger Things rests almost entirely on its lovable, impeccably cast group of children. It is, and always will be, a show about childhood and the anxieties of getting older in a scary, changing world. That much doesn’t change in the second season of the Netflix sci-fi series, released in its entirety Friday (Oct. 27).
But in this new season, it’s not those pesky kids who win us over—it’s the adults. In what’s an otherwise predictable rehash of the first season’s success, Stranger Things is saved from sophomore mediocrity by the old guys.
Things get started a year after the events of season one, when Will Byers was rescued from the “Upside Down” netherworld, and “Eleven,” the waffle-obsessed, mysterious young girl with psionic powers, disappeared. The town of Hawkins, Indiana has mostly returned to a state of normalcy, except for Will, who has taken some of the Upside Down with him and is beginning to show signs that he’s not the same boy he was before.
From there, it’s essentially the same story told again with minor adjustments: Rather than rescue will from the Upside Down, the gang sets out to “save” him from whatever otherworldly virus ails him. Eleven is separated from the gang for most of the season before returning to assist in what amounts to an exorcism of Will. The kids are the same fun-loving, mischievous, goofy youngsters we fell in love with last season, but the show doesn’t give them much in the way of character development this time around.
What is different is the introduction of several new adult characters who imbue these new episodes with vitality. Police chief Jim Hopper (who was nominated for an Emmy for the role last year) is back and still the heart of the show—his paternal relationship with Eleven is easily the show’s most poignant. He’s joined by a kooky gang of grown-ups who, strangely, get a lot more to do than the kids.
The character most likely to become an iconic meme in the way that “Barb” did last season is Bob Newby, played by Sean Astin. Astin, of course, also played the main character in the 1985 adventure classic The Goonies, which serves as one of the show’s inspirations. Bob quickly becomes the season’s comic relief and its moral center as the new boyfriend of Will’s mom, Joyce (Winona Ryder). The character is basically an amalgamation of all of Astin’s great roles, mixing the unyielding perseverance of the title character in Rudy with a sprinkling of the goodness and unexpected heroism of Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings.
Joining Astin in the main cast is another sci-fi veteran, Paul Reiser, who plays the affable Department of Energy scientist Dr. Owens, brought into the Hawkins research facility to clean up the mess his predecessor made in season one. Reiser is a welcome sight in any project he’s in, but here he’s especially good, helping to ground the action in a realism that at times felt missing from the show’s debut year.
Finally, in a smaller but still spectacular role is Brett Gelman as Murray Bauman, a beardy, shifty-eyed investigative journalist and conspiracy theorist who comes to Hawkins to look into the disappearance of Barb at the behest of her grieving parents.
And while the older kids—most of whom are high school juniors and seniors—are not technically adults, they, like the grown-ups, are busier this season. Nancy (Mike’s sister) and Jonathan (Will’s brother) go off on their own adventure, while Steve, Nancy’s boyfriend, transcends the douchey bully archetype from season one and becomes a three-dimensional character. His role as the villainous older high school kid is replaced by Billy (Dacre Montgomery), a mullet-wearing, truly abominable person who’s abusive to his younger stepsister Max (a new addition to the gang). Though he’s not much of a character yet, by season’s end there are hints he may follow Steve’s path to redemption.
Topping a spectacular debut season is a difficult thing, so it’s no surprise that Stranger Things 2 mostly plays it safe, choosing to redo much of what has already made the show special in slightly different ways. The only real surprise of the season is the realization that the show may not need these kids anymore and even might be better off without them.