Sci-fi romp Stranger Things is back on Netflix and the only thing stopping me seething with envy over the exciting high-concept adventures of its plucky young protagonists (why can't I have high-concept adventures?) is the fact it's set in the early 1980s so they're probably all dead now or, at least, disappointed fortysomethings.
I like to imagine the reunion.
“Hey, remember when we used to fight evil and communicate with our minds and get possessed by shadow creatures and stuff?”
“Yeah, that was great fun. What do you do now?”
“I market and design patio furniture.”
"That's interesting . . . I've written a motivational manual for career women. It's called Blowing Things Up At Work (With My Mind)."
For the record, I reckon in 2017 Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) manages a comic-book shop somewhere. Mike (Finn Wolfhard) is a stay-at-home father and men's rights blogger married to Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), who works for Google. And that weird shadow creature who opens up its face and eats cats is, of course, a respected member of the Trump administration. He's also working on a novel.
Anyway, that's enough about my blandly realistic Stranger Things fan fiction. Where are the gang at the start of Stranger Things 2?
Certified mind-freak Eleven now hides in the woods with twinkly eyed man-bear Jim Hopper (David Harbour) but we get flashbacks to a period during which she survived alone, telekinetically killing and eating squirrels (presumably evil squirrels who'd committed murder and insurance fraud). She holds fast to what she learned from her bicycle-cycling chums from series one. "Friends don't lie," she says to Jim, which is a dangerous truism to take into adulthood as anyone who has ever said, "I'm happy for you" knows well.
Mike and Will share the same 1980s bowl-cut but you can tell them apart
Mike, the thoughtful leader of the plucky teens, misses Eleven terribly. He is beside himself. Quite literally, if you consider that Mike is often standing beside Will (Noah Schnapp) who looks really like him (my nickname for Will is “sick Mike”).
Mike and Will share the same 1980s bowl-cut but you can tell them apart because Mike is taller and doesn't sporadically vomit interdimensional lizards (this is also the main difference between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil; I'll let you judge which party is which in this scenario).
Will’s role here, as in the previous series, is to become the hapless victim of paranormal events and therefore to drive the plot. “I drive the plot,” his benign smile seems to say, before he starts screaming. That’s his character cycle.
Each week, Will's mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) takes Will to a special government doctor, who is played by the delightful Paul Reiser, indicating that the government is nice now. Reiser tells them that Will is suffering from PTSD before going to an underground lair where men in hazmat suits are doing nefarious thing with a flame thrower and tentacles.
Will is not suffering from PTSD. He is, in fact, regularly visiting the “Upside Down”, a cloudy, dandruff-filled version of our world featuring chittering faceless freaks and a huge gaseous spider thing striding around a lightning filled sky.
Or “Offaly”, to give it its correct name.
Meanwhile, Lucas and Dustin have more prosaic things on their minds, specifically the new girl Max. She turns up like a skate-punk Helen of Troy in order to get the boys fighting one another. And Max has a brother, a bemulleted, gum-chewing thug with a muscle car who walks around toplessly high-fiving people. It's me, as the kids on the internet say. I feel the lives of hunky bullies like myself are under-represented in modern television drama.
Last season's hunky bully, Steve, is now a good sort with flawless hair, seasonally inappropriate sunglasses and a baseball bat with nails in it. At one point, he gives terrible love-life and hair-care advice to Dustin, who is everyone's favourite Stranger Thingling due to his goofy smile and close-to-fourth-wall-breaking levels of cultural awareness.
Joyce does have a point. All is not well in Hawkins, Indiana
Steve is still dating Mike's sister, Nancy, but she has a bond with Will's brother Jonathan. Jonathan is a non-conformist outsider what with his love for Bowie and Vonnegut and having a brother who sporadically vomits monsters and a mother who regularly turns her house into a conspiracy-theorist's art project.
Joyce does have a point. All is not well in Hawkins, Indiana. Someone has opened a gate to hell and now the crops are dying and slimy hell beasts stalk the land. I know, the last sentence could be an actual news headline these days.
Before long all these charismatic kids are fighting evil while evoking the youngsters from ET, It, Eerie Indiana, The Goonies, Scooby Doo and the first Dáil. Over the course of it all, someone falls in love, someone is possessed, someone dies and someone else goes on a superhero-style voyage of discovery to prove she's more than just a manic-pixie-dream-government-experiment. Stylistically, it's a beautifully filmed remix of Generation X's childhood memories.
Eleven dons a sheeted ghost costume like ET; the teenage love triangles evoke John Hughes films; the Stranger Thinglings dress as Ghostbusters for Halloween; Eleven does "a Carrie" with a house-shaking, telekinetic-tantrum; Lucas wraps his head in a bandana like the Frog Brothers from Lost Boys; Dustin hides a weird creature in his house like Elliot in ET; a John Carpenter-style synth score punctuates the action.
Frankly, I'm surprised that newbie Sean Astin isn't walking around between a huge pair of quotation marks and introducing himself as "Sean Astin from The Goonies." (His character name is, instead, literally "Newby").
I would have gotten away with it too if it weren't for you pesky kids!
All in all, it feels like one of the directors should appear in the corner of the screen like the sign-language guy in order to wink at the audience. And yet, Stranger Things manages to be more than the sum of its references. It's gripping and fun and, thanks to the stellar young acting talent, often moving. It is, after all, a programme about teenagers in jeopardy.
And then nine episodes in, it all concludes with Mike whipping a rubber mask off a gaseous cross-dimensional shadow creature to reveal Old Man Withers from the abandoned fun fair. “I would have gotten away with it too if it weren’t for you pesky kids!” he says.
Okay, that isn’t the ending. This is a spoiler-free review. And the Duffer Brothers (the directors) probably wouldn’t have got away with such audacious sci-fi hokum if not for the help of those pesky kids. They somehow make it all seem a bit more real.