'Stranger Things' Season 3: TV Review

More of the same, for better or worse.
7/4/2019

Eleven and her friends return for more Upside Down-spawned terror and '80s nostalgia as the hit series is back on Netflix after a lengthy absence.

For the second straight season, Netflix's complicated and in-depth list of Stranger Things "Do Not Spoil" restrictions is prohibitive enough to include things that take place within the first five minutes of the premiere, but I think it's OK to reveal that the season takes place in the summer of 1985 and New Coke plays a role. It's a narratively irrelevant role, but it's thematically crucial.

"Sweeter. Bolder. Better," says one enthusiastic character, while other characters mock him for endorsing change for the sake of change.

This is the exact crossroads that Stranger Things finds itself at in its third season. If there were criticisms of the nostalgically intricate drama in season two, they mostly pointed to how quickly the show settled into a repetitive formula, while at the same time lambasting the one episode that broke wildly from that formula.

I think the third season, which I've seen in its eight-episode entirety, is all about recognizing the inevitability of growing up and moving forward, while at the same time fighting against that tide. So when I say there's a repetitious fatigue that sets in through the first five or six episodes, some of that is completely intentional and much of it is still quite entertaining, but this introspection on stagnation and reticence to mature probably could have come sooner and unfolded faster. It's not New Coke, but maybe it makes me sympathize a little with the idea of New Coke.

What can I actually say about the third Stranger Things season by way of plot without giving anything meaningful away?

Like I said, it's summer in Hawkins, Indiana, and as we resume, things with Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) are hot-and-heavy (at least on a middle-school level), much to the grumpy chagrin of Hopper (David Harbour, reaching new pinnacles of huffing and puffing and exaggerated bluster). He's harboring his own feelings for Joyce (Winona Ryder), though she's still hung up on the tragic events of last season. Mike and Eleven's constant smooching means they don't have as much time for Will (Noah Schapp), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Max (Sadie Sink), which is creating some minor tension within the group, separated additionally by Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) spending a month at science camp.

Among the older kids, Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) are interning at the absurdly well-staffed local newspaper, Steve (Joe Keery) is slinging ice cream at the busy new Starcourt Mall and Billy (Dacre Montgomery) is turning heads, including that of Nancy and Mike's mom (Cara Buono), as a lifeguard at the local pool.

But bad things are brewing around Hawkins. The laboratory may be closed, but somebody else is poking around at the barrier to the Upside Down, and that's never a good idea.

All the while, '80s references abound, probably to excess in terms of the relentless needle-drop soundtrack choices in the first couple episodes. The show has done a good job of not sticking exclusively to its original Spielberg/King inspirations, and the key wholly acknowledged influences this time around are led by the George Romero zombie classics and James Cameron's Terminator.

One of the things I found most interesting, and also most charming, about the second Stranger Things season was that even if the show had gone from utterly under-the-radar July release to cultural phenomenon, the Duffer Brothers mostly avoided "bigger is better" excess. Some of that restraint is gone in this third season, and, with it, some of the accompanying quaintness and intimacy. There are effects shots in the premiere that exceed anything attempted in the first two seasons combined, and the reliance on CG effects is far greater throughout.

As the end of this season approaches, Stranger Things becomes one sustained action scene after another, one soaring drone shot after another and one conflict after another that forces our heroes to stare down elaborate digital creatures. The effect that I really liked is on the "Do Not Spoil" list, but for the most part the obvious escalation of onscreen budget looks fine, even if the enhanced artifice probably reduces the scariness of these episodes, as well as the joyful feeling of ingenuity the show initially yielded. And the concentration of scale over intimacy undermines several events that should have generated much more emotion than I ever felt.

It is, indeed, bigger and not better. It's also bigger and not deeper. After establishing this world, we've now had two seasons that have done nothing to enhance the mythology of the Upside Down, to make me more interested in the monsters that dwell there, their goals in our world or justifiable explanations for why stupid scientist-types keep fiddling with this dimensional breach.

No amount of effects wizardry can cover for this being another season in which creepy crawlies menace the same small corner of Indiana, nor the frequency with which the writers and directors — the Duffers wrote and directed the opening and closing two episodes — use Eleven as a narrative "Get Out of Jail Free" card, leaning on her superpowers to the point that I've begun making fun of her dainty, easily contained nosebleeds. These once were meant to illustrate the toll taken by her powers, and now illustrate what probably represents 30 seconds of on-set makeup application. The show has also drained much of the freshness from Eleven's black-box mind-reading, and just as the third season gives no added nuance to the Upside Down, it abandons all of the second season's attempted character development for Eleven.

Eleven generally has become an almost totally normalized middle schooler, and the show and Brown are both at their best when her innocence is foregrounded. Eleven's periodic uncertainty with romance and fashion, as much tied to Hopper sheltering her now as to her laboratory upbringing, accentuates Brown's comic timing and offers necessary interludes between nosebleeds.

There's actually a lot of playing to the comic timing of the show's stars this season, as the Duffers recognize that the push for more action and more darkness requires additional levity on the fringes. It's a major relief that this isn't another variation on Joyce going steadily crazy and that Ryder is allowed to be simply goofy and funny for much of the season, reaching a peak with the return of Brett Gelman's Murray.

Keery continues to be a source of frequent laughs, and he's well-paired this season with Maya Hawke, bringing boundless unforced likability to her role as Steve's fellow ice cream scooper. Audience pandering and inspiration blur with the raised profile for scene stealer Priah Ferguson as Lucas' sister Erica, and the addition of Cary Elwes as Hawkins' smarmy mayor is a smart follow-up to how the show used period icons like Matthew Modine, Paul Reiser and Sean Astin in the past.

Stranger Things is a show that absolutely knows its audience, and that leads me to wonder if casual viewers will be more generous to the evidence of familiarity and sluggishness that I experienced. I spent more than half the season thinking Stranger Things might be a show doomed by a refusal, in Coca-Cola terms, to break from its beloved recipe and then the last couple episodes thinking it was a season explicitly about that refusal, representing a turning of the corner.

Expect very few of these reservations to get in the way of holiday-weekend bingeing of this too-long-absent series.

Cast: Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Noah Schnapp, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, Joe Keery, Sadie Sink, Dacre Montgomery, Maya Hawke, Cary Elwes, Brett Gelman
Creators: The Duffer Brothers
Premieres: Thursday (Netflix)