With “Stranger Things 3” three things struck me right out of the gate. First, the little town of Hawkins, Indiana is a little bigger than I remembered. Big enough in fact to support a brand spanking new double-decker shopping mall that’s always full of people. Second, I was reminded of just how fast kids grow up. Seeing how the younger cast members have grown in only a year’s time really brought that to light. Third, if their security was half as bad as what we see this season, then it’s no wonder the Soviet Union crumbled.
“Stranger Things 2” ended on a sweet and tender note but with a brief reminder that things in the not-so-small town of Hawkins still isn’t quite right. Season 3 puts even more emphasis on its youngsters. We start out by seeing the relationship between Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Elle (Millie Bobby Brown) intensifying much to the chagrin of her acting father Jim Hopper (David Harbour). Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Max (Sadie Sink) are still an item. Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) returns from summer camp bragging about the perfect girl he met who may or may not really exist. And Will (Noah Schnapp) is left longing for the days of playing games with his buddies.
Elsewhere Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and full-time beau Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) both work at the hyper-chauvinistic local newspaper while Joyce still works in the general store on Main Street which is slowly drying up thanks to the the Starcourt Mall. Steve (Joe Keery) works at an ice cream parlor in the mall with new character Robin (Maya Hawke). And then there’s over-the-top bad boy Billy (Dacre Montgomery), who you could say triggers the story’s supernatural bend.
“Stranger Things 3” sees the series take a noticeable shift. Show creators and overseers the Duffer brothers return and you can instantly see them moving away from their early roots. Season 1 was a near flawless eight episodes that steadily built tension while growing its characters and adding just the right amount of humor. Season 3 goes all-in with the comedy, leaning especially heavily on the tired ‘potty-mouthed kid’ trope. Yes, the horror/sci-fi elements are still there, but as someone who absolutely loved ST1, this felt like a departure.
Don’t get me wrong, the humor can be really funny. Minus the above mentioned annoyance, the kids still have a great chemistry and tons of personality. The showrunners use them to great effect and they continue to be characters we genuinely care about. At the same time, the season is decidedly sillier and not just the comedy itself but certain story beats as well. Take the multi-episode storyline that sees Steve, Dustin, Robin, and Erica (Priah Ferguson) investigating a possible Russian plot. It starts good but steadily gets more and more preposterous. I’m assuming it is intentional, but it’s hard to tell.
That gets to one of my biggest gripes about “Stranger Things 3” – its inconsistent tone. Maybe its my ingrained preference for movies, but tone management can be a big deal. All too often ST3 bounces back-and-forth between super serious and straight comedy. It makes tension-building needlessly difficult and robs several scenes of any real suspense. Again, Season 1 had its moments of humor and they were injected at just the right times, never subverting the tension and sometimes catching you off guard. I miss that.
But enough of the negatives. “Stranger Things 3” gets a lot more right than wrong and it starts with the characters. Hopper remains the most entertaining character on the show. This season he’s still the short-tempered, impulsive, bull in a china shop who you can’t help but love. But we also see him attempting to fine-tune his fatherly instincts as well as wrestle with certain feelings the show has hinted at since the first season. And I still find myself drawn to Elle and the emotional tug of her story. The only characters that feel shortchanged is Nancy and Jonathan. Outside of the first episode, their relationship takes no meaningful strides forward.
It’s also worth saying this is the best looking season to date. The effects take a huge step up and they really add to the horror element. It don’t think it’s a spoiler to say there is a pretty grotesque monster that plays a significant role in the story. It’s visualized through some really good CGI and a couple of standout set pieces. And the Duffer bros still know how to capture the 1980s. From the most obvious inclusions to the smallest details, the sheer number of callbacks to the summer of 1985 is astonishing.
ST3 says some interesting things about small town Americana, Cold War paranoia, and the ups and downs of growing up. But ultimately it’s an adolescent comedy built around a science-fiction/ horror premise. That’s not a description that would have originally fit the series, but for better or for worse that’s what “Stranger Things” has become. Regardless, you simply can’t watch Season 3 and not still be attached to these characters and invested in their relationships. I just wish a little more energy was spent on the mystery and suspense; the science-fiction and the conspiracies. In other words, I wish it would get back to its Season 1 roots. But that’s just me.
VERDICT – 3.5 STARS