REVIEW: “Stranger Things 3”

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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.

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“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.

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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

3-5-stars

 

14 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Stranger Things 3”

  1. I’m a bit sad that you didn’t love it!! Season 3 was the best one for me, by far.

    Speaking of humour during the suspenseful moments, I am interested to hear your thoughts on a certain climactic scene… which personally, is my absolute favourite.

    Also, with reference to Starcourt Mall, they did have to take a bus to get there so it may not have been an actual part of Hawkins proper.

    • It’s weird because I was still thoroughly entertained and it’s such an easy show to watch. It never feels slow or boring. It just feels like a different show than Season 1 which I was blown away by.

      I bet I know the scene you’re speaking of. Did it happen to involve a song?

      • I thought it might. I thought….it was cute, a bit nostalgic, and pretty funny. But it’s kind of the signature scene that emphasizes my main struggle. For me it felt like they were putting more effort into those types of scenes than the mystery and suspense. I guess I’m just in a weird place with ST. Stuck between really liking it and wishing it was more like Season 1.

  2. I enjoyed ST3 more than ST2. Definitely more in line with what I expected of the show. And all those baby faces grown up! Only Will still has a look of complete youth on him. The others are well on their way becoming teenagers. I could have done with a whole lot less of the romantic entanglements of these children, because somehow I now have an old lady voice in my head making disapproving noises (haha). Great performance by Dacre Montgomery, finally his mean character had a point and eventually a redeeming quality. That musical scene with Dustin could have been cut though. Gosh.

    • The musical scene certainly has its fans but (as I mentioned elsewhere) it kind of epitomizes my biggest issues with this season – a wildly inconsistent tone. It seems so much more was put into the comedy that the actual mystery/sci-fi. Season 1 was such a perfect mixture but it seems the series is going in a much different direction. Still, you can’t help but be attached to these characters.

  3. I’m curious to see where next season goes since they’re clearly going to have to expand with that ending. I just wonder if it’ll be another summer release or if they’ll go back to their Halloween schedule.

    • Not sure. After the last episode my wife said “so now we have to wait an entire year”??? I told her it could be longer. Hopefully sooner rather than later.

  4. I loved this season the most but I’m glad at least you didn’t have issues with Hop. So many people are calling him in this season ‘toxic’ and I just wanna shout when I read that nonsense

    • Toxic? Wow! How on earth did they come to that conclusion. I didn’t see him that way at all. For me Hopper is an absolute show-stealer. Harbour absolutely nails that role and the show is often at its best when he is on screen.

  5. Normally, I’d be more forgiving if the new season of a TV show uses stories that feel too familiar, because it’s hard to constantly come up with new ideas for a TV show. However, the 3rd season has been released 2 years since the 2nd one. With the extra time, surely they could’ve made something better. Don’t get me wrong; I still liked it… just a lot less. I know the whole point is to reference movies from the 80s (although this season alluded movies from the 70s and 90s too), but there’s a difference between that and using clichés used in movies (and shows) from different decades. Every episode had moments where I predicted the event/line right before it happened (I made mistakes, but only once or twice). And while there have always been 80s song, I don’t remember them in the previous seasons being so on-the-nose. I don’t remember a lot of musical montages or scenes coming to a halt just so we could hear the majority of the song. The way ELEVEN spoke is inconsistent. At times, it was like she was still trying to learn; at other times, her delivery and her vocabulary sounded pretty fluent. Her nose has always bled whenever she uses her powers, but this season she was so used to that to the point where her nor anyone acknowledged it anymore. Why not write it so that her handling her powers has caused her to stop bleeding? It just feels weird to see that not-so-pretty image as something nobody (behind or in front of the camera) seems to care about. In fact, this season felt a lot more gory and violent. Not in an inconsistent way… to me at least… but I feel it might upset some fans. The product placement was out of control. You (as a director) don’t have to resort to it constantly just because the main setting is a mall. You can film scenes in a way that the brands aren’t in the frame. Actually, you (as a writer) could’ve chosen any other public place and the plot would’ve been the same. Why a mall? To remind viewers about how cool those places are and encourage them not to abandon them? To reference movies like DAWN OF THE DEAD? It wasn’t worth it.

    [Spoilers ahead!]

    -Episode 1: NANCY brings burgers to everyone in the office. She just pulls them out without looking into the bag first and without reading the wraps (in case there were names written on them). How does she know who gets which burger? Also, why are BILLY and MRS. WHEELER flirting in public? I know they’re whispering, but their body language and facial expressions must make their intentions very clear to all the swimmers.
    -Episode 2: Throughout the season, STEVE makes such a big deal about how girls see him. How even a hat can ruin his image. Yet, here, he has no problem being a complete goofball when saying hello to DUSTIN in front of everyone?
    -Episode 3: ELEVEN and MAX write names of pieces of paper and then spin a bottle to randomly choose who to telekinetically spy on. The 1st time it lands on MR. WHEELER and they say “Nah, too boring.” Then why did they write the name in the 1st place?!
    -Episode 6: If ELEVEN is going through BILLY’s memories, why does she only see the big moments from when he was a kid? Did nothing important happen in his life between then and now?
    -Episode 8: How can BILLY hear ELEVEN telling him (almost whispering) about his past with all the noise around them? Also, everytime a character’s death isn’t shown on screen, it means they’re alive. HOPPER is totally coming back. Not to mention that we did see some Russian soldiers dying in the same explosion (marking a difference). Also, a show wouldn’t kill off 2 main characters in the same scene but in different situations. It would ruin the dramatic impact. BILLY completed his arc; HOPPER still has a long way to go. Hell, he never apologized for threatening MIKE!

    • Yep, elements of this story absolutely felt familiar. And it’s also hard to be forgiving when the seasons are only eight/nine episodes long. I think they get too caught in being funny and the core story was shortchanged.

      Oh, and the Billy/Mrs. Wheeler story NEVER worked for me at all. Going back to their first weirdly out-of-the-blue encounter in ST2. In this season it was even worse.

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