It's midsummer (not to be confused with Midsommar), and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) is back from science camp. Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and Mike (Finn Wolfhard) are spending every hour they can with each other, getting too close for Hopper's (David Harbour) comfort. Joyce is single again, trying to get over the death of poor Bob Newby (Sean Astin), torn apart by demodogs (if you forgot about that, so did I). Hawkins has a brand-new mall! Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) just wants to have a few months of Dungeons and Dragons and normal banter with his lads, but something seems off. The Upside Down is always there, right below their feet, and they'd all be fools to believe that the deadly Mind Flayer was done trying to break out.
When the ball really gets rolling, this season splits the main group, which has grown significantly in size since the first season, into a few distinct mini-groups, each with their own sets of interpersonal conflicts that make for plenty of fun. That's when the show is at its best: Steve (Joe Keery) insisting to new character Robin (Maya Hawke) that he's cool, Dustin insisting that his new camp girlfriend is real, Mike and Eleven and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Max (Sadie Sink) navigating the complications of young love, Hopper working out his feelings toward all the women in his life. Eleven finally gets a makeover and starts wearing actual colors.
It's when Stranger Things actually gets to the, well, stranger things, that it tends to flounder, and the same is frustratingly true in its third season. Hopper is reduced to an angry, screaming dude who gets worked up no matter what's going on, and it feels odd when this new unlikeable attitude is played for laughs (and especially odd given where his character ends up). Billy (Dacre Montgomery), the bad boy older brother from last season, is given a lot more to chew on this time around, and he's wonderful as a beefcake-y pool-lifeguard-turned… well, spoilers. He's so good that you end up wishing the final boss wasn't yet another gross monster, as it always seems to be.
For much of this season, I kept wondering if Stranger Things' pastiche aesthetic wasn't instead becoming a bit of a burden. The problem with aggressively reminding your audience of the classics time and again is that you'll eventually get to a point when they'd rather watch those movies instead, and skip the show that can't stop toothlessly imitating them. It alternately feels like your best friend handing you a VHS of a movie they like and your best friend shaking you by the shoulders and screaming, "HAVE YOU SEEN THE THING!?!??" It's certainly bold of any piece of media to wink and nod and lift from its betters, but after three full seasons of watching and finger-jabbing at every clever reference, it's hard not to notice when it falls flat.