'Stranger Things 3' Is as Fun as Its First Season While Making a Case for the Show to End
There's something irresistible about nostalgia -- obviously. It's something our biggest franchises have drawn from and used as a foundation for their entire existence. Everything from the MCU to every single reboot we've had in the past 10 years has been driven by our overwhelming need to relive the good old days of the past, even if we ourselves never actually lived through them. Stranger Things exists in this odd little window: It's geared towards millennials and younger, with its youthful cast and PG-13 scares (though, being on Netflix, it's allowed all the four-letter words it wants), but it takes its cues from properties 30+ years older than it is. That's not saying that Stranger Things can't act as a gateway for a younger generation to get into the classic genre stuff of the past; it knows exactly what makes its biggest influences so timeless, despite the fact that The Goonies, Back to the Future, et. al., are firmly rooted in a certain era. In Season 3, Stranger Things finally does something with all of that.
Where the second season felt like it was struggling to find a purpose for itself, Season 3 gets much more creative with the plots and tropes it pulls from other sources. We have mad scientists! A disease spread by rats! There's a new Coke formula! An evil body-snatching presence trying to take over the world! A band of youngsters trying to save their town! The stakes might be a little different but the overall feeling is the same, which ultimately does lead to some frustration down the road. But the show's charm -- allowing its kids to Be In The Nineteen-Eighties For A While -- is its greatest strength, and what keeps you watching long after the various monsters have run their course.
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.