They’re back! The put-upon residents of Hawkins, Indiana have returned to Netflix after a year-and-a-half off the pop culture scene, and I have to admit to wondering what other tricks the Duffer brothers had up their sleeves, and if people would still care about El, Hopper, Dustin, and the rest of the gang of “Stranger Things.” I went into season three with a great deal of trepidation about a show that already felt like it was repeating itself a bit in season two, but I came out as exhilarated as I often did after seeing the movies and creators that inspired this hit show. The Duffer brothers will likely never match the creepy wow factor of season one, but they’re not really trying to do that anymore, moving from the obvious Stephen King and Steven Spielberg touchstones of the first two seasons to incorporate more action influences—narratively and visually—from James Cameron, John Carpenter, George A. Romero, Robert Zemeckis, and more. It’s such a finely-tuned and executed piece of escapist entertainment that I watched it twice. (Yes, the whole thing.)
Now is the place in a review in which I would usually detail some of the plot to convey what the season is about. Not only am I a writer who typically avoids spoilers, but Netflix has politely asked that we not reveal a laundry list of details that covers, well, almost everything. Let me see. It’s the 4th of July weekend in 1985, a time that saw the release of Romero’s “Day of the Dead” and Zemeckis’ “Back to the Future,” two films that greatly inspire the action of “Stranger Things 3” (along with major influences from “Fast Times at Ridgmont High,” “The Terminator” and “The Thing”). The big talk in Hawkins is the new Starcourt Mall, which always seems to be crowded but local businesspeople are angry toward for stealing business. There’s also something suspicious going on at Starcourt, something that will push the characters we know and love harder than they’ve been pushed before, and lead to some truly unexpected consequences. This is the most purely entertaining season of “Stranger Things” to date.
While Steve (Joe Keery) is working at the Scoops Ahoy stand in the mall, the kids are dealing with typical teen problems like love and friendship. Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and El (Millie Bobby Brown) are still a couple, but they’re struggling to communicate. Will (Noah Schnapp) is frustrated by being a fifth wheel with Mike/El and Lucas/Max (Caleb McLaughlin & Sadie Sink), reminiscing to the days when it was just the boys dressing up like Ghostbusters. Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) returns from camp with stories of a new girlfriend, which no one believes. Billy has a job as a lifeguard at the Hawkins pool, where he’s ogled by all the suburban moms, and Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) are working at the Hawkins Post, where her ideas are laughed at by sexist co-workers who call her Nancy Drew.
All of this is quickly disrupted by, well, enemies and monsters. The Duffers’ greatest accomplishment in “Stranger Things 3” is how lean and mean they execute their ideas this season. They waste no time before jumping into the plot and most of the action takes place over just a couple days. There are no trips to Pittsburgh over these eight, action-packed episodes, and it’s remarkable how much they keep up the pace over the stretch of the entire season. Netflix shows have a habit of sagging or feeling bloated, but “Stranger Things 3” has absolutely no fat. It's the kind of show that I’d wager almost everyone who starts will find themselves finishing in one or two sittings.
The rhythm of “Stranger Things” has never been tighter, but it helps that the cast feels elevated as well. Millie Bobby Brown was the break-out of the first two seasons, but the Duffers allow so many other personalities time in the spotlight in season three, including series-best work from David Harbour, Gaten Matarazzo, Dacre Montgomery, Joe Keery and charming newcomer Maya Hawke. It feels more like an ensemble piece than ever before, and the way the Duffers separate and then bring their characters back together is nothing short of brilliant. There’s an honest visceral thrill at some of the inevitable reunions late in the season.
Finally, there’s a clever charm to the set pieces of “Stranger Things 3” that's infectious. The Duffers understand how to use places like a garish ‘80s mall, Midwestern Independence Day fair, military compound, and crowded pool to maximum effect. Everything feels more alive and vibrant in “Stranger Things 3” than it ever did before. Third chapters in ‘80s franchises were rarely any good, but “Stranger Things 3” doesn’t copy that aspect of their favorite period in pop culture, taking a show that was already good and moving it into greatness.
Full season screened for review. Twice.