No show in the Peak TV era has leaned harder into the “this isn’t a TV show; it’s an XX-hour movie” attitude than Stranger Things. The horror pastiche’s nostalgic Eighties references are all to movies (or, occasionally, books that were turned into movies) of the period from the likes of Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter, and Stephen King. It is purely, relentlessly serialized. And rather than referring to each new installment as Season Two or now Season Three, they’re instead titled like movie sequels: Stranger Things 2 and Stranger Things 3.
But where this notion that television is just “movies, but longer” has mostly been a plague that’s led to many poorly paced and structured narrative sludges, Stranger Things has managed to be the Platonic ideal of a stretched-out movie. Its seasons are relatively compact — we’re back to eight episodes after last season experimented with nine — so there’s never that sense of foot-dragging you get from the likes of Jessica Jones or Bloodline. It has an ever-expanding cast of colorful characters who keep things feeling both lively and dense enough to merit the time investment. And its creators, the Duffer Brothers, have a strong command of mood and the appropriate timing to throw in another action or suspense set piece, so it’s rarely dull.
This belated third season is in many ways the most movie-like thing Stranger Things has done. Its scope is much wider, from the greater reliance on elaborate digital effects to the sheer number of extras in Eighties fashions in so many scenes. (Key locales: the town pool, a county fair, and, most importantly, a shopping mall.) Netflix has forbidden me to discuss even the basics of the new season’s plot — like the identity of the main human villains, who are introduced in the very first scene — but if we’re not at “The Mother of Dragons lays waste to King’s Landing” scale yet, we’ve still come a very long way from five kids facing down a monster in a middle-school classroom.
But the funny thing about telling an ongoing story that periodically returns to television is that, whether you’re trying to make a long movie or not, you can’t help but make a TV show. And the best parts of Stranger Things Season Three are the ones that feel most like TV — and not even the high-concept, intensely-serialized kind. Rather, the greatest joy in the series at this stage comes from the way it’s evolved into a hangout sitcom with periodic monster attacks.
There was always a certain degree of lightness to a show about four nerd boys (Finn Wolfhard’s Mike, Gaten Matarazzo’s Dustin, Caleb McLaughlin’s Lucas, and Noah Schnapp’s Will) fighting demons with the help of a waffle-loving telekinetic girl called Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown). But in relocating the action from fall to summer, the Duffers and their collaborators have made the entire show much lighter. More of the action takes place in the daytime, and the characters spend more time swapping jokes and insults.
The comedy stylings of leading man David Harbour are on spectacular display in the season’s early episodes, as Sheriff Hopper struggles to contain his feelings about adopted daughter Eleven making out with Mike in her bedroom. The series has always had fun with Hopper’s sweaty dadbod, but these new episodes dial up his fundamental goonishness to… well, eleven. Harbour’s face is a roiling sea of bitter mustache twitches and incredulous brow furrows. It’s a joy to watch him go berserk over such a familiar rite of fatherhood, and also for Hopper and Will’s mom Joyce (Winona Ryder) to turn their unresolved sexual tension into near-constant, amusing bickering. (Ryder’s reminding everyone how funny her wry delivery can be means her comeback is complete, right? Please put her in all the things going forward.)
A lot of this season’s interpersonal tension stems from the increased hormone levels of most of the boys and girls. Mike and Lucas are constantly offending and then apologizing to Eleven and Max (Sadie Sink), while poor Will wants everyone to stop kissing and play Dungeons & Dragons again. Dustin returns from science camp boasting of a beautiful new girlfriend who lives in Canada Utah, which puts him one up on new BFF Steve (Joe Keery), whose lost mojo provides endless schadenfreude to his new ice cream shop co-worker/crush Robin (Maya Hawke, daughter of Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke). Mike’s sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Will’s brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) face a strain in their romance as she flails about in her internship at the surprisingly well-staffed local paper in Hawkins, Indiana. Even Mike and Nancy’s mom Karen (Cara Buono) gets in on the flirtatious fun through her interest in Max’s swaggering older brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery), master of all he surveys from his lifeguard chair at the pool.
All of this takes advantage of the previous amount of time we’ve spent in these characters’ company, and of the chemistry that’s developed over the years between the actors. Who’d have thought, for instance, that Dustin and Steve would be the show’s most endearing and consistently entertaining combo? (And pairing the two of them in turn with Robin — Hawke effortlessly steals every scene she’s in — and Lucas’ brash little sister Erica, played by Priah Ferguson, creates a delightful show-within-the-show.) The naivete of Eleven, who was raised in a government science lab, has long provided appealing culture clashes, but Mike’s struggle to understand women finally puts them on even emotional footing, to strong comic effect.
The plot eventually intrudes, involving some leftover nightmares from the Upside Down and a nefarious new group looking to exploit this rift between our world and the next one. But all the talk of Demogorgons and Mind Flayers feels almost besides the point — a necessary MacGuffin to divide the big cast into smaller groups, and to provide a narrative frame on which to hang the series’ abundant pop-culture references. The latter feel a touch more shameless than usual, including a Terminator-esque figure whom one character outright refers to as Arnold Schwarzenegger, a scene where a bad guy paraphrases dialogue from Die Hard, and a blatant copy of the Midnight Run score as Hopper and Joyce’s travels go from bad to worse. (That last choice both made me giddy and appalled at how easily I can be manipulated by a hat-tip to my favorite film.) There’s also a running gag about New Coke that leads to one of the characters singing its praises at such length, it feels like the first Netflix original to feature a commercial interruption.
In terms of spectacle, this is by far the most impressive season, even if the action sequences are — like the threat of the Upside Down itself — a bit repetitive. (You can set your watch to Eleven’s conveniently-timed arrival whenever a good guy is facing certain death.) But the growth of the characters — whether through age or, like Hopper and Joyce, through learning to deal with past traumas — means that they feel different and surprising, even when the story is traveling paths we’ve been on many times before.
The finale blows up the show in ways that could make the inevitable fourth season feel like a huge departure, or that can be undone within an episode or two if the Duffers feel more comfortable sticking to a formula that works. With sequels, the audience is often happy to watch more of the same — and that’s just as true for the latest installment of a blockbuster movie franchise as it is for the newest season of a successful television show like Stranger Things.
Stranger Things Season Three premieres July 4th on Netflix. I’ve seen all eight episodes.