2019 may only be at the halfway point, but already, the year has rewarded pop-culture aficionados with films and series that cater to their loyalty and adoration to a particular franchise or genre. With this in mind, one could be forgiven for overlooking the return of a nostalgic science-fiction programme that adheres to these same desires, and has done since its beginning.
That show is, of course, Stranger Things, a creation of Matt and Ross Duffer that is distributed exclusively through the streaming service Netflix. First released in 2016, its first season took place in 1983, and saw a group of children solving the disappearance of their friend Will (Noah Schnapp) in the American town of Hawkins, Indiana. The second season – which earned the moniker Stranger Things 2 – was released sixteen months later, with the plot now set in 1984. Season Three, or Stranger Things 3, sees events move forward yet again.
It’s now the summer of 1985, and since the happenings of Stranger Things 2, big changes have transpired in Hawkins. The government research facility that sat on the Midwest town’s outskirts has been closed for the past six months, with an enormous shopping mall having become the main source of revenue and employment – among those working there is heartthrob Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) as an ice-cream vendor at “Scoops Ahoy!” with fellow teenager Robin (Maya Thurman-Hawke).
Changes have also occurred in the show’s young protagonists, with all of them being thrust into the throes of puberty. Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Max (Sadie Sink) are dating, so too Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Eleven (Millie Bobbie Brown), who has officially been adopted by Sheriff Jim Hopper (David Harbour). Also in a relationship – or at least, claiming to be – is Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) who met his belle, “Suzie”, whilst attending summer camp. Only the once-lost Will remains single, longing for the platonic friendships of days past.
Unlike the previous two seasons, which largely focused on a central, singular conflict, the plot of Stranger Things 3 is quite disparate, with the characters only uniting fleetingly. The major source of trouble involves Max’s stepbrother, Billy (Dacre Montgomery) who has been consumed by the Mind Flayer; orbiting that is a subplot that sees Dustin, Steve and Robin decipher a Russian message, with limited help from Lucas’ younger sister, Erica (Priah Ferguson).
Another, apparently separate mystery has Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) interning at the local newspaper, The Hawkins Post, as they try to ascertain why a plague of rats is behaving abnormally. And then there’s Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder), the mother of Johnathan and Will, who has gone from being concerned about the welfare of her sons to wondering why mundane household objects have suddenly become demagnetised.
These are certainly odd things to be preoccupied by, but that’s not to say the adventures of Stranger Things 3 aren’t enjoyable – indeed, the silliness adds to it. Aside from a minor lull in the middle of the season, there is never a moment devoid of tension, with the viewer eagerly anticipating where each storyline will take the characters, and how their journeys connect. What’s more, even though there are so many subplots to follow, there is never a sense where one feels lost or removed from what is happening, with events being relatively easy to follow.
Each instalment of Stranger Things has contained heavy Eighties vibes, referencing the pop-culture and products of the same period, with the third season being no exception. On this occasion, subtle allusions are made to works such as The Terminator, Die Hard and Beverly Hills Cop, while New Coke, Magnum P.I. and the highest-grossing film of 1985, Back to the Future, are referred to more blatantly – the latter is especially delightful to see, but there’s more fun to be had in recognising the obscure throwbacks.
Also pleasing are the horror elements – yet again, the series is a masterclass in delivering scares, which continue to be an improvement over the previous season. In Stranger Things 3, said elements have become bloodier, gorier and more unsettling, leaving viewers genuinely frightened and making the programme more terrifying than ever. Fortunately though, the creepy moments are never so gruesome that they venture beyond PG-13 territory, and hence there’s never a moment when one feels overly terrified or repulsed by the visuals.
Comedy is another component that has been key to Stranger Things, and it too has been bettered for the latest instalment. The amount of jokes and gags provided by the cast is bountiful, some of which are far funnier than anything offered in the previous two seasons; others just seem inherently silly. Indeed, there are occasions when the aforementioned silliness is a bit much, heavily contrasting with the scarier tone that the show is so intent, and successful, in producing.
Additionally, the third season’s willingness to be comical has resulted in an embrace of the clichés that Stranger Things has previously managed to avoid. For instance, one scene has two characters remark about the stupidity of the antagonists, while another has Joyce and Jim mimicking the mannerisms of each other. Even the ending falls prey to these tropes, housing a mid-credits sequence complete with cliff-hanger revelation, an annoyance which should only be reserved for superhero movies. With that said, none of these banalities ruin the experience.
Very few programmes have improved with each successive season, but there’s an argument to be made that Stranger Things has done exactly that. In its third outing, the Netflix original has upped the scares, laughs and Eighties references even further to become more compelling than ever, clichés aside. As such, the series has cemented its place as one of this decade’s best television shows.