“Stranger Things 3” is very consciously out to correct the mistakes of “Stranger Things 2.” Not that there were that many, but with money to burn — both from Netflix’s generous coffers and an onslaught of period appropriate product placement — Matt and Ross Duffer build giant new sets as colorful play-places for their sprawling cast of kiddos, keeping the group together while splitting off proven pairs to carry the extra storylines. Some are inevitably weaker than others, but Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) isn’t isolated anymore (she even forms a valuable friendship with another girl!), the boys learn to balance budding romance with lifelong friendships, and the adults are sent off to do adult things, like repress feelings and fight.
As for the new story, well, I won’t say much (because Netflix is very, very concerned about spoilers), but there’s also not much that needs to be said. The action driving Season 3 feels purposefully dialed down to the most basic elements, paying homage to movies like “The Thing” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” without really giving a hoot about what made either film so affecting. That can be frustrating when you’re asked to invest in scenes churning the plot forward, but “Stranger Things” keeps things moving fast enough that those gripes are often fleeting.
By doubling down on relationship stories, Season 3 of “Stranger Things” delivers an oft-charming, deeper-than-expected, and ultimately enjoyable new chapter. The eight episodes fly by, avoiding the Netflix bloat plaguing other originals — only the finale clocks in longer than 60 minutes and most hover closer to 50 — and even with gaudy in-story ads for Coca-Cola and Burger King, the look of “Stranger Things 3” is pretty stellar. Fans will be happy, skeptics will spot problems, but it’s hard to fight the feeling that this mega-franchise still knows how to have fun.
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OK, so, what can be said about what’s coming, aka what might you actually want to know before bingeing through nearly seven hours of “Stranger Things”? Well, Season 3 is set in the summer of 1985. Schools have emptied for the break, but the downtown is deserted, too. A new mall has been built, thanks to the completely noble efforts of Mayor Larry Kline (Cary Elwes), and more than just the leg-warmer-sporting mall walkers have fled to the capitalist shrine. Joyce (Winona Ryder) has lost customers to the one-stop shopping destination, including the foundation to any town’s economy: the youths.
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With a movie theater, a food court, and more neon than even the Fresh Prince could stand, the now-deserted three-story shopping centers are positively teaming with teens — including Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), his sass-talking sister (and Season 2 star) Erica (Priah Ferguson), Will (Noah Schnapp), and Max (Sadie Sink). Steve (Joe Keery) is there, too, working at the ice cream shop Scoops Ahoy alongside new castmember Robin (Maya Hawke). Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) is the only MIA member of the group, as he’s been in a tech-focused science camp for the early days of summer.
Though he soon rejoins the group, his earlier absence introduces the key dynamic of the season: What happens to a group of friends when some start pairing up? Eleven is dating Mike, Lucas is dating Max, and that leaves Will and Dustin wanting to hang out together while the couples want to spend more time one-on-one. The Duffer Brothers actually deal with these relatable teen issues (and adult, honestly) pretty well, using familiar but enjoyable emotional beats to break people apart and then relying on crisis to call them back together. It doesn’t always work super well, as the old adults’ story can get tiresome (Ryder isn’t given much to do with Joyce, while David Harbour’s Sheriff Hopper is one of the season’s worst developed characters) and the young adults’ duties are kinda dull (Natalia Dyer as Nancy, and Charlie Heaton as Jonathan).
“Stranger Things” will be easier to discuss once everyone has seen it, as the granular details that could spoil fun surprises are the same that need to be mentioned in outlining issues, but overall Season 3 leaves the franchise in a good place. If Season 2 was too serious, too dark, and too fractured, than Season 3 is pretty fun, very bright, and streamlined to deliver sensory overload. The Netflix original still remains trapped by the genres it pays tribute to; content to play out the same outdated archetypes of yesteryear and play off the beloved films that were brought to life from untethered imaginations. But as far as 2019 blockbusters go, “Stranger Things 3” delivers in a lot of the ways “Game of Thrones” did not — like a candle in the window, after a cold, dark winter’s night. And in terms of just plain ol’ liking “Stranger Things” for what it is, I’m getting closer than I ever thought I might…
“Stranger Things 3” premieres all eight episodes Thursday, July 4 on Netflix.