Review: ‘Stranger Things’ Reaches 1985 and Goes to the Mall

In the wake of HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” the biggest television show left standing may be a show that isn’t on traditional TV (and therefore doesn’t get rated by Nielsen). For the moment, anyway, nothing feels like it has more big-tent appeal than Netflix’s energetically spooky sci-fi drama “Stranger Things,” whose eight-episode third season arrives with a patriotic flourish on Thursday. (A Fourth of July fair figures prominently in the plot.)

But much of the appeal of Matt and Ross Duffer’s series has always been its lack of grandiosity or pretension, its disdain of the kind of mock gravitas “Thrones” embraced. The Duffers just want to scare us and charm us, to indulge their love of science-fiction and horror tropes and to perfect the pop-cult simulacrum of 1980s Midwestern America in which their show is set.

The mission hasn’t changed in “Stranger Things 3,” which takes place in 1985, a year after the events of the second season (just as the second season took place a year after the first). The extent to which you’ll be scared or charmed may be variable, though. As happens in the film world — and no show more authentically embodies the notion of the series-as-eight-hour-movie — “Stranger Things” is already showing some franchise fatigue.

Which isn’t to say that the show’s just repeating itself. In addition to a portal to a bleak alternate dimension dubbed The Upside Down from which terrifying monsters try to break into our world, the semirural town of Hawkins, Ind., now has a new mall in which much of the season’s action takes place. The parameters of the Duffers’ movie love shift accordingly — where Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.” was the guiding spirit of the first two seasons, Season 3 pays tribute to the ultimate mall movie, Amy Heckerling’s “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” (The Duffers, always generous in their acknowledgments, make an explicit “Fast Times” reference, in case the Phoebe Cates jokes and a major character’s Spicoli haircut didn’t clue you in.)

Introducing the mall as both setting and topical theme — it’s putting downtown storefronts, like the Radio Shack run by last season’s tragic hero, Bob Newby (Sean Astin), out of business — is a strategic response to something the show can’t avoid: puberty. The young cast is growing up, and the real change in Season 3, which some fans may find distressing, is that everyone’s pairing off. Even Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), the nerdiest of the crew of world-saving nerds, claims to have obtained a girlfriend over the summer. (Whether or not she exists is a joke that percolates through the season.)

The Duffers, who wrote and directed the season’s first two and last two episodes, address the change right away — the first time we see the show’s primary heroes, the formerly in-puppy-love Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and the superpowered Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), they’ve jumped ahead to vigorously making out in her room. Her surrogate dad, the curmudgeonly cop Jim Hopper (David Harbour), is trying to keep an eye out from the living room, but parenting a telekinetic daughter has its challenges.

Love is in the air in Hawkins, with Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) calling Max (Sadie Sink) his girlfriend, Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) spending nights and days together now that they both work at the town newspaper, and Hopper stumbling through his awkward flirtation with Joyce (Winona Ryder), mother of Jonathan and of Will (Noah Schnapp), whose neck hairs still rise whenever the monster known as the Mind Flayer is in the vicinity.

That means a lot of John Hughes-style teenage rom-com material, especially in the early episodes, with the usual heavy overlay of ’80s nostalgia — “Cheers,” Jazzercise, Ralph Macchio, New Coke. The Duffers’ presentation of this is perfectly competent, but it can’t help feeling beside the point. A peppy montage of Max taking Eleven on her first clothes-shopping trip, trying on oversized mass-market-Basquiat prints to the sound of “Material Girl,” isn’t why we’re here, and it certainly isn’t what the show does best.

There is, of course, a horror story building at the same time, with portals that were thought to have been closed being not-so-closed and the Duffers throwing in narrative and visual homages to “Alien,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “Back to the Future,” which is playing in the mall’s multiplex. Those elements come to the fore in the season’s second half, a familiar succession of fights and chases that ends more bittersweetly than usual but promises (don’t click away when the end credits start) at least one more round of adventure.

It might be a round too many. The Duffers’ strength has more to do with clever and engaging packaging than with visceral imagination, and their scary beasts and battles royale haven’t really evolved. (Eleven’s basic move — the grimace and outstretched hand — is the same as it ever was.) They built a great toy with “Stranger Things,” but you can still get tired of playing with it.

Mike Hale is a television critic. He also writes about online video, film and media. He came to The Times in 1995 and worked as an editor in Sports, Arts & Leisure and Weekend Arts before becoming a critic in 2009. @mikehalenyt Facebook

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