Stranger Things, series 3, review: plodding and predictable – a frustrating return for a show that had so much to give
Stranger Things season one was the surprise nostalgia-fest that kept on giving. The Duffer Brothers’s love letter to Eighties pop culture rejuvenated the career of Winona Ryder, spawned the best friend Barb meme and conjured with our untapped wistfulness for ET-era Steven Spielberg. It even made Dungeons and Dragons cool again.
But the only nostalgia you’ll feel watching Stranger Things 3 (Netflix) is for the novelty and wide-eyed pizazz of the 2016 original (and, to a lesser extent, its carbon copy 2017 follow-up). From Return of the Jedi to the final Back to the Future, the golden rule of Eighties popcorn franchises was that instalment number three was always the limpest. So it proves here, as the Duffers recycle their now well-worn bag of retro references to increasingly underwhelming effect.
Over-familiarity is the biggest issue in an eight-part series that refuses to stray from the Goonies-meets-Stephen King formula. It’s the countdown to July 4, 1985, and we’re back once more in Hawkins, Indiana, where our winningly nerdy (if slightly older) cast of small-town kids – clairvoyant Eleven, pudding-haired Will and Mike, preppy Nancy etc– are again drawn into a struggle with evil from another dimension.
Disappointingly, it’s precisely the same evil as the one they were fighting previously. The difference is that, third time out, the fright factor is reduced significantly. The evil “Mindflayer” has evidently spent the past two years studying classic sci-fi movies. Hence its new tactic for taking over Hawkins – weirdly it has no interest in conquering the rest of the world – is cheekily lifted from Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Yet Duffers’s tale of identity theft and monsters in our midst isn’t nearly as creepy as it could be. The biggest problem is that the possessed townsfolk are obvious a mile off. Any potential for getting under the skin is wasted .
As if anticipating audiences may have had their fill of the Mindflayer, sibling show-runners Matt and Ross Duffer have bunged in several secondary storylines. This is where Stranger Things 3 comes into its own. There are frustrating glimpses of what might have been had they been braver about ripping things up and starting over.
One sub-plot involves scheming Russians and a shiny new mall. The glitzy shopping centre is sucking the life out of main street: bad news for jittery shelf-stacker Joyce (Ryder). There is also a wink towards Arnold Schwarzenegger circa Terminator and Red Heat as a remorseless Soviet killing machine is sent on the trail of our heroes.
The rampant sexism of the period is acknowledged, too. Sensing something is rotten in Hawkins, would-be girl reporter Nancy (Natalia Dyer) tracks down an old lady with a peculiar guest trapped in her basement. Alas her diligence is for naught. Back at the Hawkins Post, Nancy is duly and lengthily humiliated by the boorish crew of middle-aged editors (including one played by cult actor Gary Busey).
But the Duffer’s biggest investment is in a romance between two of the kids. This, alas, never feels real. Though the adolescent cast members are all in their mid to late teens, most could pass for about 12. Our two love-birds simply aren’t believable as star-crossed souls fighting for their relationship.
Stranger Things is on more solid territory addressing the growing pains its teenage protagonists. Will (Noah Schnapp) wants things to go on as they were, with the chums playing Dungeons and Dragons in their parents’s basements. But Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Mike (Finn Wolfhard) are more interested in girls than goblins. It’s affecting to see the lights of these childhood friendships start to flicker out.
The Duffers misuse roguish David Harbour who, as Police Chief Hopper, is reduced to huffing, grunting and knotting his brows. He is paired with the frantic Ryder, spending most of her screen time rolling her eyes. Also back, with a bigger part, is Brett Gelman as a gun-toting conspiracy-theorist.
New to the cast is Maya Hawke – daughter of Ethan and Uma Thurman – as an ice-cream store assistant caught up in an unlikely subterranean caper with likeable bad-boy Steve (Joe Keery), curly-haired Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas’s confident younger sister Erica (Priah Ferguson). Hawke was one of the best things in the BBC’s Little Women adaptation. She is similarly charming here in a low-key part that she wrings the most from.
But her adventures with Steve and the gang take too long to tie up with Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and company’s struggle against the Mindflayer (and nobody seems to notice Dustin’s prolonged absence). A surprise death and a cliff hanger bring the curtain down whilst making clear that there will be further Stranger Things. The final scene also suggests that the show is about to leave Hawkins behind and venture into the wider world. On the evidence of this plodding and predictable third season, the Duffers can’t skip town soon enough.