The charm of Stranger Things began to dissipate somewhat in the second season: Too much plot, too many monsters, too many complicated passages of darkness. It wasn’t a disaster when it landed two years ago, but there was a dour aura around it, telling viewers that in terms of succumbing easily to the original’s grace, humour and delightfulness, lightning wasn’t going to strike twice with any ease.
Stranger Things 3 (streams on Netflix from Thursday) brings it all back, that charm, by the bucketful. There are eight episodes, so the plotting is tighter – it’s more easily digested as a binge-watch – and, well, it’s summer in the pleasant town of Hawkins. Therefore, everything is sunnier.
The core of the series is still that gang of nerdy boys Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Will (Noah Schnapp), plus the girls, Max (Sadie Sink) and of course the gloriously poised Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown). Their adventures, both mundane and dangerous, are the heartbeat of the series.
Thing is, they are all older now, edging into adolescent things. Mike and Eleven are certainly dating. This involves a great deal of intense kissing, sometimes while listening to Corey Hart songs. Their obsessive kissing annoys Hopper (David Harbour), who’s now officially a dad to El, and he becomes equally obsessive about stopping the kissing thing. Dustin returns from a science camp and announces that he’s got a girlfriend. “Think Phoebe Cates, only hotter,” he announces. And that’s one of the points where the retro vibe, the nostalgia for the 1980s pop culture, kicks in. Who has thought of Phoebe Cates in, like, decades?
There is a darkness lurking, of course. Men in laboratories in white coats are up to nefarious, no-goodnik doings. (If you are spooked by rats, by the way, brace yourself. There’s a big rat thing going on in the first few episodes.) But the summery, fun aspect of Stranger Things is more intact than in the second season. There is a jaunty, effervescent quality that bespeaks sharp writing and precision direction. What Stranger Things amounts to is lovingly crafted escapist entertainment with dark twists to make you curl your toes after you’ve smiled a lot.
Some socially conscious themes emerge, too. Some can be given away. The list of things that cannot be written about in advance is as long as those excruciating no-spoiler lists that Matthew Weiner provided for episodes of Mad Men. But one theme is about the town of Hawkins itself. There’s a new mall. Not only do the kids hang out there, but everybody is shopping there. The stores on Main Street are closing for lack of business.
And there’s a sharp reminder about how recently there was outrageously sexist behaviour in the workplace and misogyny in the media – Nancy (Natalia Dyer) is interning at the local newspaper and witnesses a meeting in which a woman’s breasts are discussed with gusto. Oddly, the arrival of “New Coke” in the summer of 1985 seems to play a large role. What that theme suggests is that things are changing rapidly and often for no good reason.
Meanwhile, there’s melancholy, too. A scene in which Joyce (Winona Ryder) puts a rather sad little meal in the microwave and then sits down to watch Cheers on TV turns into a grieving scene. Over at the local swimming pool, pulses are racing among the older women when Billy (Dacre Montgomery) is on duty as a lifeguard. The point of that thread of the storyline is, at first, sheer fun, and then becomes something else, about adults not being trustworthy.
None of this is meant to imply the series is deep. This sharply written, faster-paced season doesn’t try to open up the characters or the story. At the same time, it isn’t repeating itself. Stranger Things has a comfortable groove now. Viewers respond to characters they know already. They’re watching them grow and develop but, apart from the horror aspects that take a while to arrive, there is not a lot to surprise here. It doesn’t have to surprise. It can delight without changing the magic formula. All those 1980s references and the wit and sense of longing for simpler times – no internet, no smartphones, no obsessing over Instagram – is exactly what makes the series a delight again. And more of a delight than the second season.