Stranger Things is back for its third season and overall, it’s pretty fun! The show is known for its references and homages to 1980’s movies and pop culture, but the first two seasons were limited to nods at the kids movies of that decade, stuff like E.T., The Goonies, Gremlins, Stand By Me, etc. This time they’re branching out with a whole Fast Times at Ridgemont High vibe going on. Makes sense. The young stars are getting older after all- by the time the show ends they might all be out of their teens as it is.
Season 3 is set in summer of 1985, which is a new feeling for it (previously always taking place in the fall), and with that comes summer romances and nods to those 80’s comedies, but also this time a bunch of 80’s action comes into play, with David Harbour’s Hopper essentially taking on the Rambo role as he’s hunted by a Terminator-like Russian assassin (yes, that’s right, the Russians are now antagonists on the show, as they’ve discovered the secret portal to the Upside Down, which I can’t imagine would benefit anyone much in terms of weaponry). But before all that, Eleven and Mike are still dating and now making out all the time, which Hopper can’t stand, and this season sees El spending much of her time learning how to be a simple teenage girl, as she becomes friends with Max (Sadie Sink), who tells her there’s more to life than boys.
The boys are obsessed with girls now too, except for Will (Noah Schnapp), who may be gay, but it’s not quite articulated yet, only hinted at. Meanwhile, Jonathan and Nancy are still together and inexplicably still on the show, now working at a local newspaper, and former high school jock Steve is employed at the ice cream shop in the Starcourt mall (the setting for much of the season) with co-worker Robin (new addition Maya Hawke).
This is the most overtly comedic season yet, and I’m not sure it’s remarked upon enough just how wacky and downright campy this show’s tone can be. The characters are well established by now, but the humor, especially in the early going, is so broad and over the top, with music cues on point for so many big 80’s radio hits that it can feel like a parody of the movies it’s referencing at times. It’s enjoyable, but in a slightly bizarre, goofy way. But then the horror stuff kicks in, this time with the Mind-Flayer they got rid of last season trapped on this side of the gate and shaping itself into goo that possesses people, namely the abusive Billy, who becomes even more of a villain this year (and a victim). The gang has to fight the goop monsters (well, Eleven fights them while the rest of them stand around and watch), and the season is broken into three teams- El/MIke/Max/Will/Lucas take on Billy and the pod people while Hopper and Joyce fight the Terminator and Steve/Dustin/Robin/Erica deal with the newly formed Russian underground base below the mall.
The Duffer Brothers tend to listen to fan and critical reaction, so no more mutants from Eleven’s solo episode last year (doubt we’ll ever see them again), and they repeat the fan favorite Steve/Dustin pairing to a second successful go round, this time adding in another fan favorite Erica (who to me is far more annoying than amusing, but whatever), and Maya Hawke’s Robin is a good addition too, also paired with Steve. In fact, I think Steve and Robin have the older teen roles locked down, so can we please get rid of Jonathan and Nancy now, Duffers? Really, their irrelevance is painful. Even split into groups, the teams are entertaining enough so that everyone gets something to do and no one feels pushed to the side or wasted. The finale presents a kind of cliffhanger involving Hopper, but it’s the sort of ending that has you wondering exactly how someone is returning rather than if (of the irrelevant characters on the show, Hopper is not one of them). All in all, it was a fun summer excursion for the Hawkins gang, and the show’s characters are now loved enough that the monster attacks they suffer have become secondary to simply seeing them again, which is how the series has managed to continue, maybe beyond its natural self life. And so I continue to enjoy them.