Don’t be afraid of ‘Stranger Things’ - it’s worth your time

Posted 7/12/19

Editor’s Note: In lieu of a film review this week, the News + Record’s Zachary Horner reviews the third season of the popular Netflix series “Stranger Things.” Mild spoilers follow.

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Don’t be afraid of ‘Stranger Things’ - it’s worth your time

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Posted

Editor’s Note: In lieu of a film review this week, the News + Record’s Zachary Horner reviews the third season of the popular Netflix series “Stranger Things.” Mild spoilers follow.

I got into the “Stranger Things” game late, watching seasons one and two after the latter had been out for a while. Instantly my wife and I were hooked.

When season three was announced to be released July 4, I was ready to be part of the swell of people that would continue to binge and digest.

At least, I thought I was ready.

Once again, the Duffer Brothers’ sci-fi/thriller/comedy/action Netflix series delivers on its hype. It may follow the same formula as prior seasons — lots of 80s references, adorable kids, scary monsters and twists and turns — but it fills the formula well.

The four main boys — Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin) and Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) — are back, but instead of spending their time dressing up as Ghostbusters and playing Dungeons & Dragons, they’re a bit otherwise occupied. Mike and Lucas are paired off with their significant others — the super-powered Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and skater chick Max (Sadie Sink), respectively — and Dustin returns from a month-long summer camp with a new radio tower designed to talk to his special love Suzie, who lives in Utah, a far cry from Hawkins, Indiana. This leaves Will in the lurch. They’re not the same boys they used to be.

Meanwhile, the Starcourt Mall has taken over Hawkins’ economy, leaving the town’s once-thriving Main Street nearly vacant. Mike’s sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Will’s brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), now firmly a romantic pairing of their own, are suffering through an internship at the local newspaper, while high school hearthrob and goofball group “mom” Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) is working at the mall’s ice cream shop with the straightforward Robin (Maya Hawke).

If you can’t already tell, “Stranger Things” crams a lot of characters in our laps for an episodic series. We haven’t even got to technical series leads Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) and Chief of Police Jim Hopper (David Harbour), or last season’s secondary antagonist, Max’s step-brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery), or Lucas’ scene-stealing sister Erica (Priah Ferguson).

The show eases into a new season by focusing on the relationship between the four main boys, which was the crux of the first season. But no longer is Will’s experience in the Upside Down, a parallel dimension of darkness and unknown origins with monsters, vines and floating ashes, the central plot point of “Stranger Things.” Instead, it’s the even stranger things happening in Hawkins — the demagnitazation of Joyce’s refrigerator, Dustin picking up some strange Russian messages through his fancy new radio tower and Will constantly feeling the presence of the Mind Flayer, a spider-like supernatural monster, even though Eleven had supposedly closed it off from the real world at the end of season two.

Each episode’s fluctuating runtime allows for exposition when needed, creating a long list of “main” characters and recurring guest stars — Cary Elwes as the greedy mayor of Hawkins and Jake Busey as the arrogant and misogynistic lead reporter for the paper are the most notable — for the Duffers, Shawn Levy (director of the “Night of the Museum” films) and writers and producers to manage.

For the most part, it’s spectacular. The show’s visual effects, needed to handle the newest invisible threat to peace and happiness and the new monsters that haunt Hawkins’ heroes, match well with solid performances and the twists and turns the script provides.

Where “Stranger Things” falls short — and just barely, in my opinion — is that it’s too much of a good thing to handle sometimes. What made this Netflix show great in its first couple seasons, in my opinion, was the relationship between Mike, Dustin, Lucas and Will. They were four nerds and they were proud of it. But as they’ve grown, they’re shifting apart, ridding the show of its original bread-and-butter. Simultaneously, they and the other main characters are spread thin, limiting the opportunities for them to shine.

Fortunately, most of the time, they still shine. The new characters, particularly Hawke and Ferguson, add both heart and humor to the show. Schnapp’s shift from playing a demon punching bag to group pariah — Mike once states that, unlike the others, Will doesn’t like girls — is particularly notable, and Hawke’s Robin moves from Steve’s annoying co-worker at the beginning to a vital part of the show’s fabric at the end.

“Stranger Things” offers something unique that is hard to find in the modern-day television marketplace. It’s about kids hitting puberty and the parents that watch over them, the 80s nostalgia that attracts older viewers but doesn’t lose its younger audience and establishing a threatening monster presence and horror tint that somehow exceeds the seasons before. Also, Chatham County viewers should keep an ear out for a quick geographical reference that might sound familiar, and understandable for show creators Matt and Ross Duffer, who are Durham natives.

The success of the show has continued. According to Netflix, more than 40.7 million households have watched the show since its July 4 launch, and 18.2 million have already finished the eight-episode season.

And while it can be a bit much at times — I would have loved to see more dimensions to some characters, and there are some tropes like evil foreigners and cheap laughs it doesn’t need — the suspension of disbelief required for “Stranger Things” is easy, and that’s huge.

After all, the show is called “Stranger Things.” What else would you expect?

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