More puberty, more problems is the rough mantra for the new season of “Stranger Things,” which builds upon the story so far without bending the mold in the mix of ’80s nostalgia and more movie/TV references than you can shake a library of Stephen King books at.
As usual, the Netflix series — presumably one of its most popular, despite the service’s stinginess about backing up such assumptions — starts slowly, proceeds along parallel tracks (three pretty distinct ones, in this case) and gradually comes together, yielding an enjoyably derivative eight-episode binge that’s plenty of fun, if probably not worthy of all the hype and fuss.
The main wrinkle, aside from the kids getting older and making out, hinges on a villain cleverly in tune with the era. Adhering to Netflix’s spoiler-free demands, suffice it to say the threat adds to the already formidable list of pop-culture touchstones, from the innumerable movie and TV asides to the ’80s pastime of hanging out at the mall.
The bad guys, frankly, alternately prove nasty and inept, and the build-up spends a bit too much time on CW-esque shenanigans. Much of that has to do with the relationship between the more grown-up Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), whose mental abilities bring some complications to the thorny-enough matter of teen hormones.
Mike’s older sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer), meanwhile, is working at the local newspaper, where her efforts to sound alarms about these latest stranger happenings are boorishly laughed off with “Get me coffee” and references to “Nancy Drew” by the all-male club of old pros.
The payoff, thankfully, proves exciting and eventful, moving the show forward on various fronts. (Once again, be sure to watch the closing credits of the finale.)
Any show built around kids faces a formidable challenge as they age, and give writer-director-producer team the Duffer brothers and company credit for letting the series evolve — a la the Harry Potter franchise — without sacrificing its fundamental core. That’s despite what plays like a pretty significant ratcheting up of the violence quotient, which, even with the kids maturing, doesn’t make those scenes any less unpleasant.
Beyond servicing the existing cast, the third season introduces solid new characters, and the emphasis on teen troubles doesn’t come entirely at the expense of the adults — specifically, Joyce (Winona Ryder) and Hopper (David Harbour), who still have an appealing, often-amusing arc.
Success hasn’t spoiled “Stranger Things” — the special effects certainly reflect an upgrade from season one — but it has made the show a bit more self-conscious. A later episode, for example, includes what amounts to a conspicuous gag about New Coke, the notorious marketing misfire, incorporated so clumsily as to almost become a jump-the-shark moment, to borrow an enduring reference from another decade.
If you can’t tell, this general appraisal comes from someone who has never been all in on “Stranger Things,” a show that has always felt like a diverting, warm-spirited but slight homage to the tasty period ingredients baked into it.
That said, without confirmation as yet of a fourth season, the likelihood of one more encore sounds about right. It’s been fun while it lasted — if only for all that bad ’80s hair — but it feels like time to let the little Indiana town of Hawkins enjoy some hard-earned, monster-free peace and quiet.
“Stranger Things” premieres July 4 on Netflix.