I can vividly remember the first time I watched the series premiere of Stranger Things. My expectations were low; there was no hype, the series had originally percolated around the news wires as the decidedly less interestingly titled Montauk, Winona Ryder was attached, and the rest was under wraps, either by design or because it was just another drop in a tidal wave of series gobbled up by Netflix, which had just begun hoarding shows to build its empire.
But from the very beginning, Stranger Things jumped out as something special. The internet had long ago made nostalgia a thing — mostly kids who grew up with the internet talking about things that they grew up with, on the internet — but Stranger Things tapped into new territory. Yeah, the '80s had been more overlooked than the bookending decades, but what made Stranger Things Season 1 extra special was that it didn't feel like it was an homage to the era and the films that came from it, it felt like a lost series from the '80s that had only just been discovered. As if someone dug up a time capsule and discovered a stack of VHS cassettes with Stranger Things scribbled in Sharpie on a sticker on the side.
That was the alluring power of Stranger Things; it was a show done in the style of '80s movies about kids coming face-to-face with the unusual — E.T., Explorers, The Goonies, are clear inspirations — but it felt like a show from the '80s almost more than the movies from the '80s were. That feeling continued in Season 2, but it's chipped away in Season 3, maybe because the element of surprise is long gone, but mostly because Stranger Things 3, more than the seasons before it, feels purposefully like it's taking cues from an '80s movie rather than magically appearing from a portal that has a direct line to the decade. It's an '80s avalanche, and goes out of its way to make sure you know that.
The good news is that after two stellar seasons, Stranger Things has evolved beyond its '80s-ness being its most defining feature. Even though it feels the most aggressively, intentionally, and bodaciously '80s of all three seasons by a lot, Season 3 is wildly entertaining on its own from top to bottom because it clearly knows what it does best — it built a world with adorable characters that just so happens to exist in the '80s — and will easily become the most universally beloved current series now that Game of Thrones has 1) ended its watch, and 2) left a bad taste in everyone's mouths. Perhaps absence makes the heart grow fonder — Season 2 was released 20 months ago — but firing up the premiere of Season 3 was the most excited I've been about TV in a long time because I was eager to jump back into that world, and I was not disappointed. And through the entire eight-episode season, Season 3 is — minus a few very forgivable faults — everything you want it to be. It's TV candy in its sweetest, most addictive form.
Season 3 jumps forward more than six months to the summer of 1985, with Hawkins, Indiana, once again choosing not to remember the calamities of the previous season, and life moving on as if nothing happened. Summer — and the brazen Americana of the upcoming Fourth of July celebration — might be the show's best new character; previous seasons all took place in the fall, and Stranger Things gets a wonderful facelift thanks to the sweatier months. The kids aren't in school, the shorts are short, the Stars and Stripes are a-flyin', and the public pool is packed while Billy (Dacre Montgomery) keeps an eye out as the working lifeguard. (For you other members of the Billy fan club, it's worth noting that the bully gets a lot of screentime this season, much of it shirtless.)
There's a new mall, Starcourt, that's crammed with crimped-haired teens as the center of social activity, and it also serves as the center of hardcore nostalgia for all of us who were of age at the time. It's got a Sam Goody, Hot Dog on a Stick, Jazzercise studio, Orange Julius, and Waldenbooks. Aggressively '80s indeed. The mall is also a keystone of the season, not just to flesh out the social lives of the kids through great Madonna-scored montages, but as the setting for Season 3's best scenes. Between the summer season and the mall, Stranger Things feels just rejuvenated and reenergized enough, as if it anticipated doing the same thing at the same time of year would be a mistake.
Of course, Season 3 isn't just shopping sprees and cannonballs into the pool, and it's quickly established that — surprise! — there's trouble coming to Hawkins and America as a whole. A few types of trouble, in fact. The Upside Down unleashes a new threat — its most disgusting yet — that's linked to Season 2's Mind Flayer, which hasn't forgotten what Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) did to it in Season 2. Obviously it's pissed and makes the kids' lives hell, and like the first two seasons, its motivations, intentions, and background remain mysterious. Thought: Does a monster from another dimension really need motivation? It's a question that probably should be answered by the time Stranger Things ends, but for now, bringing death and destruction will have to do. It's bad, OK?
But it's the new threat — a familiar foe from that time that Netflix has asked that we not reveal — that sends Stranger Things on an entirely new orbit and gives the season the feeling that it's aping '80s films and shows rather than is one of them. It's the kind of enemy that a series can pull off the shelf from the supervillain aisle and plug it right in because it comes prepackaged with our own built-in preconceived negative notions. The biggest problem with it is that it remains largely one-note throughout the entire season, steering Season 3 towards the tropes of '80s movies rather than making the universe of Stranger Things feel like its own.
In fact, both of these villains have a common problem: They're voiceless. They're simple. They're stock. They're giant signs that read "HELLO, WE ARE THE BAD GUYS." In this fight between good and evil, all the complexity is reserved for the good, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. But as Stranger Things moves further into its series-long plan, it runs the risk of oversimplifying its story and falling into repetition. Summer was a good way to avoid more of the same, but the overall story mirrors Seasons 1 and 2: Bad guys are here, and it's up to the kids to stop them. While most shows go by the rule of outdoing themselves each season, Stranger Things Season 3 says if it ain't broke, don't fix it. And the show is so damn charming that it pulls it off.
While the villains remain fairly basic, things among your returning favorites are not. The six-month time jump means relationships have progressed, providing enough fuel for Tumblr to stay warm 'til Season 4. Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Eleven are full on PG-13, Joyce (Ryder) and Hopper (David Harbour) are still gravitating toward being a thing (despite anyone with common sense thinking they should), and new love is in the air. Many of these relationships are over that lovable awkward first hurdle that brought a little John Hughes into the mix and are onto the predictable full-on make-out seshes (Mike and Eleven) or bickering tension (Hopper and Joyce), but some of the new work-in-progress relationships have pleasant surprise endings.
That said, these veteran relationships are less interesting (as is one particular character's reaction to one of them) than their clumsy build-ups in earlier seasons, and Season 3 has a tendency to explore them in scenes that go on too long, particularly when there's a frickin' monster running amok. But these things pay the bills, so your mileage may vary on their effectiveness.
That shouldn't hold true to the overall feeling of Season 3, though. It's a crowd-pleaser. It knows what it does well, and it doubles down on it. Intense action with some of TV's best special effects? Yep. Steve and Dustin as BFFs? You'll get your fill. That nostalgic sense of wonder that Stranger Things does so well? In spades.
In fact, Season 3 is so rewarding because of the very fact that it doesn't try to do too much. TV these days feels a responsibility to say something, but aside from the faintest taps into problems we face today — the mall hurting local businesses and signaling the advent of gross Reagan-era capitalism; Nancy (Natalia Dyer) trying to break into her new job but getting stymied by disgusting, misogynistic men; the mere presence of the new villain in Hawkins — Stranger Things wants to be pure entertainment of the simplest degree. Sometimes you don't want a lecture when you sit on your couch, you just want an escape. Stranger Things, more than ever, is your ticket.
Though there are signs that Stranger Things is on the verge of slowing down (one-note villains, the missing feeling of an unearthed '80s treasure), that's not happening yet in Season 3. This is the Stranger Things you came for, and it's the perfect American summer vacation.
TV Guide Rating: 4.5/5
Stranger Things Season 3 premieres July 4 on Netflix.