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TV Review: Stranger Things 3 Is Peak Blockbuster Television

on June 30, 2019, 3:01am

The Pitch: It’s Summer of 1985. Back to the Future is a blockbuster hit. Madonna is finishing up her debut concert tour. Rollerblades are becoming a thing. Nancy Reagan is celebrating her 62nd birthday. But for Hawkins, Indiana, life revolves around the new Starcourt Mall, and very little else. The Gap, Waldenbooks, Sam Goody, Burger King, Jazzercise, Scoops Ahoy, they’ve got it all. They also have something sinister behind their storefronts, and let’s just say, it’s not up for sale. Whoa, this is pretty heavy.

One Summer Can Change Everything: It’s been nearly two years since Season 2 wrapped up on Halloween weekend in 2017. Since then, creators Matt and Ross Duffer have been slowly teasing its followup. They pointed to John Carpenter’s The Thing, they’ve talked up Cronenberg’s body horror, they name-dropped Romero. The cast has been just as tight-lipped. David Harbour talked up risks and admitted to feeling “a little bit out of our comfort zone,” Natalia Dyer called it “bigger, darker, and scarier,” and Finn Wolfhard said it has “the fun of season one and the horror of season two.” He also stressed, “The Duffers have got better at it, at writing it. And we’ve become better actors.”

They weren’t kidding. The creature horror of The Thing is all over Hawkins. So is Cronenberg’s influence on the, ahem, human condition. Romero’s Day of the Dead opens up the season (and John Harrison’s score is laced throughout). Every episode is a major narrative risk. Every character heads to bigger and darker places. The whimsy of the first season is present, as is the horror of its sequel, and, yes, my god, yes, have the Duffers improved, have the actors improved, and has the show improved. All of that time has paid off drastically because this series has never felt more confident and more focused in the three years it’s been streaming on Netflix.

Stranger Things 3 (Netflix)

Stranger Things 3 (Netflix)

Because really, Stranger Things 3 is the ’80s summer blockbuster this show has been striving to be since “Chapter One: The Vanishing of Will Byers”. There’s action, there’s horror, there’s adventure, there’s drama, it’s all in there. With each new chapter, the Duffers keep piling on more and more, but they never lose sight of character and story. There’s a musicality to their work that speaks to the re-watchable magic of our worn-out VHS tapes in the sense that you feel part of a genuine world. The Duffers know that world, all too well, and their world-building this season proves they’re not just scholars of genre, but true dungeon masters of narrative and character.

Granted, that talent was all there in the first and second season, but what separates this latest outing from its predecessors is how symbiotic everything feels in spite of its expansive structure. The Duffers go big, yes, but they warrant that space. In fact, the way they thread everything together makes D.B. Weiss and David Benioff look like a possessed Will Byers with a crayon. Past characters evolve, new characters earn their keep, the aesthetics never let up, the horror always terrorizes, the story feels self-contained. How the Duffers maintain and escalate this ebb and flow is a credit to their vision, and Stranger Things 3 is the closest approximation of it insofar.

Let’s Go to the Mall: The first new character we were introduced to this season was the Starcourt Mall. If you recall, the Duffers previewed the setting last summer when they dropped its fuzzy, vintage commercial, which essentially doubled as a teaser trailer. In hindsight, it was a smart and calculated move given that Starcourt is this season’s raison d’être. It’s the way-station for the multiple threads at hand and winds up being the final set piece, which isn’t a spoiler given that we’ve known for some time now that the last episode is titled, “Chapter Eight: The Battle of Starcourt”.

Beyond its narrative roots, though, Starcourt is a marvel of production values, the likes of which make Stranger Things even more cinematic. This isn’t just some hammy set from The CW, but an actual working mall. “There’s no faking stores, no faux fronts or anything,” set decorator Jess Royal explained in last year’s behind-the-scenes tome, Stranger Things: Worlds Turned Upside Down. “Every store that we’re selecting is a real store, with a couple of exceptions just for script reasons. You could walk into any of these stores in theory, and all the products there are from 1985.”

Stranger Things (Netflix)

Stranger Things (Netflix)

That Fincher-esque level of detail heavily adds to the season’s event-like feeling, but it also aides in offering a lived-in setting for the ensuing drama. There are so many essential moments dealt within its walls, all of which stem from the conceit that this truly is the “summer that changes everything.” As the showrunners have stressed from early on, “It’s really the final summer of their childhood. They’re dealing with growing up, with these complicated new relationships. They’re starting to fall apart a little bit…” The mall, this beacon of change in commerce, mirrors that feeling.

Not to lean too hard on the history stacks, but shopping malls were an essential part of American culture in the ’80s. There were around 3,000 malls across the country at the time, which is an astounding number when you try to displace 3,000 across 50 states. So, while there’s certainly a sense of nostalgia tied to seeing Waldenbooks or Sam Goody, the Duffers seem more concerned with what the mall represented. Because, in their eyes, it’s a magical theme park, where people could not only unite but ostensibly find themselves through various forms of consumerism.

Stranger Things (Netflix)

Stranger Things (Netflix)

They’re not wrong, though, and their lack of cynicism is kind of refreshing, at least for this writer. As someone who grew up during the last gasp of mall culture — in South Florida, no less, where the malls were a refuge from the insufferable heat — they were an essential medium for discovery in the pre-Internet age. You could find old horror movies at Suncoast. You could be enlightened on better albums by a popular artist at Sam Goody. You could try on anything and be whatever or whoever you wanted. It was a magical place, and it was a paramount part of life.

All of which is to say that the Duffers truly capture that spirit in full. Whether it’s Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) trying on new threads at the Gap with Max (Sadie Sink), or the boys sneaking in to see Day of the Dead at the multiplex, or Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) and Robin (Maya Hawke) sharing revelations in the stalls of a candy-colored bathroom, it’s all in service to the idea that the mall really was this gateway for communication and development. Of course, given the town protests and the shuttered mom and pops stores across Hawkins, the Duffers know there’s a consequence with that change.

Stranger Things (Netflix)

Stranger Things (Netflix)

Sam and Diane: Whether the Duffers are referencing Cheers or Romancing the Stone or any other rom-com centered around a “will-they-won’t-they” couple, the arc for Chief Jim Hopper (Harbour) and Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) is a delightful throwback to that ’80s trope. Hopper is such an irritable bastard this season, fueled by the anxiety that comes from raising a young daughter, and his vices are hilarious. Clearly trying to his old habits, he gets by on a steady diet of Burger King, Tostito’s, and Magnum P.I.. But he doesn’t just wear Tom Selleck’s shirt, he’s got the scowl and the frustration, too.

Joyce, on the other hand, is back on the front lines. After being relegated to the sidelines for Season Two, despite a harrowing final few episodes, she bounces back in Season Three. Like Nancy (more on her later), she’s hungry for answers, and her fascination in electromagnetism finds her connecting with a range of familiar faces, from an indelible cameo by Mr. Clarke (Randy Havens) to a featured role by Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman). Her emotional investment in these scenes, especially when paired with Harbour’s bruised ego checks, adds so much palpable energy to the adventure.

You almost forget there are, oh, a dozen other characters surrounding them.

Stranger Things 3 (Netflix)

Stranger Things 3 (Netflix)

Scoops Troop: After winning the hearts of fans in Season Two, Steve Harrington returns … to sling ice cream. Rest assured, that only adds to his ensuing humility, which the Duffers have been exploring since Jonathan Byers smashed his face in towards the end of Season One. It gets worse. He didn’t get accepted to college. He reeks of desperation around the girls. His trademark hair is mostly hidden under a sailor hat. He’s a loser, but that’s a good place for Steve. As we saw in Season Two, his downfall has only made him more endearing, and he’s quite a charmer this time around.

It helps that he’s paired with the strongest new character ever to be introduced into this series: Robin. Played to Alternative perfection by Maya Hawke, Robin is a brilliant foil for Steve. She’s smarter, she’s cunning, and she’s resourceful. Yet she’s also flawed. After all, she, too, is doling out sundaes, and her own self awareness of this reality adds to her complexity. Without her, this would be just another doofus rollercoaster between Steve and his son Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo), who winds up playing Dad in a hilarious case of role reversal that seemingly recalls Vice Versa.

Believe it or not, though, that’s still not the entire team…

Stranger Things (Netflix)

Stranger Things (Netflix)

They’re also joined by Lucas Sinclair’s (Caleb McLaughlin) insufferable sister, Erica (Priah Ferguson). In the past, Erica has provided some punchy, sassy moments that admittedly began to feel redundant by Season Two. They’re still old hat here, but the adventure at hand eventually chips away at that cold exterior, and she starts to feel less like an annoying archetype and more like the fan favorite the Duffers want her to be. Although Steve has little patience for her, her exchanges between Robin and Dustin are where she finds steadier footing, and by the end, she’s a key member of the Scoops Troop.

Eleven to the Max: First, she was locked away in Hawkins Lab, then Mike Wheeler’s basement, and then Hopper’s cabin. Now, Eleven’s finally free to roam around town, and it’s like watching a teenaged version of Starman. It’s a coming-of-age arc in the most spiritual sense, and Millie Bobby Brown sells it with her most adult performance to date. As she’s proven over the past two seasons, Brown thrives in the little nuances she brings to each showing, and the way she responds to the intricacies of young love and the novelties of being a teen girl is affecting in its raw humanity.

Stranger Things (Netflix)

Stranger Things (Netflix)

Some of her best scenes, however, are with Sadie Sink’s Max, who plays the John Connor to her T-800. As the two begin to bond, Max helps Eleven develop her own attitude and personality, be it trips to the mall or phone calls with Mike, all of which affords Brown some much-needed comedy. It’s a refreshing appetizer to the horrors that follow for the telekinetic wunderkind, especially when the terrors of the Upside Down begin to materialize in ways that seem confounding even to her. Brown is relentless, though, coming off less like Tetsuo and more like a stable Jean Grey.

Three’s Company: One of the harder conflicts to watch unfold this season is the growing rift between the AV Club, particularly those in relationships (Mike Wheeler, Lucas Sinclair) and those by their lonesome (Will Byers, Dustin Henderson). With Dustin occupied by the aforementioned Scoops Troop, and a potential long distance affair from summer camp, that leaves Will as the odd man out. If you couldn’t tell from his tearful inclusion in the Season Three trailer, Will is struggling with the idea that things are changing and nobody’s really interested in Dungeons and Dragons campaigns.

Stranger Things (Netflix)

Stranger Things (Netflix)

“It’s not my fault you don’t like girls,” Mike chastises Will in an emotional, rainy moment in the Wheeler garage. There’s a lot of subtext in that statement, especially when you consider the ensuing fan speculation about Will’s own sexuality, but thematically, Will’s feelings of disassociation stress the broader point that friends aren’t always forever. As Richard Dreyfuss’ The Narrator stresses in Stand By Me, the 1986 Stephen King adaptation that this series cut its teeth on, “Friends come in and out of your life like busboys in a restaurant.” Take that as you will.

Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boy: If there’s anyone who receives “The Steve Treatment” this season, it’s Nancy Wheeler (Dyer). Proving she’s the most career-driven of any of the Hawkins High graduates, Nancy returns fiercer than ever, working her way through the muck of the male-infested waters within The Hawkins Post. That includes scumbag hack writer Bruce (Jake Busey, chewing the screen as always), who finds every opportunity to demean her as she chases down hamburgers or pours out coffee for the all-too-realistic dickheads running the publication.

Stranger Things (Netflix)

Stranger Things (Netflix)

Along for the ride as always is her boyfriend Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton), who’s also trying to make a name for himself at the paper. The two do their detective rigamarole again, but Nancy finds her inner Ellen Ripley as she takes lead and contends with threats far beyond their collective imagination. Nothing is easy for her, though, and we see Nancy shoulder all that weight with tenacity and tears. A few of those tears are shared with her mother, Karen Wheeler (Cara Buono), in a character-defining moment that reveals the roots of the Wheeler family strength are purely maternal.

Invasion of the Body Flayers: Speaking of Mrs. Wheeler, those who had a hankering to see more of shirtless stud Billy Hargrove (Dacre Montgomery) are in luck. The big bad hunk returns in a far more embellished role, only he’s finally found the perfect setting to flex his villainous muscles: the Hawkins Public Pool. As the head lifeguard, Billy is every mother’s afternoon delight and every child’s worst fear, but his infamy only lasts for so long. The Upside Down has nasty plans for Max’s problematic brother, and we’d be remiss to mention any of them for fear of spoiling anything.

Stranger Things (Netflix)

Stranger Things (Netflix)

Having said that, like any great narrative involving any great bully, the Duffers dig deep enough around Billy to mine a backstory that adds natural depth to his unnatural demeanor. Montgomery is masterful in this torturous arc, too, huffing and heaving with a maximalist performance that’s as physical as it is emotional. Again, no spoilers, but things get downright disturbing for Billy as the Duffers casually send him into the darkest corners this series has ever explored. Where he was once a domestic disturbance, he’s now something a little out of this world, and that’s all we’ll say about that.

Hawkins Family Video Selects: It’s a new season with all new references. To help you prepare, we’ve compiled a list of 11 movies you’ll want to check out before you reunite with the AV Club. Each title has key influences and parallels to the season, so don’t be a mouth breather and do your research. Popcorn and soda are optional.

11 Movies to Watch Before Stranger Things 3, artwork by Cap Blackard

11 Movies to Watch Before Stranger Things 3, artwork by Cap Blackard

Everybody Wants to Rule the World: The Upside Down isn’t the only entity invading Hawkins, so is good ol’ American consumerism. Even beyond Starcourt’s dozen or so shops are obvious marketing tie-ins with the likes of Burger King, Coca-Cola, Dunkin’ Donuts, 7/11, Tostito’s, and the list goes on. Most of these are part of real-life promotions — as we outlined to great detail last week — but none of them are too distracting. (Though, if we’re splitting hairs, Lucas and Mike’s rant on New Coke is a bit overboard.) If anything, they help stock a world that’s supposed to feel like our own.

Think back to that year’s biggest blockbuster: Back to the Future. From beginning to end, product place litters Hill Valley, mostly as reference points for both Marty McFly and the audience. Editorial Director Matt Melis discussed this a few years ago in his commemorative op-ed. “As an ‘80s kid raised by a father, mother, and Magnavox, brands and commercials were an inescapable part of reality,” he wrote, “Back to the Future was the first film of my childhood that clearly understood that people and, more importantly, times are defined by both what we purchase and what we wish we could afford.”

That same logic applies to Hawkins, Indiana.

Rock This Town: With this being set in Summer of 1985, we fully expected to hear a playlist of that year’s biggest anthems: “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”, “Careless Whisper”, “I Want to Know What Love Is”, and especially “The Power of Love”. Instead, the most obvious hits we receive are Madonna’s “Material Girl”, The Cars’ “Moving in Stereo”, REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling”, and Foreigner’s other single “Cold as Ice”. To be fair, those are also juggernaut hits, but you can tell music supervisor Nora Felder didn’t want to get too on-the-nose with her selections.

That much is apparent in her more alternative choices. Neither of Huey Lewis’ Back to the Future jams make it in, but “Workin For A Livin” speeds by at 88 mph. Where she really thrives, though, is in the mid-level hits, be it Howard Jones’ “Things Can Only Get Better” or Corey Hart’s “Never Surrender”. We’re still a little miffed another season went by without a drop-in by The Replacements, but hey, Tim didn’t come out until October of 1985. Besides, it’s a very front-loaded season for the pop hits with the back half mostly reserved for Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein’s arresting score.

Hawkins Lab Analysis: Second sequels are never this good. Rare is a third chapter this compelling, this affecting, and this integral. If anything, it’s traditionally when creators begin to shrug and stumble around, frantically reworking old ideas just to lug the damn thing across the finish line. That’s just not the case for the Duffers, whose writing and enduring vision suggests a creative team athletic enough for at least another lap. In lesser hands, we’d feel wary of adding any more chapters, especially given how this season poetically wraps up, but the Duffers have earned that trust.

Stranger Things 3 is a testament to that. It’s their unlikely opus, one that’s as awe-inspiring as it is mystifying. Because, on paper, this entire season shouldn’t work. It should feel too silly, too over-the-top, too out of its element … but it’s not. It’s succinct, it’s compact, it’s sharper than ever — arguably as sharp as it gets when it comes to event television — and there’s no denying the level of trust that comes from that kind of execution. To close with a fitting analogy, the Duffers are at the head of their campaign, and we’d be all the wiser to hang around the basement, and see what they roll next.

Where’s It Playing? Stranger Things 3 premieres on July 4th via Netflix.

Trailer:

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