Stranger Things is the ultimate blend of Stephen King and Steven Spielberg. Due to the fantastic performances, high production value, and unabashed nostalgia, it quickly became an absolute phenomenon. However, this unhealthily binged juggernaut has been through a lot of changes over the last three years. The tone has shifted often, and the beginning of every sequel season always plays catch-up for a couple episodes. There’s plenty of pros and cons in the new season, and it’s crucial to bear in mind that it carried a uniquely summer theme with it this time. Now that you’re all done with barbecues and fireworks, here are ten improvements that season 3 has delivered.
10 Moral Ambiguity
There was a lot of black and white morality in the first season, thanks to the kids’ innocence. Now that they’re older, some more interesting questions come into play. The misuse of Eleven’s powers to spy, and Hopper’s threatening mania towards Mike, for example. There’s even a point where we are reminded why the doorway in Hawkins was opened to begin with. But then there’s the sleazy mayor. And smaller moments, like Mrs. Wheeler’s thoughts about cheating in the premiere. Or Joyce, unsure if she should move on, and date someone new. Even more fascinating, there’s the endearing enemy of the state, Alexei, who we should otherwise despise. It wasn’t absent before, but it’s more emphasized now, and it all adds up to a richer story.
This show started out as more of a slow-burn mystery, something akin to The X-Files. This is definitely reinforced by the Halloween-themed release of season 2. But the subject matter of a kidnapped child is treated very seriously, and that mystery takes a while to get going. This manic new season decided to go for a breakneck pace, with almost non-stop action. It’s exactly what we needed after season 2, which had an entire subplot about Dustin finding his very own Gizmo. The mystery unfolds quickly, thanks to some sharp investigations from various groups of characters. Actually, it’s adapted the pace of an actual 80’s movie.
8 Convincing CGI
Alright, so maybe those fireworks don’t look especially convincing at all. However, the success of the series has clearly granted it a much higher budget. The new villain looks like it belongs in a Hollywood creature feature more so than any TV show. We’ve been spoiled by modern television, and have come to accept that such creations are simply made available. However, it’s actually pretty stunning, especially compared to something like Dustin’s pet in season 2. Also, those dog-creatures didn’t look quite so sharp. We’re thankful that the VFX department has kicked it up a notch. It’s more immersive this way, pushing the limits of CGI on television.
A whole lot of puppy love is going on this season. It might be groan-inducing for some viewers, but the show seems to be pretty self-aware about all of it. Lucas and Max are a hilarious couple, and they seem to be racing ahead of their age. They function as agents of that self-aware tone, although the show often portrays precocious children, like Erica. There’s plenty of flirting all around, even between Hopper and Joyce. Then there’s Steve and Robin, the latter of which thankfully points out what a jerk Steve had been. But the relationships are a fun addition to the show, causing a lot of division among friends, and emphasizing change. Steve isn’t a bully anymore, Hopper is a neurotic dad now, and the kids are all falling for each other. It’s silly fun.
The volume of jokes per minute was cranked up to, well, eleven for this season. Aiming for a 4th of July, summer bash attitude, the show has abandoned most of its gritty tone. Given that the majority of the comedy is surprisingly sharp, it’s a very welcome addition. This show hasn’t exactly been known for delivering the laughs. Now, every character makes light of a situation, and there’s even a lengthy truth-serum gag. Seeing Stranger Things take itself a little less seriously actually has a lot of charm, and its attempts to do so are far more successful. This is because it chose that lane, and stuck to its guns, rather than contrasting it with the prior mood.
5 Lots Of Music
If the show was going to adapt this new tone, it’s only sensible that they would soak the entire thing in music. It’s something an actual 80’s movie would do, and indeed, there’s a full montage set to Madonna. The series has always been steeped in nostalgia, and few things establish an atmosphere like music. Sure, it felt more organic before this season, but it’s also a lot more fun this time around. That seems to be the general goal for season 3, overall. Either way, the soundtrack has another set of great selections—and if you’re fueled by nostalgia, you may as well own it.
Probably the most fascinating creative decision for this season is its determination to literally become an 80’s movie. Rather than simply pay homage to the decade, this season has become full of excess, and its references are more blatant than ever. More so than season 2, this is mostly a successful experiment. Much like Rocky IV or Red Dawn, the Russians are the bad guys. We even have a full-on Terminator, with matching appearance and depiction. We’re already invested in these characters, and this season was a chance to give them fun over logic. Sure, a lot of senseless things happen, with plenty of conveniences. But you’ll have to decide if the entertainment value outweighs the plausibility. There's more cheese, but it's done so effectively!
The habit of binging isn’t always helpful for a television show. You don’t allow the audience time to process and reflect, or even to miss the show between episodes. However, stories like Stranger Things were designed for sudden mass consumption. They’ve generally been one ongoing narrative, like a non-stop movie. However, this season, each episode has a tidy structure that allows people to enjoy them at a more reasonable pace. The plotting moves along nicely, there’s a cliffhanger at the end of every episode, and the story is more digestible for it. You can watch a single episode and feel like you got the full Stranger Things experience. Also, the easygoing tone doesn’t prevent the escalation throughout the season from being smoothly executed.
2 The Mystery
The mysteries actually unfold surprisingly well, especially given that we already know what the source of the problem is. It’s the manner with which the characters go about discovering them that’s so effective. The characters all become involved in an organic way. Joyce is understandably neurotic, Nancy has become a reporter; Eleven has the power to read minds. And Dustin sets an entire group of kids off on an adventure in the nerdiest way possible. It’s tightly woven, and playful. Season 2 didn’t quite deliver that, and mostly felt like a retread of the first season’s mystery. The symptoms of the new mysteries are also more intriguing, including rabid rats and people, rather than some decayed pumpkins.
The heavy emphasis on horror this season works like a charm. Again, this is a result of excess indulgence this season. There’s murder and monster mayhem galore. With nods to Aliens and other classics like The Blob, the new villain is fantastically disgusting. The revolting sound effects for its movement, and the sheer amount of gore are very effective. Given the villain’s goals, it’s fun that the show references Day of the Dead. But it’s also an indicator of what level of blood is in store. The kids are older now, and that’s the kind of movie they want to see—so, it makes perfect sense to allow the same for us. The stakes never felt quite as high without this degree of horror, which balances out the comedy.