The Duffer Brothers, Mike and Ross, creator/directors of Netflix’s 1980s-saturated horror series “Stranger Things” have added a bit more romance & comedy into the mix this year. Some fans may not be 100% onboard with that decision. Personally, I enjoyed it very much.
Season 3 is a bit more farcical in tone as it enters teen comedy territory while still balancing a steady stream of 1980s sci-fi/horror/action movie references. It might feel a bit excessive, but as someone who was a teenager during that time, I can vouch that the mid-1980s were indeed a time of gaudy excesses (and yes, that included our entertainment). “Stranger Things” authentically captures the feel of mid-1980s pop entertainment, as well as the era itself. The Duffer brothers (who were born in 1984) have certainly done their homework…
“Stranger Things,” once again, accurately reflects the era which produced “Ghostbusters” “Back to the Future” and “Rocky IV” as well as a plethora of teen comedies, such as “Breakfast Club”, “Risky Business” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (‘80s sex symbol Phoebe Cates is referenced a lot).
It’s the summer of 1985, and budding romance is everywhere as the young characters of Hawkins, Indiana (and a couple of the adult ones) are feeling those hormones kick in. Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and telekinetic ‘X-Girl’ Eleven/Elle (Millie Bobby Brown) can’t get enough of each other, which disturbs others in their circle as well as Elle’s adoptive father, Sheriff Jim Hopper (the lovably lumpish David Harbour). Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and last season’s new girl Max (Sadie Sink) are still an item as well.
Even motormouth science geek Dustin (the delightful Gaten Matarazzo) has returned from summer camp boasting of his mysterious girlfriend “Suzie.” Dustin also creates a new radio transmission booster (named Cerebro, of course) for the group’s walkie-talkies, as well as to chat with Utah-based Suzie. Walkie-talkies are this show’s era-appropriate way to work around a lack of cellphones.
All of this ‘summer lovin” has the unintended side effect of alienating the older boys from their younger friend Will Byers (Noah Schnapp). Will misses the boys’ former “Stand By Me” closeness that is rapidly being eclipsed by girlfriends and their declining interest in childhood games.
Even Will’s eccentric, tenacious mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) is feeling the tug of an awkward attraction with sloppy, lovable Jim, who struggles with the torment of being a single adoptive dad to budding teenage supergirl Elle. Jim and Joyce have great chemistry and are a romantic-comedy waiting to happen.
Returning characters Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) and girlfriend Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) work for the local paper now. This, of course, provides a perfect means for the two of them to continue chasing local conspiracies (which involves some very unusual rodents). Nancy’s ambition to be as star reporter are continually thwarted by her sexist pig male bosses, who derisively refer to her as “Nancy Drew.” Naturally villainous-looking Jake Busey (son of Gary) is among the office pig pack.
A new character is introduced this year; Steve’s frustrated genius-ice cream serving coworker and former classmate Robin (Maya Hawke, daughter of Ethan Hawke & Uma Thurman). Also stepping up to the plate is Lucas’ bratty kid sister Erica (Priah Ferguson) who gets one of the best lines (“There’s no America without Erica”).
Robin is also given a nice character twist that makes her unique to the group. Like Max in season 2, Robin and Erica quickly become fully-initiated members of the Stranger Things’ Scooby Gang.
The story arc of this year expands the usual 1980s fantasy/sci-fi/horror homages to include ’80s teen comedy references (the aforementioned “Fast Times…” is all over this season). Elle and Max enjoy a nice “Material Girl” mall-shopping montage right out of an ’80s teen comedy. Yes it’s a bit silly, but so were the ‘80s.
Season 3 also includes many nods to Soviet-era action flicks such as “Red Dawn” “Invasion USA” and even a dash of “Red Heat” as Jim and Joyce are forced to team up with a buttoned-up “Russky” scientist Alexei (Alex Utgoff). Their partnership with the unwilling Russian also references ‘80s comedies like “48 HRS” and “Midnight Run.” While the Soviets are indeed the new baddies of season 3, Joyce, Jim and paranoid genius/translator Murray “Bald Eagle” Bauman (Bret Gelman) discover that Alexi isn’t so bad after all…
Turns out the town of Hawkins, Indiana has been (literally) sold out from underneath its citizens to the Soviet Army by the corrupt, sleazy mayor Larry Kline (Cary Elwes, formerly of “Princess Bride” fame) in exchange for funding of the town’s grand new “Starcourt Mall” (insert Donald Trump/Russian collusion metaphor here). This shiny, neon-saturated hotbed of capitalism eviscerates the town’s smaller businesses, including Joyce’s general store (malls gutting smaller businesses acts as metaphor for e-commerce shuttering shopping malls today). The Russians are very interested in reopening (and exploiting) the subterranean portal that Elle fought to close last year, and that brings all new twists to a familiar nightmare.
In addition to the Red-scare movies of the 1980s, there are also distinct visual and musical homages to James Cameron’s original 1984 “Terminator” as well, with a seemingly unstoppable Soviet assassin named “Grigori” (Andrey Ivchenko) who could almost pass for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s facial double. This Red Terminator gives the antics of Joyce and Jim a dangerous ticking clock.
All the characters and storylines converge, and the final showdowns at the Starcourt mall and the subterranean Russian base are thoroughly cinematic in scope. There is also an extended coda which, like previous seasons, shows the lingering aftermath and hints of a convenient coverup.
While this season may have a few too many moments of farce (Steve and Robin’s drugged shenanigans, for example), I think there is still plenty of tension, horror, and even tragedy to make those lighter moments of Netflix’s “Stranger Things” third season feel genuinely earned. Enjoy the romance and humor, because you might be suppressing a few sniffles by the end…