In Stranger Things’ Third Season, the Nostalgia Well Runs Dry

The teen protagonists of Stranger Things huddle in a circle below a lamp.
Stranger Things.

Can you be nostalgic for the first season of Stranger Things? Slavish worship of the 1980s has been the raison d’être—as well as the raison d’everything else—for Matt and Ross Duffer’s Netflix series. But in its third season, the show has become less loving homage and more vampire squid, sucking increasingly hard at a corpse that has long since run dry.

The new season finds us back in the town of Hawkins, Indiana, where adolescent hormones are coursing through the bodies of the series’ now-teenage protagonists. Telekinetic Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), who mostly goes by “El” now, is doing her best to live the life of a normal teen, which means constantly making out with her new boyfriend, Mike (Finn Wolfhard). Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) has come back from a month at science camp with a long-distance girlfriend of his own—or so he says, anyway—and love is in the air elsewhere, from the ongoing flirtation between Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) and police chief Hopper (David Harbour) to the simmering sexual tension at the community pool, where bored housewives put on their best one-pieces to make eyes at Billy Hargrove (Dacre Montgomery) in his lifeguard suit.

Like its characters, Stranger Things is growing up, or at least putting on a show of maturity. Season 3 discovers the Cold War, introducing a passel of Central Casting Soviets as the human antagonists, and building a large chunk of the season around the introduction of Hawkins’ first shopping mall, which gives the Duffers an excuse to mock up neon-pink Sam Goody signs and make vague comments about the destruction of small-town life. (Communism is bad, but capitalism is … also bad.) Beginning with a group of children sneaking their way into a showing of George Romero’s R-rated Day of the Dead, the new season ups the ante on violence generally and gore specifically, with rats and eventually larger creatures collapsing into puddles of bloody ooze in order to feed the alien entity that the Dungeons and Dragons–obsessed kids have dubbed the Mind Flayer. But the violence is amped up without thought or discretion; every punch lands with a sledgehammer whomp, whether it’s directed at a hulking Russian enforcer or a teenage boy. Set in 1985, the year after movies introduced the PG-13 rating, the season seems infatuated with its own extremely modest maturity, eager to flex its tiny biceps and show off the imperceptible fuzz on its upper lip.

One of the things that distinguished Stranger Things’ first season was its meticulous attention to period detail; it felt like a show that could have been shot in the 1980s, not just set then. But in the third season, that attention has gone out the window. The cutesy signifiers are there—the geometric neon patterns on standard-issue mall wear, a running gag about New Coke—but the rest has gotten sloppy. The dialogue is awash in expressions that weren’t common 10 years ago, let alone 35: At one point, Dustin gives an impromptu lecture on the tropes of nerdism, using a word that was the exclusive province of graduate students and expressing a sentiment that no teenage boy would have laid claim to. New characters like the town’s stuffed-shirt mayor (Cary Elwes) are so underdeveloped that they barely count as types, indebted as they are to the lousy ’80s movies the show apparently fetishizes. (Why recreate something that wasn’t worth watching the first time?) And the returning characters feel like they’ve been twisted to fit the plot rather than developed in any coherent way, especially sheriff Hopper, who deals with El’s modest teenage rebellion by becoming a drunken lout.

Stranger Things’ greatest legacy may be helping move Netflix toward shorter seasons, but even at eight episodes, the third feels distended, less like “one big movie” than a regular-size movie pumped full of digressions of dead ends. Some of those digressions, like Steve’s banter with Robin (Maya Hawke), his sarcastic co-worker at the mall ice cream shop, can be fitful delights, but the cumulative effect is to actively repel your attention, binge TV as background noise. There are frequently flashbacks not only to previous seasons but previous episodes in this season, as if the show knows it never had your full attention.

If there’s nothing as painful as Season 2’s “punk” episode, there’s nothing in Stranger Things’ third season as memorable either. Even the most distinctive moments feel disconnected from the rest, especially a segment in the final episode that feels as if its sole purpose is to be extracted and recirculated as a meme. (Knowing that it absolutely will does not make watching it any more pleasant.) Netflix has lately been moving toward an unofficial policy of capping series at three seasons, and although Stranger Things shows no signs of stopping, the Duffers might want to consider it anyway.