Perhaps The Duffer Brothers were wise to this. With Stranger Things 3 the series has gone on a diet. It is much slimmer, much more focused, and more tightly written. And at the same time, the focus has shifted. The two great elements of Stranger Things have been the personal relationships and then the supernatural. Stranger Things 3 begins very nicely with the personal relationships. It is interested in the lives of the characters for a good long while before the spooky stuff starts.
For one thing, the kids are growing up. In the year and a half since Stranger Things 2, Will, Mike, Dusty, Lucas, El and Max have now steered into the waters of their pre-teen years. Their voices have changed, their bodies have changed, their priorities changed (Will has a revelation this season that is simply heartbreaking). Mike and El have discovered romance, as has Dusty by dating the classic girlfriend-out-of-town that nobody has met. El is discovering her independence. Their lives are taking shape. There is a spooky plot here but describing it would lead into spoiler territory, so I’ll leave it for you to discover.
The focus on nostalgia is interesting in Stranger Things 3. The Duffer Brothers perhaps know that they can never match the wow factor of that first season and with this latest installment it is clear that they aren’t going to try. Where the first season leaned heavily on Steven Spielberg and Stephen King, this one seems to ebb with the fact that that kids aren’t children anymore. Its 1985 now, after all.
More than that, the show steers into a very clever commentary about mid-80s mall culture, the cold war and Soviet paranoia. If the first two seasons leaned on elements of Spielberg and Lucas, this one leans heavily on James Cameron, George Romero, and John Carpenter. The settings for Stranger Things 3 show a growth on the part of the Duffer Brothers that has been an evolving process. The mall, a military compound, an over-crowded pool, a parade, a failing hardware store; these things don’t feel like settings, they feel like the town of Hawkins is alive and breathing.
The same can be said for the characters. Each has an agenda. Each has a story to tell. Nobody here is left out. We are, at all times, interesting in what is going on in their lives and how their story will play out. Stranger Things 3 is alive, vibrant, entertaining and beautifully written. The Duffers haven’t been satisfied to retread their previous success. They know they have something great on their hands and that want it to be even greater.