Is TV favourite worth 20-month wait?
If you've been waiting 20 months for the next chapter of a beloved TV series, your expectations are probably sky high.
Stranger Things burst onto Netflix in 2016 in a blaze - a big, bold and compelling series centred on a mysterious girl with telekinetic powers and the fearsome monster that lurked on the other side of a supernatural barrier.
It crackled with 80s pop cultural references and synth music, and smashed us over the head with its ode to nostalgia, not just to a certain time but to a certain time in movies. It was as close to 80s Spielberg without it actually being 80s Spielberg.
Now, the series (finally!) returns with its third season, almost two years after we were left with that last chilling shot of the monstrous Mind Flayer standing over the Hawkins school gym as our heroes inside lived out their Pretty in Pink fantasies.
Obviously, the threat wasn't over, even if we saw Eleven-now-Elle (Millie Bobby Brown) banish the monster back to its own realm and seal the barrier. Guess what? Barrier ain't sealed. Or, a remnant of the Mind Flayer stayed in the rightside up.
It's now 1985 and Hawkins, Indiana has a new mecca of consumerism to flock to: the Starcourt Mall. It's not just the place to hang out if you're a teenage kid, in the same way that so much of Fast Times at Ridgemont High revolved around the mall, it's also the epicentre of Hawkins' supernatural secrets.
For more than half of the eight-episode third series, of which six episodes were made available for review, the Stranger Things characters are split up into six separate subplots, where they're all chasing pieces of the same puzzle.
It takes a little too long for some of these threads to merge together, at which point the momentum picks up dramatically.
While that means you have to watch Nancy (Natalie Dyer) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) play investigative reporters around some diseased rats for four episodes, it also means you get to see the genius repairing of Steve "The Hair" Harrington (Joe Keery) and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), joined by newcomer Robin (Maya Hawke), Steve's co-worker at Scoops Ahoy, where he's been slinging ice cream all summer.
The trio easily have the best storyline as they try to uncover a nefarious plot within the mall after Dustin accidentally picks up a coded Russian message on his souped-up radio. They later rope in Lucas's sister Erica (Priah Ferguson), a sassy mini Whoopi Goldberg-clone, and are caught up in a Red Dawn/War Games-type adventure.
Elsewhere, Elle is forming a much tighter bond with Max (Sadie Sink), and it's great to see this female friendship contrasted with the slight fracturing of the core group of Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Dustin and Will (Noah Schnapp).
That the boys have started to split isn't unexpected as growing pains set in and their interests change. It's part of getting older - as are the gangly limbs and hormonal surges.
Stranger Things cleverly weaves those tricky dynamics in, as it does other character development beats. The series devotes a decent chunk of time to that development, sometimes at the expense of story momentum around the main narrative, this fight against the Mind Flayer.
It's a delicate balance because the story doesn't really have enough to fill out eight episodes, but once you factor in time spent with these characters, it starts to feel less dragged out. Even if there are still too many subplots and too many characters. You can't invest in them all, no matter how much the show tries to make you.
But if you're here for the pop culture references, they are so ubiquitous you won't be able to keep up.
Moving beyond Spielbergian homage, it's now grabbing at everything, and that includes George Romero's Day of the Dead, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (technically 1978), The Thing, The Blob, Magnum P.I. and the movies mentioned above.
Then there's the very overt reference to The Terminator, which fuels Joyce (Winona Ryder) and Hopper's (David Harbour) story. Speaking of which, not sure what is going on with the emotional choices for Hopper because when Ryder is the more restrained person in a scene, you know you've pushed it well over-the-top.
Is Stranger Things 3 as groundbreaking as the first season?
No, and that's by virtue of the fact we're now more than halfway through the four seasons the Duffer brothers have planned.
It's hard to keep it "fresh" when your sandbox is limited to the world you've already established, and the attempt to go beyond it - last season's spin-off episode "The Lost Sister" - was poorly received.
This season is also less scary than its predecessors, partly because we've now seen the Mind Flayer in full and partly because the tone seems to have shifted more to schlocky horror than psychological horror - that might be disappointing for those who are looking to be freaked out unless you're particularly terrified of gooey things that crawl.
Stranger Things still goes down very easily and it's a lot of fun just to play around in this universe.
Stranger Things 3 will be available on Netflix from Thursday, July 4 at 5pm AEST
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