The successful Netflix series is wholly envisioned and cleverly appropriated by the Duffer Brothers (twins Matt and Ross), who were born in 1984 and would give anything, apparently, to travel right back there. They have said they were transfixed as children by old VHS cassettes of that era’s movies — the good ones, the bad ones and especially the mediocre ones, once regarded as Blockbuster detritus.
“Stranger Things” is both a longing and an ode to a mishmash of ingredients: John Carpenter, Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, Freddy Krueger, Rambo, the Terminator, the aliens of LV-426, the video arcades, the adolescent pining, the ASCII angst. You can practically bathe in it, secure and cocooned. What’s difficult, however, is to be fully entertained by it. “Stranger Things” is still a show that mainly shows off.
In a glut of 1980s nostalgia (as we prepare for “American Horror Story: 1984” on TV this fall and “Wonder Woman 1984” in theaters next summer), the Duffers pretty much take the prize. Even their Tostitos corn-chip bags and New Coke cans are period precise; in one scene, they can’t resist plunking some of their characters into a packed screening of “Back to the Future,” creating a delightfully schiz-ified moment of then-and-now, seen both then and now.
But what is the prize? Permanent regression? Umbilical reattachment? A lifetime supply of Mr. T breakfast cereal? It’s almost heartbreaking to watch the Duffers work so hard to re-create an elusive vibe they’ve already nailed — this time constructing the Starcourt Mall, a shiny new shopping destination in fictional Hawkins, Ind.
As a backdrop, no detail has been ignored. Starcourt is a triumph of retro set-direction, from the Orange Julius to the six-plex cinema to the Sam Goody, Waldenbooks and denim-dominated iteration of the Gap. Here, the boys and girls of “Stranger Things” cope with the onset of teenage drama in the summer of 1985, apparently well-recovered from their previous battles with the dreaded Demogorgon of Season 1 and the Mind Flayer in Season 2.
Nerd leader Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and the shy but powerfully telekinetic El (Millie Bobby Brown) are now an item, with discreet make-out sessions in her bedroom while her adoptive father figure, Hawkins Police Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour), seethes in his La-Z-Boy with protective worry. Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Max (Sadie Sink) are also still dating. Dustin (Verizon pitchman Gaten Matarazzo) returns from summer science camp so smitten with a girl that he sets about constructing a ham-radio antenna powerful enough to reach her on their own frequency.
Instead he intercepts encoded communiques — leading to one of several plot points Netflix has all but forbidden critics to describe in their reviews, on the condition of letting us see all eight episodes in advance. I get the concern. Besides nostalgia, plot is really all “Stranger Things” has to offer, and this time it offers far too much of it. Suffice to say there’s a conspiracy, a gooey monster and a lot of yelling and running around.
Part of the Duffers’ problem (still) is that they are paying homage to popcorn movies that lasted no more than two hours in the theater and spent even less time in most moviegoers’ heads. Instead, “Stranger Things” spends hours and hours letting things unspool, with some episodes clocking in past the one-hour mark. Even heaped with tangents, the material just doesn’t prove worthy.
Fine, then perhaps use the extra time to develop the characters? That, too, is an ongoing “Stranger Things” struggle. By now there are at least a half-dozen too many characters to care about and a monster whose motivations and methodology (think “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”) are difficult to fully comprehend. Drawing on some of the same sequelitis that troubled its beloved old movies, “Stranger Things” opts to divvy its characters up into groups, separating them for several episodes.
This has the benefit of creating some opportunities for authenticity rather than homage. At one point, Will (Noah Schnapp), the kid who spent most of Season 1 trapped in the interdimensional Upside Down and now barely registers in Season 3, realizes his buddies are more interested in girls and hanging out at the mall. He confronts Mike about these feelings of alienation.
“We’re not kids anymore,” Mike yells at him, after a halfhearted session of Dungeons & Dragons falls apart. “What did you really think? That we were never going to get girlfriends? That we were just going to sit in my basement and play games for the rest of our lives?”
“Yeah, I guess I did,” Will replies.
It’s a moment where both the writing and intent of “Stranger Things” (to say nothing of the acting and execution) manage to transcend the kitsch of it all. Unfortunately it’s not the sort of thing the show is able to sustain.
Most of the emotion in the series veers toward the overblown or maudlin, though Winona Ryder (God bless ’er), who plays Will’s jangly nerved mother, Joyce, has at last decided to fully apply her once formidable talent to the role. Her effort is rewarded with a long subplot that sends Joyce and Chief Hopper off in a madcap and even romantic direction, easily becoming one of the season’s highlights.
There are other glimmers of hope: Joe Keery shines as Steve, once the stereotypical ’80s jock/jerk, now suitably rehabbed as a heroic employee of Starcourt Mall’s ice-cream store, with a capably whip-smart colleague, Robin (Maya Hawke). As the show’s extraneous characters start to fade into the background, these two steal whatever’s left — along with Matarazzo, who has always intuitively understood “Stranger Things’ ” delicate balance between sendup and seriousness; and the satisfyingly precocious emergence of Priah Ferguson as Lucas’s resourceful kid sister, Erica.
The sluggish pace of this season can be daunting to binge, and there’s ample evidence that the Duffers are running out of big ideas, often relying on violence to make up for a lack of imagination. Nevertheless, nostalgia remains a powerful drug that satisfies a primal urge, and on that note, “Stranger Things” can lay claim to an ample supply.
Stranger Things (eight episodes) returns Thursday on Netflix.