'Stranger Things' Review: Upside Down Once Again

Six years ago, Matt and Ross Duffer has concocted a perfect streaming video dessert that’s low in nutrients but high in sugary calories...


Six years ago, Matt and Ross Duffer has concocted a perfect streaming video dessert that’s low in nutrients but high in sugary calories from pop culture. Season 1 of their Netflix series “Stranger Things” was an expertly assembled and finely calibrated blast of Gen-X nostalgia, Spielbergian family melodrama, and a more intense sci-fi horror adventure than expected. It was a delicious, entirely guilt-free indulgence.

The thing with a dessert, when it’s good enough, is that the people who like it don’t want it to change, that’s the condition for them to choose it again and again. And many “Stranger Things” followers have been lucky, because as the show’s fourth season – which kicks off with seven of its nine episodes on Friday – shows, the Duffers’ expertise and instinct to please far exceeds their imagination in storytelling.

The problem with Season 4 isn’t – or isn’t just – the widely publicized length of its episodes, though you may indeed find your mind wandering for the nine hours of the first seven chapters. (The final two episodes, including the finale that would have lasted two and a half hours, are scheduled for July 1.)

The problem is that when the awards arrive, they’re extremely familiar – the series has gone from lovingly echoing 1980s touchstones to assiduously copying itself. This is the route taken by movie franchises, and “Stranger Things” often feels more like a movie franchise than a TV series. But the best play witty and inventive variations on their own elements.

In the new season of the show, you feel the build-up of fan service, but once it’s there, it usually falls flat. Watching four teenagers ride bikes in the Midwestern night has an automatic resonance, but that’s all there is to it – it’s a superficial reminder to refresh our emotions. One of the best ideas from the first season, in which a 12-year-old trapped in an alternate dimension used his family’s Christmas lights to communicate, is consciously recycled.

Other repetitions are less explicit but just as noticeable. A major storyline set in the past is integral to the mysteries of the season, but also seems designed, in a fan-friendly way, to feature actress Millie Bobby Brown as often as possible in the haircut and the childlike costumes that defined her in Season 1. The exasperated game between oddball friends Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Steve (Joe Keery) is still fun, but it’s become so formulaic you’re likely to overlook it.

And yes, there’s plenty of time in these episodes, which average over an hour and a quarter, to think about that stuff. Season 4, for the first time, splits the show’s large number of small-town friends and family, sending some of them (including Brown’s Eleven, which begins the season without its telekinetic superpowers ) to a fresh start in California. (The setting is 1986, six months after Season 3 ended.) This separates several of the show’s young couples, meaning more time than ever is spent on the teenage relationship angst in which the show has never been very good.

Back in Hawkins, Ind., the town that sits above the Upside Down — the literal home of monsters from other dimensions and the metaphorical receptacle for stereotypical Middle American heartaches and regrets that monsters exploit — the remaining characters begin to detect the emergence of the last creature. Pulled, once again, from Dungeons & Dragons lore, he’s a humanoid with a passing resemblance to a “Star Trek” Borg queen and a habit of levitating teenagers before cracking all their limbs.

Things get even more extensive when a rescue mission is mounted for Jim Hopper (David Harbour), the former police chief and adoptive father of Eleven, who survived the cataclysmic Season 3 finale and finds himself in a Soviet prison. With the cast scattered across Indiana, California, and Kamchatka, the season’s dramatic progression heads toward an eventual gathering of the tribes in Hawkins to battle the new monster.

But that reunion is still pending at the end of the first batch of episodes. (I reveal this after careful reading of Netflix’s spoiler memo.) The nine hours have their moments; a mid-season scene in which the combative Max (Sadie Sink) escapes the monster’s grip is particularly touching. But there’s way too much filler – boring teenage melodrama, pleasant but routine action, horror that lacks the authentically scary filler it once had. The theme of outsiders battling parochialism is more central than ever – the local Dungeons & Dragons club is branded as a Satanist cult – but no more compelling.

It doesn’t help that all of the central cast, many of whom were around 12 when the show started, haven’t grown as performers in the six years since. (The show’s timeline has only been moved up three years, which means many of them also look awfully mature for their supposed age.) Some, including Matarazzo, Brown, Sink and Priah Ferguson , are more engaging than ever, but some haven’t added real acting skills to their teenage charm, and sometimes a scene fades away.

The show partly makes up for it by bringing in distinctive performers like Joseph Quinn, who has a Robert Downey Jr. bouncing back as a cocky D&D master, and Eduardo Franco, who’s sweetly muddled as a pothead pizza delivery guy named Argyle. (Like his namesake in “Die Hard,” he is the designated driver.)

While the Duffers kept the details of “Stranger Things” pretty much the same, they also strategically changed the show. Season 4 continues to progress away from the heightened, delicate emotionality and wry humor of a Spielberg-esque fable and toward the guilt, terror, and bodily terror associated with Brian De Palma and David Cronenberg. It’s a logical decision – the particular magic of the first season was probably impossible to maintain – but it doesn’t benefit the brothers’ strengths.

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Newsrust - US Top News: 'Stranger Things' Review: Upside Down Once Again
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