If “House of Cards” was the show that put Netflix’s prestige television offerings on the map, then “Stranger Things” is its “Game of Thrones.” The initial season barely made a dent in pre-release public relations, instead rising to prominence by algorithm and social media response alone. No one expected it to be big, let alone a show Netflix could use to raise its monthly fee ahead of the season two premiere 18 months later. And yet, Thursday is the season premiere of season three, which arrives riding a wave of hype that every brand is trying to get in on. (Hello again New Coke, we didn’t miss you.) But the good news for fans is that, like the children at the heart of it, “Stranger Things” is growing and changing, pushing against the boundaries that limit it, with surprisingly enjoyable results.
“Stranger Things” was not originally meant to become Netflix’s flagship show, but it has nonetheless defined the streaming service. Like so many of Netflix’s series, there’s a deliberate familiarity to the show’s rhythms. Just as “The Crown” recalls a PBS show and “House of Cards” imitated something easily found on HBO, “Stranger Things” was classic Stephen King meets vintage Steven Spielberg. Think “It” but sweet, or “The Goonies” with an edge. It’s also a show built on the algorithms of those around it.
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The first season’s script was, by its own admission, full of stock characters with personalities hijacked from other, better films. The show was basically rewritten to fit the cast. Season two was rewritten (almost wholesale) after fan and critical reaction made the show creators, the Duffer Brothers, rethink entire plotlines, recalculating the system to produce maximum enjoyment.
Did you complain that having the two young female protagonists Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and Max (Sadie Sink) fight over boys traded on sexist tropes? Good news, the entire second episode is predicated on those two becoming the literal best of friends after kicking those boys to the curb. Did you dislike season two’s jock-jerk Billy (Dacre Montgomery), added after original antagonist Steve Harrington was rewritten? You’ll be very pleased to learn Montgomery is not only given a far more nuanced role to play this time, but a touching redemption arc as well. Did you want more time with adults Hopper (David Harbour) and Joyce (Winona Ryder)? Don’t worry, they have their own road trip this year. Unhappy at how heterosexual the show has been so far? Welcome Robin (Maya Hawke), the show’s first queer character.
These complaints have also driven the Duffers to take stock of the show that they have, as opposed to the show they meant to have. The first season laid out a world of nerdy boys (Finn Wolfhard, Noah Schnapp, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin), whose emotional bonds bend and stretch with their growing pains. But then, quite by accident, it cast Brown as the mysterious kidnapped girl Eleven. Her innate charisma draws focus whenever she’s on the screen, turning it into the story of a girl discovering her superhero powers.
Season two attempted to negate this problem by keeping her separated from the rest of the group, allowing the original emotional premise to proceed unmolested. But this year, recognizing the objections to this choice, Eleven is finally front and center of her own story. In fact, women across the board are given more agency and screen time this season, pushing the story forward, demanding their space and fighting back against the assumptions of the men around them.
However, the biggest lesson “Stranger Things” needed to learn over the last two seasons was in fact that no one can please everyone all the time. And finally, it seems like this message has sunk in, just in time for the pre-teen protagonists who populate its cast to go through their own maturation process. Last year’s trip out of the setting of Hawkins, Indiana, to the big city was roundly panned by fans and critics alike. This season thumbs its nose at such things, with a cold open set in an entirely different country. As children grow, so do their horizons, and “Stranger Things” happily sends characters hither and yon as a result.
But in the end, “Stranger Things” for all the jump scares, the 1980s references and the homages to classic Hollywood films, is a show about young nerdy kids growing up. The Demogorgons of yesteryear, so named because of the Dungeons and Dragons games our protagonists play, give way to the horrors of what happens when your friends no longer want to play D&D. Sure, the Mind Flayer from the Upside Down world may bubble and squeak, but the really frightening part is when the world no longer notices when one of you goes missing, or when the adults stop praising your discoveries and start barking at you about the lawsuits they might cause. It’s a Cold War world out there, but it’s one where the terror of Russian bogeymen pale in comparison to the feeling you get when your boss tells you you’re fired.
In between the horrors of the Upside Down and the horrors of the real world, it’s best to grab those moments of joy whenever they come, and “Stranger Things” makes sure to serve them up in spades. After all, the kids of “Stranger Things” are not just referencing 80s pop culture, but living it, sneaking in to watch “Back To The Future” on the weekend it premiered, or singing the theme song to the latest cult hit out on Betamax. The ultimate message of “Stranger Things” is to hold on to your friends, family and memories as long as you can. In the end, childhood is as fleeting as the lifespan of a Netflix show.