Stranger Things season 3 review: A brilliant return to form
Combining the best of the first season with comedy and color, Stranger Things 3 is a warm, summer hit.
Jennifer BissetFormer Senior Editor / Culture
Jennifer Bisset was a senior editor for CNET. She covered film and TV news and reviews. The movie that inspired her to want a career in film is Lost in Translation. She won Best New Journalist in 2019 at the Australian IT Journalism Awards.
ExpertiseFilm and TVCredentials
Best New Journalist 2019 Australian IT Journalism Awards
With a tighter, slightly shorter run of eight episodes that manages to tap every emotional vein of childhood (even for those who didn't grow up in the '80s) while leaking more monsters from the Upside Down, season 3 is a roller coaster that never lets up. With a refreshing helping of humor and summer sunshine, this time round Stranger Things focuses on what the show does best.
It's a smart return to form for creators the Duffer Brothers, despite a creeping yet evident strain on upping the terrors for the kids of Hawkins, Indiana.
As with the two previous seasons, a threat looms from the murky and generic science-lab world. Men in white coats have ill-advised designs on the small town of Hawkins. Meanwhile, those who remember the lasting shot of the second season will know that the gigantic spider-like Mind Flayer remains trapped but intact in the Upside Down. While it threatens the poor people of Hawkins yet again, Billy, our favorite mullet-sporting bully, does what he does best: Terrorize while looking cool.
While different, this season's threats don't benefit from the fear of the unknown -- the Demogorgons and their variations just aren't as scary as they used to be. However, our heroes Mike, Will, Dustin, Lucas, Max and El are entering new territory. It's called becoming a teenager and the shock of seeing the young heroes stretched out and deeper voiced quickly gives way to hilarity as they attempt to navigate identity and love.
As season 3 kicks off, El appears to be on shaky ground. Her world largely revolves around being Mike's girlfriend: The boy and the sense of home he provides, which she tried so desperately to return to throughout season 2. Now their constant kissing causes Hopper deep disdain. Swiftly and for the better, though, her world opens up, along with a new shopping mall setting that seems to be an overflowing gateway to '80s references.
A highlight is El's relationship with Max. They overcome their initial misunderstanding and jealousy as Max provides some much-needed guidance for El. Some of El's new vocabulary leads to standout El moments, including the word "bitchin'" used to golden effect.
Watch this: Stranger Things season 3: Everything to know
The ever-expanding cast introduces Maya Hawke, daughter of Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke, as Robin, an ice cream scooper working a summer job with Steve Harrington, who's recently graduated and down on his luck. Their prodding and poking fun at each other, along with the glowing Gaten Matarazzo as Dustin and last season's MVP Priah Ferguson as Erica, form the backbone of a party of misfits we never knew we needed.
Surprisingly, many of the most touching moments come from a hard-drinking and eating Hopper, who turns to Joyce for parental advice. His willingness to move on from everything that's happened -- including the loss of his daughter to cancer -- carries his stubborn and bad-tempered police chief beyond his well-established Rambo machine gun-toting territory. David Harbour needs to take yet another bow.
Through the well-timed placement of banger after '80s banger, a message of embracing your nerdiness is loud and clear. But while the smart kids constantly prove their worth to the bumbling adults, there's still no escaping a few helpful coincidences.
This season's sense of fun, along with its relationship drama and multiple odd pair-ups bring humor and touching moments that recall Game of Thrones at its best. While the story flows in tighter spaces and everyone has a part to play in grander events, the conspiracy is simply a side project. It's a fun excuse to spend the summer in the warmer-than-ever world of Stranger Things.
Watch the third season of Stranger Things on