Demogorgons. Mad scientists. A parallel universe. It’s seemed that Hawkins, Ind., had seen it all over the past two seasons of “Stranger Things,” the 1980s-set sci-fi horror series. But the fictional town faces a new threat when “Stranger Things 3” arrives on Netflix Thursday: the Starcourt Mall.
It’s 1985 and the Fourth of July is days away, yet the residents of Hawkins aren’t in the mood to celebrate. The behemoth shopping center is sucking the life out of the area’s mom and pop shops, luring teenagers and serving something called Orange Julius. It’s sure to be the town’s downfall.
El (Millie Bobby Brown), Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Will (Noah Schnapp), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Max (Sadie Sink) are now teens, so they’re of course happy to hang out in the food court, arguing the merits of Coke versus New Coke. Until they sense danger of another sort, that is. It’s much bigger and more pervasive than Hawkins’ shiny new galleria. And it’s deadly.
Mall rat culture meets government conspiracy and otherworldly evil in the new, eight-episode season. Thankfully, the enigmatic El has powers, such as the ability to pick up a car and hurl it telepathically, or travel to other places in her mind. Plus, her friends are resourceful amateur sleuths.
When the band of misfits set out to solve the mystery, “Stranger Things 3” crackles with the same oddball charm, dark suspense, innocence and self-aware humor that made this nerdy monster tale a surprise hit in the first place.
There are far too many potential spoilers to go into great detail here about what they find and battle. It’s safe to divulge that the disheveled Sheriff Jim Hopper (David Harbour) and high-strung Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) are again among the few adults willing to buy into the conspiracy theory/monster mash-up that underpins much of the plot.
But what makes this series great is the characters and their relationships to one another, and those bonds are tested throughout the new season. Joyce and Hop are a convincing mess of a team: two old friends who bicker constantly yet harbor secret crushes on each other.
The kids have matured into teens, so that’s trickier terrain to navigate, but their transition from childhood to young adulthood delivers some the series’ best moments.
Figuring out how the opposite sex operates is more mysterious than the Upside Down. Characters in relationships — Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton); El and Mike; Lucas and Sam — argue, break up, make up and argue some more. Dustin pines for love. Will is still playing Dungeons and Dragons. Each of them represents an awkward and sometimes painful step into whatever comes next: dating, college, the scary world beyond adolescence.
Steve (Joe Keery) has been stuck in a rut since he broke up with Nancy, didn’t make it into college and is now working at Scoops Ahoy ice cream in the mall. But he finds his purpose when he and co-worker Robin (Maya Hawke) become a key part of an Earth-saving mission … still dressed in their humiliating, nautical-themed work uniforms.
It takes an old threat — in a new form, and with more nefarious motives — to make them all work in tandem. The teenagers do, however, find time to shop for obnoxiously bright clothes at the Gap, watch “Miami Vice” and make out to horrible music from the era until a parent demands they keep the bedroom door open “at least 3 inches!”
Throwback references are everywhere — “The Terminator,” “Back to the Future,” every other early-’80s horror movie — and while they’re delicious, they’re the icing here, not the cake.
The best of these moments mirrors the infamous Phoebe Cates wet dream scene in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” but with a twist. The same song that accompanies that poolside scene, The Cars’ “Moving in Stereo,” cues up in “Stranger Things 3” as a cute female lifeguard struts past sunbathing guests at the Hawkins community pool. Then scene then cuts to the real object of desire, Billy (Dacre Montgomery), Sam’s hot, dangerous older brother. His admirers: Hawkins’ suburban housewives.
The success of this weird little series when it debuted in 2016, amid a deluge of peak-TV programming, was the first miracle. An even better sophomore season was the second. “Stranger Things 3” is the third act in an extraordinary success story that once seemed as improbable as a girl who can slay monsters with her mind.
‘Stranger Things 3’
When: Any time, starting Thursday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14)