(TNS) — WHAT IT’S ABOUT: A mall has come to Hawkins, Ind., but there’s something strange about this shiny new establishment, packed with shiny new stores — real, recognizable ones, in fact. Or is that strange “something” what lies beneath? The mall is a magnet for the gang — Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Max (Sadie Sink). Lucas’ wiseacre little sister, Erica (newcomer Priah Ferguson), is one of the mall rats, too. Meanwhile, Billy (Dacre Montgomery) is pool lifeguard, and still, surprise, conceited.
Oh, and speaking of magnets and rats — real ones — they’re behaving strangely in Hawkins.
This third season begins late June 1985 and wraps a few days later, on July 4.
MY SAY: Before getting their hands on these eight episodes, Netflix made critics promise not to reveal a laundry list of spoilers — so long that just about the only thing we can safely reveal is that, yes, “Stranger Things 3” is indeed still set in fictional Hawkins. But such lists and such promises are largely irrelevant anyway. Devoted fans who studied the promos already have a good idea, or at least a good vague idea of what to expect, and everyone else will just have to watch.
But here is one reveal which is more like reassurance — the formula remains exactly the same. Reliable, durable and comfortable, “ST3” is what you’d expect and certainly what you want, if what you “want” is seasons 1 and 2, with a few big twists along the way.
Brothers and series creators Matt and Ross Duffer didn’t waltz into this new season assuming otherwise. Expect the expected and you will be satisfied. This is ‘80s-era comfort food and as with any comfort food, you certainly wouldn’t want the pickle substituted on your hamburger for a scoop of ice cream (would you?). Likewise, “Stranger Things 3” keeps its culinary priorities in order, too. Hawkins is entirely back to normal, as if nothing ever happened, or as if a 50-foot-tall spider-monster-brain-vacuum-cleaner known as the Mind Flayer had never even terrorized this sylvan all-American municipality last season.
As the reset and summer begins, love is in the air, or at least the air surrounding Mike and El, and some of the air around Hopper (David Harbour) and Joyce (Winona Ryder), too. Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) and Nancy (Natalia Dyer), both working at a local newspaper for a pack of dull-witted chauvinist editors (they call her Nancy Drew), have started to develop mutual feelings as well. Max and Lucas are still an item, although that’s cooled off for the third; Mike/El is hot enough.
Even Dustin, back for the summer from science camp, insists he’s got a girlfriend, and pulls out his ham radio set to prove her existence (he says she lives in Utah). Then there’s Steve (Joe Keery), former boyfriend of Nancy, who may also have found a new romantic interest in Robin (series newcomer Maya Hawke). They both work at a mall ice cream stand with a nautical theme, Scoops Ahoy.
But once again, Will (Noah Schnapp) occupies the series’ emotional heart. He just wants to play Dungeons & Dragons, like the good old days, and everyone else wants to grow up. Will doesn’t, and to really appreciate — and to a certain degree love — “Stranger Things,” we all have to be like Will. He is our proxy nostalgist, and “ST” is pure nostalgia, and at its best, effective nostalgia. The ambience of the mid-’80s has been recreated so effectively this season that viewers can almost taste the New Coke when it finally comes out of the can in the fifth episode.
That’s right: Coke will briefly relaunch the greatest marketing fiasco in its history as tribute to “Stranger Things” and that long-ago moment. In fact, “Stranger Things 3” has become a relentless engine of promotional tie-ins, and that’s where the fancy new mall comes in.
Burger King has a prominent role, or least position, and so does Jazzercise, Zales, J.C. Penney and many others. “Stranger Things” is now one of the most expensive franchises on TV, and perhaps the Starcourt Mall was seen as a way to help pay for it.
Meanwhile, the big questions: Does little Hawkins even need a mall? Will Billy ever stop being a jerk? Does Dustin really have a girlfriend named Suzie? Has the Mind Flayer retired?
Most of all, will true love prevail? The formula and those commercial tie-ins certainly do.
BOTTOM LINE: Still fun, still predictable.