Six years ago, Matt and Ross Duffer made a perfect streaming video dessert, low in nutrition but high in sweet pop culture calories. Season 1 of their Netflix series “Stranger Things” was an expertly curated and accurately calibrated souffle of Gen-X nostalgia, Spielbergian family melodrama, and a more intense-than-expected sci-fi horror adventure. It was a delicious, completely guilt-free indulgence.
The thing about dessert, if it’s tasty enough, is that the people who love it don’t want it to change – that’s the condition of choosing it over and over again. And the many “Stranger Things” aficionados have been in luck, because as the show’s fourth season — which premieres Friday with seven of its nine episodes — demonstrates, the Duffers’ expertise and audience feel vastly surpass their imaginations.
The problem with season 4 isn’t — or isn’t just — the highly publicized length of the episodes, though during the nine-hour course of the first seven chapters, you can indeed get your mind wandering. (The final two episodes, including the reportedly two-and-a-half-hour finale, are slated for July 1.)
The problem is, when the payouts arrive, they’re deflationary familiarity — the show has gone from lovingly echoing ’80s touchstones to diligently copying itself. That’s the route movie franchises take, and “Stranger Things” often feels more like a movie franchise than a television series. But the best play witty and inventive variations on their own elements.
In the new season of the show, you can feel the build up to a bit of fan service, but once it’s there, it generally falls flat. Watching four teens cycle through the Midwestern night has an automatic resonance, but that’s all there is to it: It’s a perfunctory recall to calm 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, has been deliberately recycled.
Other repetitions are less explicit but equally striking. An important storyline set in the past is integral to the mysteries of the season, but also seems designed, in a fan-friendly manner, to showcase the actress Millie Bobby Brown as often as possible in the childlike hairstyle and costume that her in season 1. annoyed by the game between odd-pair friends Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Steve (Joe Keery) is still funny, but it’s gotten so formal you’ll probably ignore it.
And yes, there’s plenty of time in these episodes, which average over an hour and a quarter, to think about that sort of thing. Season 4, for the first time, splits the large cast of small-town friends and family, sending some of them (including Brown’s Eleven, which starts the season without her telekinetic superpowers) to a fresh start in California. (The setting is 1986, six months after the end of Season 3.) That separates several young couples from the show, meaning more time than ever is spent on the teen relationship anxiety that the show has never been very good at.
Back in Hawkins, Ind., the city perched above the Upside Down – the literal home of other-dimensional monsters and the metaphorical receptacle for the stereotypical Central American grief and regret the monsters exploit – the rest of the characters begin to discover the emergence of the newest creature. Again, drawn from Dungeons & Dragons lore, it’s a humanoid with a passing resemblance to a “Star Trek” Borg queen and a habit of levitating teenagers before breaking all their limbs.
Things get even more spread when a rescue mission is mounted for Jim Hopper (David Harbour), the former police chief and adoptive father of Eleven, who survived the disastrous Season 3 finale and is in a Soviet prison. With the cast spread across Indiana, California and Kamchatka, the season’s dramatic progress toward a final gathering of the tribes is back in Hawkins to fight the new monster.
But that reunion is still pending when the first series of episodes ends. (I’ll only reveal that after carefully reading Netflix’s spoiler memo.) The nine hours have their moments; a mid-season scene where the combative Max (Sadie Sink) escapes the monster’s grasp is particularly poignant. But there’s way too much padding – boring teen melodrama, funny but routine action, horror that doesn’t have the authentically creepy charge it used to have. The theme of outsiders battling petty parochialism is more central than ever – the local Dungeons & Dragons club is branded a Satanist cult – but no more compelling.
It doesn’t help that not all of the central cast members, many of whom were around 12 when the show started, have grown as performers in the six years since. (The show’s timeline has only been shifted by three years, meaning many of them also look very mature for their supposed age.) Some, including Matarazzo, Brown, Sink, and Priah Ferguson, are as captivating as ever, but some didn’t add real acting skills to their adolescent charm, and every once in a while a scene just dies.
The show makes up for in part by bringing in distinctive performers such as Joseph Quinn, who is a Robert Downey Jr. bounce as a cocky D&D master, and Eduardo Franco, who is sweetly confused as a pothead pizza delivery boy named Argyle. (Like his namesake in “Die Hard”, he is the designated driver.)
While the Duffers have kept the details of “Stranger Things” pretty much the same, they’ve also strategically shifted the show. Season 4 takes a step away from the heightened, delicate emotionality and wry humor of a Spielberg-style fable and toward the guilt, fear, and body horror associated with Brian De Palma and David Cronenberg. It’s a logical move – the special magic of the first season was probably impossible to sustain – but it doesn’t capitalize on the brothers’ strengths.