LA Premiere of "Stranger Things" Season 3

Gaten Matarazzo, from left, Caleb McLaughlin, Finn Wolfhard and Noah Schnapp arrive at the season three premiere of "Stranger Things" at Santa Monica High School on Friday, June 28, 2019, in Santa Monica, Calif. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

Storytelling has never been a strong suit for "Stranger Things." In the first two seasons of the Netflix behemoth, the plot itself often felt secondary. The story was largely recycled from other properties, mostly Spielberg, with a healthy amount of “Goonies” and “Freaks and Geeks” sprinkled in for good measure.

Rather, the show relied on a fantastic cast (it feels weird that there was ever an era where David Harbour wasn’t a household name) to make up for any unfulfilling narrative choices. And for the first two seasons, that format worked. “Stranger Things” wasn’t ever really spectacular, but it had enough charm and fun to get by, even in a very crowded television market.

But the newly released season three feels like a bubble bursting. It fails not only as an attempt to tell a meaningful and interesting story, but feels like a low point as a cultural barometer, insisting on wallowing in pale nostalgia instead of bringing anything new.

Three seasons in, the show has become fan service in search of a plot. No longer content with ripping off other creators, showrunners the Duffer Brothers (I refuse to ever learn their first names) have resorted to stealing stories from themselves. Remember that portal the gang closed in Season Two? Well it’s open again, this time by the Russians (because the eighties? And 2019?). Why did the Russians open it? Your guess is as good as mine. And as good as any of the show’s writers, apparently, because none of their plan is ever explained.

And therein lies the big problem with “Stranger Things.” Nothing is ever explained. It introduces this fantastic universe and refuses to elaborate on it. We get no motivations for the bad guys, no reason for any of their actions. It’s a hamstring even the cutest child actors can’t overcome.

While the stakes have nominally been upped, “Stranger Things” still has no teeth. It'll surprise no one to hear that there's a scary monster here (it's basically the same as Season Two's scary monster, which was basically the same as Season One's scary monster). But the monster's only discernible characteristics seem to be that it is very, very wet and super ineffective. There’s only so many times it can swipe harmlessly at a main character until the audience realizes that nothing will actually happen to them. There’s no danger, no reason to pay attention to the special effects when you know they’ll bring no consequence.

These storytelling missteps are unfortunate, but not fatal.

It’s the nostalgia that truly poisons “Stranger Things.” Once relegated to window dressing and the occasionally sight gag, the mid-1980s setting has now become the biggest part of the show. And boy does it suffer from it. Season Three relocates much of the action to a mall, which seems less like a plot-driven choice and more like an opportunity to saturate every shot with neon and showcase retro logos.

It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of how storytelling is supposed to work. Your setting is supposed to be ancillary to the plot, not the crux of it. There’s a “Terminator” homage so blatant and uninteresting I can’t believe it made it out of the writer’s room. The world ending disaster gets paused so two characters can sing the entire “NeverEnding Story” theme song (I swear I’m not making this up). These are no longer charming touches bolstering a strong story. They’re the desperate pleas of a show out of ideas. “Stranger Things” feels less like a cohesive story and more like a guy yelling “Remember Hot Dog on a Stick?” at you and hoping you won’t notice that there’s no impactful narrative weight here.

There will undoubtedly be a “Stranger Things 4,” and probably more after that. But should there be? Season Three feels like a notable misstep, a cultural giant crumbling under its own weight. It’s time for the Duffers to skip the day-glo and decide whether their story still has anything left to say.

4 Plot points ripped directly from other, better properties out of 10 Plot points ripped directly from other, better properties