"No show in the Peak TV era has leaned harder into the 'this isn’t a TV show; it’s an XX-hour movie' attitude than Stranger Things," says Alan Sepinwall. The Duffer Brothers' 1980s-set Netflix drama, he says, is "purely, relentlessly serialized. And rather than referring to each new installment as Season Two or now Season Three, they’re instead titled like movie sequels: Stranger Things 2 and Stranger Things 3. But where this notion that television is just 'movies, but longer' has mostly been a plague that’s led to many poorly paced and structured narrative sludges, Stranger Things has managed to be the Platonic ideal of a stretched-out movie. Its seasons are relatively compact — we’re back to eight episodes after last season experimented with nine — so there’s never that sense of foot-dragging you get from the likes of Jessica Jones or Bloodline. It has an ever-expanding cast of colorful characters who keep things feeling both lively and dense enough to merit the time investment. And its creators, the Duffer Brothers, have a strong command of mood and the appropriate timing to throw in another action or suspense set piece, so it’s rarely dull. This belated third season is in many ways the most movie-like thing Stranger Things has done. Its scope is much wider, from the greater reliance on elaborate digital effects to the sheer number of extras in Eighties fashions in so many scenes....But the funny thing about telling an ongoing story that periodically returns to television is that, whether you’re trying to make a long movie or not, you can’t help but make a TV show. And the best parts of Stranger Things Season Three are the ones that feel most like TV — and not even the high-concept, intensely-serialized kind. Rather, the greatest joy in the series at this stage comes from the way it’s evolved into a hangout sitcom with periodic monster attacks."
Stranger Things 3 is very consciously out to correct the mistakes of Stranger Things 2: "The action driving Season 3 feels purposefully dialed down to the most basic elements," says Ben Travers, adding: "By doubling down on relationship stories, Season 3 of Stranger Things delivers an oft-charming, deeper-than-expected, and ultimately enjoyable new chapter. The eight episodes fly by, avoiding the Netflix bloat plaguing other originals — only the finale clocks in longer than 60 minutes and most hover closer to 50 — and even with gaudy in-story ads for Coca-Cola and Burger King, the look of Stranger Things 3 is pretty stellar. Fans will be happy, skeptics will spot problems, but it’s hard to fight the feeling that this mega-franchise still knows how to have fun."
Stranger Things 3 is fantastically good: "In fact, it is the first season that actually lives up the show’s monster-sized, zeitgeist-consuming, blockbuster hype," says Meghan O'Keefe. "It’s always been a fun show; at worst, Stranger Things has been a merely fine show. Now it is a bananas summer delight, full of grisly scenes, hilariously absurd set pieces, and a sauntering confidence in its own storytelling. Most of all, Stranger Things 3 is an epic step forward for the series. As ever, the Duffer Brothers use the characters of Hawkins, Indiana to pay homage to the touchstones of ’80s genre storytelling, but in Season 3, they’ve finally seemed to master those beats. This latest season of Stranger Things is accomplished, thrilling, and most of all, better than it’s ever been."
Stranger Things 3 is as Stranger Things-y as ever, which is both good and bad: "It’s nice to see all these characters again," says Jen Chaney. "It’s also fun to once again be immersed in the supremely retro setting — this season takes place during the summer of 1985 and, for large portions, in Hawkins, Indiana’s brand new Starcourt Mall, home to a Waldenbooks and a Sam Goody and a Time Out arcade. But the familiarity of the series, created by the Duffer brothers, is also what makes it seem a bit boilerplate at times. If you plan to play a drinking game every time a classic Stranger Things plot development or detail arises, your blood-alcohol level is going to rise quickly."
Stranger Things deftly handles its child stars growing up: "The Duffers’ solution to this potential problem is weaving anxieties about maturity and shifting identity into the fabric of the show," says Alison Herman. "In a pleasant surprise, Stranger Things Season 3 manages to walk the line between conscious growth and mood maintenance, demonstrating self-awareness without puncturing its painstakingly recreated ’80s bubble. As in life, leaving childish things behind is scary, but what comes next can be worth the growing pains."
Stranger Things is still a show that mainly shows off: "In a glut of 1980s nostalgia (as we prepare for American Horror Story: 1984 on TV this fall and Wonder Woman 1984 in theaters next summer), the Duffers pretty much take the prize," says Hank Stuever. "Even their Tostitos corn-chip bags and New Coke cans are period precise; in one scene, they can’t resist plunking some of their characters into a packed screening of Back to the Future, creating a delightfully schiz-ified moment of then-and-now, seen both then and now. But what is the prize? Permanent regression? Umbilical reattachment? A lifetime supply of Mr. T breakfast cereal? It’s almost heartbreaking to watch the Duffers work so hard to re-create an elusive vibe they’ve already nailed — this time constructing the Starcourt Mall, a shiny new shopping destination in fictional Hawkins, Ind...Besides nostalgia, plot is really all Stranger Things has to offer, and this time it offers far too much of it. Suffice to say there’s a conspiracy, a gooey monster and a lot of yelling and running around."
Duffer Brothers figured out how to reinvent Stranger Things, making Season 3 its own beast: "Except for a few cheesy moments here and there, the new episodes are exuberant and excellent, nearly surpassing the creative heights of the first season and providing a path to keeping things strange for years to come," says Kelly Lawler. "It’s nearly impossible to discuss the mystical plot of Stranger without revealing a long list of spoilers Netflix wants to be kept mum. But we can say that the series builds upon its Steven Spielberg and Stephen King influences with an homage to alien invasion and zombie films, creating a genuinely terrifying (and really rather disgusting) new threat."
Season 3 makes the case for itself better than Season 2 ever did simply by being different: "The mall especially proves to be a rewarding new location that sets the stage for more inventive battles," says Caroline Framke. "Even displacing the action from the spooky grays of late fall to the saturated heat of midsummer shifts the tone and challenges the directors to convey creeping unease through Technicolor sweat. Later scenes set in the manic frenzy of a Fourth of July carnival are so vivid you can smell the popcorn and funnel cake."