"Stranger Things" is back, but it's hard to say it's a welcome arrival.
There's no mystery as to why Netflix's nostalgia-soaked thriller has returned for a fourth season when three (or two, or really even one) would do. It's one of Netflix's biggest hits after all, and no one in Hollywood ever said no to more of a popular thing.
But while superfans may be satisfied by the new episodes, which debuted in two volumes (the final two episodes are now streaming), for many of us, they feel not just unnecessary, but insultingly gratuitous.
"Stranger" Season 4 (★★ out of four) goes for spectacle over story and grotesquery over character, and stretches what isn't even a very convincing narrative over so much time (more than 75 minutes per episode, and a whopping 2 ½ hours for the finale) as to cause annoyance.
Yes, there's horror, but the comedy is lost. This "Stranger" is a far cry from the organically magical first season that captured hearts when it became a surprise hit in the summer of 2016. Season 4 feels forced and old, and not just because the "tween" actors have aged far past freshman-year-of-high-school believability.
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It's all just a bit exhausting, and that's not really the way you want to feel watching TV, especially something escapist like this is meant to be. It shouldn't feel like work to get to the end of a story, but creators Matt and Ross Duffer have made "Stranger" something like a grueling exam. The work doesn't seem to pay off, even if you get through all nine episodes.
The series picks up six months after Season 3 in 1986, as Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), Will (Noah Schnapp), Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) and Joyce (Winona Ryder) have relocated to idyllic Southern California, where Eleven is tormented by bleached blonde bullies. Over spring break, Mike (Finn Wolfhard) comes to visit, leaving his friends behind in Hawkins when all things stranger start to go down.
Someone (rather, something) is committing especially heinous murders in the small Indiana town, and Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn) – a Dungeons and Dragons friend of Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Mike's – takes the blame. Dustin, Lucas and Max (Sadie Sink) recruit their pals Steve (Joe Keery), Robin (Maya Hawke) and Nancy (Natalia Dyer) to help investigate this latest infiltration of the Upside Down and save Eddie.
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Oh, and meanwhile, Hopper (David Harbour) is stuck in a Soviet gulag, because why not, apparently?
If that sounds like a lot to keep track of, it is! And the writers don't balance the series' plots well or make each of these three (eventually four, as Eleven ventures off on her own journey of self discovery) feel vital. It leaves you with the feeling that half of what you've just invested time watching was utterly pointless.
But the bigger problem is the wild departure in tone. This season is by far the most steeped in horror, and it is deeply, viscerally frightening, from jump scares to worming psychological terror that will stick in your mind long after your binge-watch is completed. But that isn't necessarily a good thing, except maybe for some of the horror devotees the show counts among its fans (and to be fair, there are many). The success of "Stranger" over the years hasn't been defined simply by the number of goosebumps it created, but rather by its charm, wit and the compelling relationships between the characters. Those lighter – and vastly more important – elements take a back seat in Season 4, much to the detriment of the series.
What's left in place of good spirits is depraved. The number of gouged eyeballs, cracked and mutilated limbs, and children and teens killed and/or dragged into the hell of the Upside Down is so excessive it starts to anger. What is the point of this, other than to shock and dismay? True horror done right is more than this drivel.
The final two episodes, which add up to more than four hours, are helped slightly by the monthlong break. You can forgive and forget plot holes and narrative dissonance, and maybe you'll have the energy to sit through it all. But in substance (and in story payoff) there isn't much in this second volume that redeems what came before. It's the same schlock, with even more expensive computer-generated special effects.
Some moments seem like fanboy fantasia, including a scene in which Eddie helps fight all that evil in the Upside Down by shredding his guitar on the roof of his trailer, red lightning strikes behind him that could have been lifted out of a Metallica music video. It's a moment designed to delight fans that is almost comedic in its absurdity. When all is said and done, more work is done to set up a final season (with likely even more expensive effects and ridiculous fan service) than to give any emotional conclusion to this one.
Throughout the episodes, the characters keep noting that they thought their fight with the Upside Down was over, that the gates were closed forever, that the last of the monsters was were killed and that their lives could go on. It's a bit of a self-own on the part of the Duffers, an acknowledgment that this show could have ended years ago.
Netflix's bottom line might need more "Stranger Things," but Season 4 certainly isn't a very compelling reason to subscribe.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Stranger Things' 4 review: Magic is lost in soulless season finale