After a summer of lacklustre blockbusters, the returning Netflix sci-fi/horror series shows cinema how popcorn entertainment is truly done, writes Hugh Montgomery.

Warning: contains mild plot spoilers about Series 3

Mainstream cinema has been having a horror-show of a summer, with a succession of especially sub-par sequels (Godzilla: Rise of the Monsters, Men in Black: International, and X Men: Dark Phoenix among them) met with critical derision and tepid box-office returns. But the final ignominy for all those smarting film producers out there? That the best blockbuster of the summer can be watched from your couch. Yes, if you want to  go into the third series of Stranger Things completely blind, don’t read any further, but know this: it is an exhilarating example of a franchise hitting new heights that Hollywood would do well to learn from.

That Netflix’s retro-sci-fi would return so strongly was far from a foregone conclusion. After all, a show that seemingly came from nowhere in 2016 to be a surprise word-of-mouth hit seemed to buckle under the weight of new expectations with its second series, launched around Halloween in 2017. The innumerable brand tie-ins and merchandise ranges capitalising on its 1980s fetishisation made it seem a whole lot more cynical, and a whole lot less fun, while the listless plot suggested it was yet another show that had been extended beyond its natural one-season lifespan.

More like this

Well, its naked commercialism has hardly got any more fully clothed since then, of course – reports have said that Netflix has made deals with 75 brands this time round. But this third run of episodes proves that you can be as archly capitalist as you want, as long as you have integrity when it comes to the essentials of characterisation, plot and dialogue.

Our gang of small-town heroes are now entering a whole new Upside Down: adolescence.

The story picks up in the summer of 1985, with our gang of small-town heroes now entering a whole new Upside Down: adolescence. “They’re not little kids anymore, they’re teenagers,” says Joyce (Winona Ryder) early on, admonishing Hopper (David Harbour) for his overbearing treatment of surrogate daughter Eleven, and it’s something of a refrain throughout the series. But of course, growing pains must be saved for interludes in the battle against more tangible threats.

For one, there’s the monstrous Mind Flayer, season two’s surviving Big Bad, back again to parasitically prey on the residents of Hawkins, Indiana. And for another, there are the Russians – because no retro-80s-fest would be complete without some good old Cold War paranoia. What is the mysterious Russian code that Dustin’s makeshift radio tower intercepts? And is the arrival of a shiny new shopping mall going to herald some comment on the soul-destroying effect of unchecked consumerism, à la George Romero – or would that be too shamelessly self-mocking?

The plot addresses these intersecting menaces by this time dividing the main ensemble into discrete groupings of amateur detectives, all pursuing their own leads. There’s Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Max (Sadie Sink), Will (Noah Schnapp), and Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) stumbling upon nefarious goings-on via the latter’s two ESP powers. There’s Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), now interns at the local paper, going renegade with their investigation into an old lady’s missing fertiliser.

This series’ narrative fragmentation, and its separation of the key characters into groups, is a masterstroke

There’s that alpha jock manqué Steve (Joe Keery), reduced to working at an ice-cream parlour, and joined by Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), his withering co-employee Robin (Maya Hawke), and, unexpectedly, Lucas’s 10-year-old “commie”-hating sister Erica (Priah Ferguson), for some mall-located hijinx. And there’s Joyce and Hopper, on a mission to find out why the town’s magnets have lost their magnetism, while denying their own magnetic attraction to each other via so much awkward sparring. And as for that ratty-moustached, Rob Lowe-a-like Billy (Dacre Montgomery)? Well, let’s just say he’s an outlier.

This narrative fragmentation, and separation of the key characters, is a masterstroke. For one, it poignantly expresses one of the series’ main themes, about the ebb and flow of relationships over time. Secondly, it seems to raise the level of writerly craftmanship, turning the show into a kind of portmanteau piece, where each segment has its own idiosyncratic charms. And thirdly, as the parts build towards a whole, the cumulative effect is to give the show more narrative velocity than it has ever had before. 

The performances also really sing this time around: even as their characters have acquired new pubescent awkwardness, the younger actors only get more self-assured with age. Particular praise this time should go to Sink, a wonderfully loose and natural performer who will yet go far; and a much less stilted Bobbie Brown, who, counter-intuitively, has more to play with now that her super-heroic character has descended into the ordinariness of teenage life. Indeed Max and Eleven’s blossoming friendship, shopping trip and much boy talk included, is the series’ most joyous incidental development. Elsewhere, in the mall strand, Hawke makes an enjoyably dry, wry addition to the cast, while last but certainly not least, Ferguson is an exocet of no-bullshit charisma, whose already-trailed remark “you can’t spell America without Erica” is one of many killer quips from which she wrings full potential. Give her an Emmy already.

The show’s film references have never been more eclectic or well-integrated; what’s miraculous, three series in especially, is just how organic its intertextuality feels

Nevertheless the script’s virtues aren’t just centred in flashy one-liners and snappy repartee – the dialogue, this time, delivers more understated pleasures. Take a jolting argument between Nancy and Jonathan which exposes the fractures of their relationship along gender and class lines; the poignant moment when Robin explains to Steve her early classroom obsession with him; or the pep-talk Nancy’s mother Joyce gives her, persuading her to carry on her investigations, her words tinged with her own regrets. All these exchanges are subtler than one might have come to expect from what is popcorn entertainment.

No review of Stranger Things could finish without mentioning the film references, and never have they been so eclectic or well-integrated. So it is that the body-snatching of The Thing, the trigger-happy action of The Terminator, and the teen comedy of Fast Times at Ridgemont High are equally conspicuous, while other titles checked off include The Blob, Dawn of the Dead, Back to the Future and The Neverending Story. But what’s miraculous, three series in especially, is just how organic this intertextuality feels: ultimately, the references themselves are less interesting than the exhilarating genre-splicing that they enable.

It would not do to reveal anything about the denouement, of course – except to say, after all the expected rudimentary crash-banging, not everyone survives and a final voiceover had me weeping. Whoever does or doesn’t return, commercial imperative will surely dictate more series to come – but let’s just hope it can keep up its form here, while continuing to beat the big-screen blockbusters at their own game.

★★★★★

Love TV? Join BBC Culture’s TV fans on Facebook, a community for television fanatics all over the world.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.