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Once quaint, 'Stranger Things' is now extravagant in every way

Finn Wolfhard as Mike, Caleb McLaughlin as Lucas and Gaten Matarazzo as Dustin.
Finn Wolfhard as Mike, Caleb McLaughlin as Lucas and Gaten Matarazzo as Dustin.

In the first season of Stranger Things, being 12 years old was a moment of suspension in air. Mike and Dustin and Lucas and Will (Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin and Noah Schnapp) were flying off the cliff of their little-kid years, feeling the ground no longer under them. They were old enough to be alone together, young enough to want their parents, old enough to keep secrets, and young enough to fear straying too far. They were children until they saw monsters, and the monsters were the gravity that knocked them to the ground.

It's a hard kind of beauty to maintain. That weightlessness, for those who are ever fortunate enough to experience it, is temporary, especially for kids who love fiercely and care about everything, the way these kids do. And despite the show's insistence that the events of its fourth season are taking place three years or so after the events of its first (and six months after its third), the actors have aged almost six years since the show began. They're six of the really wild years, too, when shoulders broaden and voices drop and limbs seem to narrow and stretch past the ends of sleeves and pant legs in the space of a single day. It is written on their bodies that they have hit the ground and been changed.

This fourth season is divided into an uneven heap of long and longer episodes; the seven dropping this week range from 63 to 98 minutes, then two more will drop in July clocking in at nearly 1.5 and 2.5 hours – the latter longer than most feature films. The first season, back in the summer of 2016, had a quaintness of both story and format (despite the gore). It was so reminiscent of the Stev(ph)ens Spielberg and King, but it also was a delicious and taut set of hour-ish chapters that felt like addictive, unmissable, old-fashioned TV. It might have been the zenith of the binge-watch and the best use to which Netflix ever put the "just let it roll to the next episode" brilliant-slash-diabolical technical flourish.

Stranger Things is ungainly now, bulked up by more extravagant and ambitious "wowza" effects sequences. Even if it weren't, just as you can sometimes watch a successful author's books get fatter and more deferentially edited, this show has entered the sphere in which, if there were ever any rails to fly off of, they're likely long gone. The budget has ballooned, the running time has ballooned, and there is more-more-more of everything. There is underwear. There are Funko Pops and Mad Libs and makeup palettes ("Try on every bright and subversive hue now"). The Duffer Brothers could probably make the season into two six-hour movies, a comic book, and three View-Master reels, and nobody would say "boo" now that the show has its own entire section at Hot Topic.

Some things have not changed. There are four stories, which began with the fracture at the end of season 3, but they're separated by geography, which makes the divisions stricter than usual. There is an Eleven story, there is a Joyce-and-maybe-Hopper story, and there is a Mike/Will/Jonathan story, and all of those are located in different places outside the main part of Hawkins.

Back in Hawkins, there is a terrifically scary, sometimes funny, and pretty extravagantly gross Scooby-Doo-style monster adventure for Dustin, Steve, Nancy, Robin, Lucas, Max and Erica. If the '80s phenomenon that was highlighted in the third season was mall culture, what's highlighted in this one is the very real panic that grew up around Dungeons & Dragons and the belief that it had some connection to the occult and to real-world evil. Hawkins, with its string of tragedies, is rich soil in which that panic can grow.

Maya Hawke as Robin Buckley and Natalia Dyer as Nancy Wheeler.
/ Netflix
Maya Hawke as Robin Buckley and Natalia Dyer as Nancy Wheeler.

But in creating this bundle of stories, the season loses its grip on some of the characters who used to be central – like Mike, like Jonathan and Will, like Joyce and Hopper – by separating them from the liveliest and most exciting parts of the season. They all have stories, but those stories have none of the verve of, in particular, the banter among Steve, Dustin and Robin, which is as entertaining and well-executed as any of the richest and most rewarding sequences in the show's history. Say this for the series' uneven maturation: The creators understand that Joe Keery as Steve and Maya Hawke as Robin are emerging as MVPs on a show in which he originally played kind of a toolbag and she wasn't even there. And Sadie Sink, who plays the similarly later-added Max, does much of the heaviest emotional work in this section, and she does it very well.

As for Eleven, it is, as always, complicated. Millie Bobby Brown is still skilled at handling the wide variety of trials El is asked to endure. This season concerns itself (again) with unraveling her history of trauma at the hands of Brenner (Matthew Modine). It is less that this story is not good than that it is much too long – the same problem that haunts, in particular, the story of what became of Hopper after Joyce closed the gate at the end of season 3. Both of these stories spend the entire season on what could have been accomplished in an episode or maybe two. And while 75-minute episodes are not definitionally "too long," they are too long when three out of your four stories drag through the middle section of the season. (Regrettably, the Mike/Will/Jonathan story never really works at all.)

Eduardo Franco as Argyle, Charlie Heaton as Jonathan, Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven, Noah Schnapp as Will, and Finn Wolfhard as Mike.
/ Netflix
Eduardo Franco as Argyle, Charlie Heaton as Jonathan, Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven, Noah Schnapp as Will, and Finn Wolfhard as Mike.

You can see all that money that recently made headlines – $30 million an episode, The Wall Street Journal says. You can see where it was spent, on blown-out monster sequences and sweeping views of dark worlds – not to mention on some explicitly gruesome deaths that must have really cost a lot to be that disgusting. You can see where it was spent on the simple exercise of doing more of everything for a longer time, making episodes almost twice as long as the ones in the first season.

It's not a dud, this fourth run. In that Scooby-Doo story, there are thrilling moments for this group of pals who still just want to save the world from whatever is trying to work its way through cracks in the walls, trying to get in their heads, trying to hurt their friends. They rely on walkie-talkies and bikes, or they hide, or they pinch a Lite-Brite (you'll see). They are mutual lifelines; they are each other's only way back to the world.

They aren't suspended in air anymore like when they were kids, and they can't get that back. They have fought battles already, and it has broken them all a little bit. It's made them believe in horrors other people are content to deny, but it's also made them commit to heroism other people would be too cynical to expect and sacrifices other people have never contemplated. They're taller and broader and more experienced, when they see a monster, they are not surprised.

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Linda Holmes
Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.