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Netflix shows “Stranger Things” and “Queer Eye” are coming back with new seasons in July.
USA TODAY

“Stranger Things” finally feels like a TV show.

The first two seasons of Netflix’s hit supernatural saga felt structurally and thematically more like a film and its sequel than seasons of episodic television. The format worked in Season 1, a self-contained tale of the vanishing of Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) but trying to expand that same plot to a second season made for repetition and lazy storytelling.

The second year of “Stranger” featured nearly identical narrative beats, with bigger stakes and more expensive special effects. Instead of Christmas lights covering the Byers’ home, it was Will’s drawings of the tunnels. Instead of working together to build a sensory deprivation chamber, the gang teamed up to build an interrogation room for Will. And on and on the similarities went.

David Harbour, Winona Ryder in a scene from season 3 of the Netflix series “Stranger Things” (Photo: NETFLIX)

Doing the same thing a third time wasn’t going to work, and thankfully creators Matt and Ross Duffer have figured out how to make Season 3 (streaming Thursday, ★★★½ out of four) 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.

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.

Perhaps even better than the new approach to villainy is the way the season tackles transitional moments in adolescence, as our favorite party has grown from children to young adults in the time the show has been on the air. Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), El (Millie Bobby Brown) and Max (Sadie Sink, who is happily given more to do this year) are awash in relationship drama while Will tries to cling to their “Dungeons & Dragons” childhoods. Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), who has been away at summer camp for a month when the season begins, feels adrift from his friends.

The older teens face their own growing pains, as Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) get jobs at the local newspaper and are forced to confront their class differences, while Nancy endures flagrant sexist harassment. Despite all the effort here, Nancy and Jonathan remain the weakest and least engaging characters, and Season 3 spends far too much time on them.

Steve (Joe Keery), however, lives up to his fan-favorite status. The former jock is working at a food-service job after graduating high school, with no college prospects. He is desperately trying to cling to his popular-kid persona in the real world while bonding with his co-worker Robin (Maya Hawke, the daughter of Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke a delightfully weird addition to the cast.

Hopper (David Harbour) and Joyce (Winona Ryder) are trying to deal with their new family lives, as Joyce mourns her boyfriend Bob Newby (Sean Astin) and Hopper tries a more traditional form of fatherhood with El. Hopper and Joyce’s romantic tension and conflicts rival their kids’ for melodrama and humor. But despite the strange things that keep happening, the other adults remain shockingly ignorant, including Mike’s mom Karen (Cara Buono) who’s busy flirting with Max’s stepbrother Billy (Dacre Montgomery) a dynamic that began at the end of Season 2.

Listen to this week’s episode of USA TODAY’s podcast, The Mothership, to hear our Technology Reporter and TV and Film Critic’s review of “Stranger Things” season three. Warning: This episode contains spoilers!

One of the biggest weaknesses of the new season is its setting in the summer of 1985, just six months or so after the conclusion of Season 2. The short time span – and the long break in real-world time – means the young actors have aged faster than their characters.

Voices have changed, bodies have grown, and the kids’ ages (relative to each other and the older cast members) remain hard to parse. And while a nostalgic obsession with 1980s pop culture was a big part of the success of “Stranger,” at times Season 3 seems to check period references off a list rather than organically incorporating them. 

Still, the “Stranger” writers have figured out how to keep the characters and monsters of their world growing and changing without betraying the core of the series. Eventually, repeated infiltrations of the Upside Down into Hawkins may start to get old, but Season 3 proves monsters and telekinesis aren’t the only reason “Stranger” is worth watching.

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