Agents hold Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) back. Photo courtesy of Netflix
LOS ANGELES, May 23 (UPI) -- Stranger Things was about to film Season 4 when it had to shut down for the COVID-19 pandemic. Two years later, the season, premiering Friday on Netflix, bears the maturity of growing up during a crisis.
Avoiding spoilers, suffice it to say it is now 1986. Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) is living in California with the Byers family.
Mike (Finn Wolfhard) comes to visit her for spring break. So the California and Hawkins, Ind., groups separately face the new supernatural entity.
The Hawkins kids meet some new older teenagers in The Hellfire Club, where they gather to play Dungeons & Dragons. Intercutting a D&D campaign with Lucas' (Caleb McLaughlin's) basketball game effectively captures the tensions of both games.
The main characters are in high school with different problems than they had in childhood, but equally universal ones. Fitting in is still relevant, but many of them now deal with their first relationships.
The young cast is equipped to portray that increased emotional turmoil. Sadie Sink is especially magnificent, sarcastically mocking the D&D club, but getting real when it comes to Max grieving her brother and handling her regrets with her mother.
The high school storylines threaten everyone's self-confidence. They hide the parts they're ashamed of, and grown-up viewers can anticipate how that doesn't work.
Stranger Things still finds new ways for bullies to be mean. It's the age-old story about what happens when you bully someone too much, but now Eleven lost her Carrie powers, so how is she going to respond to bullies?
The supernatural element emerges in the season premiere. By the second episode, the characters group and pair off with fun missions.
Past seasons were rightfully criticized for separating the characters too much, but these groupings effectively capture the character dynamics and give everyone something to do.
The new scary monsters are reminiscent of other '80s horrors. The new big bad looks like Voldemort Pumpkinhead.
As intense as the scary parts get, Stranger Things Season 4 still captures that energy of kids freaking out in dangerous situations. The danger is real. The main four are probably safe, but anyone who joined the cast after Season 1 could be the next Sean Astin.
Season 4 also has plenty of '80s relics to establish the period piece. A Hawkins video store becomes the hub of the new season, so there are fun posters and VHS artifacts in the background.
Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) uses modem-era computers for hacking and Joyce (Winona Ryder) also uses a big old cordless phone. The D&D club allows Stranger Things to address the '80s Satanic panic in which that game got embroiled.
On the soundtrack, there are some deep cuts like Kate Bush and Starpoint along with more familiar tracks of the era.
Hopper (David Harbour) is another major subplot of Stranger Things Season 4. Episode 1 introduces the suggestion of his fate, while Episode 2 begins to show what exactly his story line will be.
Harbour appeared in the season's earliest teasers, so his involvement was confirmed. The show prolongs the mystery of his return as much as possible without milking it.
The only significant complaint about Stranger Things Season 4 is that the episodes are too long. An extended season premiere is understandable, but when four out of five episodes run 75 minutes, this is no longer an hour-long show.
Fans will just be happy that there's more Stranger Things, but when running times become arbitrary it does hurt the pacing. In practical terms, it makes it harder to commit to a binge when you can't be sure the next episode will only be an hour.
Vol. 1 of Stranger Things Season 4 is seven episodes and they had enough material for nine. That means longer binges, which should make Netflix happy.
Yes, it would also mean picking different end points, but that's the creative challenge. When every episode indulges extended run time, it robs the episodes that warrant extra dramatic heft.
If you've already blocked out 8-9 hours for Stranger Things Season 4, Vol. 1, then this may be irrelevant. The season has deeper drama as the characters near adulthood with no shortage of new supernatural crises.
Vol. 2 premieres July 1.
Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.