Netflix’s hit sci-fi series Stranger Things has been a TV juggernaut for quite a while now, but it’s never been as big as this – not even close.
Everything about Stranger Things 4 is bigger than what’s come before. The cast is absolutely massive, with even more characters added to an already-groaning call sheet. It takes place over a bigger range – for the first time, the scale of the series stretches far beyond the small town of Hawkins, Indiana, moving across different States, areas of America and even continents.
Even the episodes themselves are bigger. Out of this first chunk of episodes (the first seven are available on May 27th, followed by two more in July) the shortest was over an hour, and the longest closer to two. The vast majority are around 70-75 minutes, near movie-length and crammed full of storylines, threats and horror sequences that might be the scariest the series has come up with yet.
So yes, it’s bigger this year. But does bigger mean better? Sometimes, the sheer weight of plot lines and characters threatens to derail Stranger Things 4, which has so much to juggle that you’ll hearken wistfully back to the days when all our heroes had to worry about was that wacky Demogorgon. Simpler times!
But the charm of the cast, the genuine horror of its new threat and plenty of action sequences still make for engrossing, compelling TV. It’s not quite as warm and fuzzy as it was in season one, but as its young heroes grow up I suppose this series has to as well.
More like this
And in a way, this series is all about those growing pains. We return to Hawkins (and a few other places) after a bit of a gap from the events of Stranger Things 3, and a lot of people are struggling. Eleven and Will (Millie Bobby Brown and Noah Schapp) are struggling to survive a new school, Nancy and Jonathan (Natalia Dyer and Charlie Heaton) are trying to make long-distance work while Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) tries to split his identity between his Dungeons and Dragons friends and basketball teammates as he becomes more of a jock.
Elsewhere, following a stint in Black Widow David Harbour must be wondering how he’s ended up typecast as a “guy trapped in a Russian jail”. Hopper’s storyline (which dovetails with a couple of other characters) is more obviously brutal, at least at first, but is also curiously separate from the main events of the series. Depending on what happens in the second batch of episodes, fans might need to wait until Stranger Things 5 before he’s really back in the thick of it.
And then there’s Max (Sadie Sink). Fresh from her starring role as "sort-of Taylor Swift" in the popular video for All Too Well (Taylor’s Version), Sink has a significantly expanded role in Stranger Things 4, still struggling from the traumatic events of Stranger Things 3 and taking a central role in the fight against new Upside-Down antagonist Vecna.
It’s fair to say that Sink rises to the challenge, but it is a challenge. Like previous baddies the Demogorgon and the Mind Flayer, Vecna is named after a Dungeons and Dragons antagonist, but he’s a little different from what they’ve faced before. Like a kind of greasy Freddy Krueger, he insinuates himself into his victim’s minds, pursuing them in unsettling dream sequences before (eventually) enacting his final, grisly price.
Creators the Duffer Brothers are clearly aware of the Krueger crossover – they have Robert Englund in a terrific small guest star role as a troubled serial killer – and generally, he’s a more traditional sci-fi antagonist in many ways. He’s more strategic for one, and crafty – though as with many horror villains, he’s significantly scarier in the earlier “just-a-glimpse” scenes than he is once he’s just wandering around being evil and gross-looking.
Anyway, it’s not long before our disparate groups of heroes work out something bad is happening, and most of their teenage angst is put aside to work on sci-fi stuff instead. Together (or rather, separately) they’ll face dream demons, angry mobs, shady government types, army grunts, spooky haunted houses and much more.
Sometimes, it’s a little too much. Given how many returning characters there are in Stranger Things 4 already, a couple of the new additions feel like overkill, and some storylines are definitely more engaging than others.
Like reading a book, you’ll occasionally feel disappointed to be picking up with that character rather than the one you were just following, and there is a sense that one or two figures are being kept busy by the writers rather than meaningfully contributing to the progression of the story. And in a series with such long episodes, there probably were one or two cuts that could have been made.
But it’s hard to begrudge any of this when at a base level, Stranger Things is so watchable and fun. The characters are still engaging, the scare level has gone up and some of what the Duffers have come up with this season is more inventive than ever. To say more would be delving into spoiler territory – though if you are curious, apparently the series’ new tie-in Monopoly game is the place to look for hints – but I don’t see fans coming away from these episodes disappointed.
Who knows how big Stranger Things will go in part 4’s second batch of episodes, or its final fifth season – but for now, it’s just about holding together at the seams. Just.
The latest issue of Radio Times magazine is on sale now – subscribe now and get the next 12 issues for only £1. For more from the biggest stars in TV, listen to the Radio Times podcast with Jane Garvey.