Stranger Things season 4 starts with a surprise (opens in new tab). Dr. Brenner, the villainous lab-master who parented Eleven with an emotionless backhand, carefully walks a different test subject through a lesson in using his powers. Brenner’s gone soft – he’s laughing as the patient does tests, the two seemingly getting along just swell. Then, something invades the laboratory; a mysterious force kills everyone outside. Brenner survives an initial attack, walks down a corridor, and finds Eleven standing at the end, blood coming from her eyes. What has she done?
The opening turns everything we know about Stranger Things upside down – what if Brenner was only a monster to Eleven because there’s actually an evil inside her? Could Brenner actually be the good guy? There’s so much intrigue in the opening scene that the premiere would have been hard pushed to keep the same pace up across its 76-minute runtime. And unfortunately, the episode does gradually lose focus as we’re reintroduced to familiar faces and meet a handful of newcomers.
The Duffer Brothers offer us a whistlestop tour of where the main cast are now, starting with Eleven and the Byers family, who have moved to California. "I even like school now," Eleven writes in a letter to Mike – a sentence that no teenager has ever meant, and is certainly not true here. The Byers are struggling to settle into their new hometown and Joyce has taken on a job as a phone saleswoman, only good because she can work from home.
Back in Hawkins, Mike and Dustin have joined a new Dungeons and Dragons club named "The Hellfire Club", led by the energetic Eddie Munson. Meanwhile, Lucas is on the high-school basketball team, causing some friction in the friendship group, and Max – now a Kate Bush fan – is suffering PTSD following the death of her brother, Bille. Also, Nancy’s the editor of the school newspaper, and the adorable duo Steve and Robyn are both chasing girls.
That’s the initial setup and, frankly, the premiere continues at a lethargic pace, slowly laying the table for the season to come. The Duffers do an admirable job juggling each storyline, but there are problems. Right now, the kids are largely on different paths, and some of their stories are just not particularly interesting. Nancy and Jonathan, for instance, have become long-distance lovers, and a scene dedicated to explaining why they’re not seeing each other over spring break comes across as cutesy, obligatory exposition. Then there's The Hellfire Club, where very little seems at stake. Stranger Things has done the dorky D’n’D thing already, and these scenes start to feel like padding more than anything else.
Indeed, the majority of the action happens at high school, where friendships are tested and Eleven is bullied. These narratives are all drawn out, and I began to dream about the kids bunking classes for something more interesting. One thread does, at the very end, kick the season into gear, and it's one of Stranger Things’ most gruesome moments to date. If only the premiere didn't take so long to get there.
Much has been made of Stranger Things season 4 consisting of feature-length episodes. The shortest episode of the new season is 63 minutes long, and the rest are over 70 minutes – the longest, the final installment in “Part 1”, lasts 98 minutes. Those are not exactly binge-watch-friendly sizes, and when the opening episode takes this long to get everything off the ground, you have to wonder whether the next episode will justify the extended runtime. Stranger Things has always been at its best when telling compact, tightly wound stories, and the premiere could have had a few minutes chopped out. Yet, it’s hard to know exactly where they could have comfortably made cuts; the show is so supremely well put together that, even when what’s happening lags, there’s no looking away. The budget – a rumored $30 million an episode – is on full display throughout.
Now, something I suspect will be the talk of Twitter: the kids have grown up. Millie Bobby Brown (Eleven), Sadie Sink (Max), and Gaten Matarazzo (Dustin) can just about pass for their on-screen ages, but Finn Wolfhard (Mike) and Caleb McLaughlin (Lucas) stand out, and their performances struggle as they act uncomfortably young in places – it's worth noting that there have been no dramatic personality changes between seasons (nothing like Hopper's turn to toxic masculinity), so they're all still acting very young. Natalia Dyer and Charlie Heaton, who play Nancy and Jonathan, can’t escape that they’re both nearly in their 30s but portraying high schoolers.
The worst offenders, though, are the new members of the Hellfire Club. Eddie, played by Joseph Quinn, is immediately a scene-stealer and he's meant to be an older high-schooler, but having a 29-year-old as someone in their teens is hard to swallow. And that’s overlooking the other guys in the club, who make the cast of Grease look age-appropriate (opens in new tab). It was always going to be unavoidable – the cast cannot help getting older – but it does take the full hour to settle into seeing them post-real life pandemic (and yes, you will be Googling "how old is Will Byers actor Noah Schnapp (opens in new tab)" the moment the episode is over).
Come the premiere’s ending, the scene is set for an interesting new season. Does it make for a classic episode of Stranger Things? Not really. There are fun moments, but this is all about catching us up on how everone's doing. Hopefully, now the ball’s rolling, Stranger Things season 4 can kick up a gear and lose some of the high-school antics behind and fully embrace being the darker, more intriguing season that the opening scene – and the premiere's ending – promises to come.
Stranger Things season 4 "Vol 1" is available from May 27. For more, check out the best Netflix shows streaming right now.