‘Stranger Things’ 4: The return to Hawkins feels scarier

“Stranger Things” returned for its fourth season, feautring old favorites, including Joe Keery, Maya Hawke, Sadie Sink and Gaten Matarazzo, as well as new additions. // Photo courtesy of Netflix

After an almost three year break, fans of the popular Netflix original series “Stranger Things” eagerly awaited the show’s return with volume one of its fourth season, which premiered on May 27. Since its first season, the show has become an iconic part of pop culture with its portrayal of 1980’s suburban America threatened by a mysterious evil from the Upside Down.

Although “Stranger Things” has settled into a familiar formula that is, at times, predictable by its fourth time around, it adds plenty of twists and turns for a thrilling first volume.

The show jumps from the events of the previous season in summer of 1985 to spring of 1986. Since the last time viewers saw the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana, the cast of characters have been scattered far and wide.

Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder, “Heathers”) has relocated with her family, including Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown, “Enola Holmes”), to California after the events of the previous season. They attempt to rebuild a life, involving long-distance relationships and new friendships. Meanwhile, former chief of police Jim Hopper (David Harbour, “Black Widow”) is held captive in Russia and fights to survive.

Back in Hawkins, the rest of the characters navigate high school and memories of the past. Threatening their attempt at normality is a new monster from the Upside Down, this time named “Vecna,” which has been preying upon the town’s youth through their minds.

Elements of horror movies of the time make an appearance throughout the season. Haunted houses, unsolved mysteries and the echo of a grandfather clock, paired with references to Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers, make this season terrifying, but all the more bingeable. The protagonists are growing up from the first season to face even scarier threats.

In typical “Stranger Things” fashion, references to 80s pop culture remain a way to connect with the audience and repopularize it among the younger viewers of the show.

From its music to its movie references, seeing the characters enjoy familiar pastimes is a treat.

New additions to the show include Hawkins High’s leader of the Dungeons & Dragons Hellfire Club, Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn, “Dickensian”). Munson’s performance is excellent, adding comic relief as he reacts to being in the wrong place at the wrong time while Vecna terrorizes the town.

Other standout performances include Sadie Sink (“Fear Street”), who returns as Max Mayfield, as she tries to come to terms with the events of the previous season. Harbour’s performance remains stellar, despite being isolated from the rest of the cast in Russia. It is easy to root for Hopper as he battles both the harsh climate and other, more sinister threats.

Unfortunately, the volume leans on overdone high school narratives that seem out of place to the show, filling the time that would be best spent in other places. Eleven is bullied at her new school by ruthlessly mean classmates, and Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin, “Concrete Cowboy”), who now plays for the basketball team, feels pressured not to associate with his old “nerdy” friends.

His teammates remain a nuisance throughout the season and have no character development beyond their letterman jackets and overly zealous readiness to hunt down the suspected killer.

With so many storylines competing for screen time, each episode becomes over an hour long. Despite these lengthy episodes that could stand alone as movies, the show still feels like it spends too much time in all the wrong places. For instance, Will Byers (Noah Schnapp, “The Peanuts Movie”), Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton, “The New Mutants”) and Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard, “It”) play a notably small role in the first volume, which is certainly disappointing for viewers hoping for these characters to have more screen time.

The show frequently reaches back to its first season and re-uses some of its most iconic elements. While entertaining to watch, it is unfortunately a reminder that the show’s greatest enemy is its previous seasons.

“Stranger Things” will always be exciting and fast-paced, but it has begun to feel predictable and its characters invincible, making the stakes of battling a new monster feel low. After seeing Eleven and her friends overcome the dangers of the Upside Down three times before, it is hard to imagine any fate besides that for Hawkins — perhaps though, this could be the season to change that.

The second volume of the season will not be released until July 1, leaving viewers with time to digest everything that has happened so far.

With many questions about Vecna remaining and characters still scattered around the world, the second volume will be worth the watch, even if the plot may follow a storyline viewers are already well-acquainted with.