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‘Stranger Things’ stretches out its run toward the finish line in more ways than one

Review by Brian Lowry, CNN

“Stranger Things” experiences a serious case of gigantism in its fourth season, with super-sized episodes and even more drawn-out lead-ups to things actually happening. That’s not to say the seven episodes premiering this week don’t have their moments, only that you have to wade through a lot of “Strange”-ness in order to encounter them.

After a near-three-year absence since Season 3, and with the kids looking conspicuously older and thus graduating into a different set of issues in a way that parallels the maturation in “Harry Potter” — the Netflix series is in some ways a victim of its own success. Burdened by expectations and clearly unfettered in terms of creative interference, the producers have responded with a dizzying new threat while scattering the characters, in one case across the globe in terms of that cliffhanger involving Hopper (David Harbour).

The first two episodes feel particularly bloated before the storytelling by the Duffer brothers and company settles into its groove. Even then, there are detours and subplots that could easily be jettisoned or trimmed, killing time as the show peels back the latest peril from the Upside Down and what might be done to stop it.

The most effective aspect involves Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), who remains the emotional centerpiece of the series. Flashbacks that explore her beginnings and origin story — as well as the debate over whether she’s a monster or, as her friends see her, a superhero — serve as the highlight of these episodes, though that story arc isn’t immune to the overall misstep of advancing too slowly.

Of course, those completely enamored with the show might decide there’s no such thing as too much of a good thing, and “Stranger Things” — now unfolding in 1986 — rewards them with a fresh assortment of pop-culture references and homages, from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” to “E.T. the Extraterrestrial” to “The Silence of the Lambs” (yes, the movie didn’t come out till 1991, but never mind). There are also some new faces with genre underpinnings, among them Robert Englund, a.k.a. Freddy Krueger.

Lavishly produced, the fourth season seemingly ups the ante on cruelty and bullying as well, leveraging the vulnerability of its nerdy characters. At the same time, the soap-opera-ish elements of the relationships have begun to feel a trifle played out, or perhaps just overshadowed by the dire dangers facing the kids and indeed the world.

In what appears to be an effort to spread the hype (and subscriber satisfaction) over a longer period, Netflix has announced that it will withhold the two climactic episodes until July, creating another cliffhanger before viewers learn everyone’s ultimate fate. As is, these seven chapters total nearly nine hours, so anyone planning a weekend binge should budget accordingly.

Almost six years after its premiere, “Stranger Things” has achieved a place in the pop-culture firmament that helped elevate Netflix, so it’s understandable, even logical that the service and filmmakers would want to draw out its run.

That said, it certainly wouldn’t have hurt to hurry “Things” along a little. Because while there’s a fine line between Hawkins and the Upside Down, from a narrative perspective the portal separating epic from overkill can be just as narrow.

“Stranger Things” premieres the first part of its fourth season May 27 on Netflix.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said ‘Stranger Things’ would end with its fourth season. Netflix has announced the fifth season will be its last.

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