In Season 1 (2016), strange phenomena ruled the town of Hawkins when Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) went missing. His loyal friends, namely Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin Henderson (Gaten Materrazo), and Lucas Sinclair (Caleb Laughlin), launch their own search for him. Will's frantic mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) believed that she can hear Will from the walls of their house and tried finding ways to communicate with him with lights.
Will's elder brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) was skeptical at first but later supported his mother's desperate efforts. Hawkins' cynical police chief Jim Hopper soon also took Joyce's claims seriously when he did his own observations and investigations. Mike's elder sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) also became involved when her best friend Barbara also went missing at the house of Nancy's boyfriend, school jock Steve Harrington (Joe Keery).
The boys encountered a girl with telepathic abilities named Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) in the woods. She had escaped from a laboratory run by a scientist she called Papa, Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine) which honed her powers. Eleven (or El for short) had opened a gate which released a monster the kids called the Demogorgon originating from an alternative dimension of existence called the Upside-Down, into the world above.
In Season 2 (2017), Will was still under the control of another shadowy entity from the Upside-Down called the Mind-Flayer and his mother and friends strive to release him. There were new kids in Hawkins, spunky redhead Max Mayfield (Sadie Sink) and her half-brother Billy Hargrove (Dacre Montgomery). El ran away from her new home with Hopper, found her mother Terry Ives (Aimee Mullins) and met a fellow escapee #8 Kali (Linnea Berthelsen).
In Season 3 (2019), there was a new big mall in Hawkins called Starcourt. Steve worked there in the ice cream shop with a quirky new girl Robin (Maya Hawke). Lucas' precocious little sister Erica (Priah Ferguson) frequently annoyed them for free samples. They helped Dustin decode a coded message he intercepted on his radio, and was able to discover and infiltrate a Russian lab under the mall seeking to reopen the Under-Ground gate.
Hopper was very concerned over El's romantic relationship with Mike, and sought advice from Joyce. Joyce sought the help of science teacher Scott Clarke (Randy Havens) to explain why her ref magnets were losing magnetism. Nancy and Jonathan working as interns at a local newspaper go investigating a rat infestation at a house of an old widow. Meanwhile, the Mind-Flayer had possessed Billy to collect more souls for its army.
In Season 4 (2022), Joyce and her sons brought El with them when they moved to Lenora, California. When Mike visited them during spring break, El was abducted and brought to a secret lab in the desert by Dr. Sam Owens (Paul Reiser) and reunited her with Dr. Brenner. At that same time, Joyce had gone on a mission of her own with Russian-speaking conspiracy theorist Murray (Brett Gelman) to try to recover Hopper held in a Russian prison.
Back in Hawkins, cheerleader Chrissy (Grace Van Dien) had a gruesome death, and Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn), president of the Hellfire Club D&D gamers group was the main suspect. Chrissy's boyfriend Jason Carver (Mason Dye) led the hunt, while Dustin gathered up the gang to help Eddie. Max narrowly escaped being the next victim of the powerful entity called Vecna, but was willing to put herself up as bait to put an end to the curse.
A major factor in its success was also the '80s nostalgia it had, in terms of the trends, fashion, technology, movies and of course, the music. Several 80s hit songs make the soundtrack irresistible for the Boomer audience, from "Africa," "Waiting for a Girl Like You," "Hazy Shade of Winter," "Whip It," "Girls on Film," "The Ghost in You," "Never Surrender," "My Bologna," "Material Girl," "Neutron Dance," "Tarzan Boy," and "Pass the Dutchie."
Some songs had significant roles in the story, like "Should I Stay or Should I Go" by The Clash in Season 1, "Neverending Story" by Limahl in Season 3 and "Dream a Little Dream" by Ella Fitzgerald in Season 4. Most notably, "Running Down That Hill" by Kate Bush, which stalled at No. 30 in its first run up the Billboard Hot 100 in 1985, went back up the chart all the way to a new peak of No. 4 because of its prominent use in Season 4 as Max's favorite song.
Why this series by the Duffer Brothers is still going strong four seasons after it debuted in 2016 is quite clear. Despite all the creepy creatures and the bloody violence in their wake, we root for the underdog kids and their families who are caught up in all of this messy business. Season after season, we watched all of the kids grow up in front of our eyes. We also root for Winona Ryder and David Harbour who were so good playing the two main adult characters
Of course, the whole premise of a motley bunch of nerdy kids going up against mad scientists and malevolent monsters and ruthless Russians can really be a crazy and contrived. Their hunches are usually correct and their gambles usually pay off, so we sort of knew that no one among the main gang was going to get seriously hurt or die. When they do get trapped to the brink of death, there is usually a last minute save.
The gambit of interrupting Season 4 at Episode 7 for a whole month before releasing the last two episodes on July 1 was an inspired one. These two episodes were longer than usual, the finale being a whopping 2 hours and 30 minutes long, practically a epic multi-genre feature film, full of action, humor, horror, disaster and drama. There were plenty of references and callbacks from all the prior seasons throughout Season 4 that fans will recognize.