I remember when Stranger Things was about to become the Next Big Thing. It was July 2016; I was on summer break from my junior year of college and working at my retail job over the summer. My coworkers were talking excitedly about some new Netflix show. “It’s really scary,” I remember one telling me. “It’s got Winona Ryder!” another had said. “You literally can’t stop watching it once you start,” someone else had probably urged to me as well. I can still see myself at my laptop in my bedroom in my childhood home, curiously googling “Stranger Things” to understand what my coworkers were talking about. Already, the show was gaining traction. A handful of articles awarded positive reactions and praise, particularly for Ryder’s performance, promising that audiences were about to become hooked on the sci-fi/horror ‘80s throwback hybrid because, well, they were. When I finally sat down to watch, the above sentiments from my coworkers turned out to be true. I couldn’t stop watching Stranger Things, and neither could anyone else.
Now, Stranger Things is back—and it’s got a paid campaign partnership between Doritos and Charli XCX. The pop star will be joined by ‘80s music icons the Go-Go’s, Soft Cell, and Corey Hart for a virtual concert on June 23, sponsored by the snack company in promotion of the hit series’ long-awaited fourth season. On the upcoming concert, XCX said, “Doritos is doing something really cool by giving Stranger Things fans a new way to celebrate their favorite show with ‘Live From The Upside Down.’ I can’t wait for everyone to join us for this concert!”
In retrospect, it was always going to end up this way, the ultimate apex of the increasingly craven marketing strategies with each new season, a reflection of where Netflix has ended up.
Stranger Things helped to fundamentally change both the film and television landscape hand-in-hand with its parent company, Netflix. Mark Lawson once wrote for the Guardian that the retro series “combines a distribution model that represents the future of screen entertainment with content that harks back to its past.” It’s possible that Lawson had no idea just how right this statement would be. But Stranger Things not only ushered in an excruciating, years-long era of exceedingly profitable nostalgia-bait entertainment, but operated as one of a few tentpole programs that boosted Netflix up to become a major player in creating original, prestige television series, cultivate their media stronghold, alter how and when audiences watch television, and also disrupt the traditional theatrical cinema model. Stranger Things, Orange Is the New Black, House of Cards, Black Mirror, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the various Marvel Cinematic Universe spinoff series—they all laid out the foundation for the Netflix of today.
And, well, the Netflix of today isn’t doing so hot. In the weeks after the recent announcement that Netflix suffered its most jarring subscriber loss to date (in part due to another bump in subscription prices), shares in the company are down almost 70%. Netflix expects to lose another $2 million in the next quarter, and they have laid off a generous portion of their staff in addition to pulling the plug on numerous shows. Most industry insiders knew all along that Netflix’s business model wasn’t sustainable; they throw astronomical amounts of money around, hiking up prices across the industry, and turning the market far more competitive in a way that left many studios unable to keep up. This extends to their staff as well, as in the case of their failed journalism (marketing) arm Tudum, which lured journalists away from less stable jobs for the promise of a financial safety net under employment from a perceived booming business.
So too did showrunners once answer the siren song of Netflix, the latter of whom would order full series under the guise of little interference and almost full creative control. But all of that is largely null at this point, with more focus put on reaching the largest possible under the tightest budget. Netflix arbitrarily picks and chooses what content is worthy of promotion, leaving something like Mike Myers’ recent big comeback vehicle, The Pentaverate, swimming upstream without a paddle. They also notoriously release ambiguous viewership data without any outside sources to back them up, base decisions on greenlighting content off of the algorithm, and don’t appear to have any real substantive means of revenue beyond platform subscriptions (such as, how do they turn a profit off a film if their films aren’t released theatrically?) And, of course, they are infamous for axing otherwise beloved shows prematurely based on figures they seem to simply pull out of thin air. As the studio shares more blood with a Silicon Valley company than television broadcasting, the motto over at Netflix is all about growth—frequently at the expense of their own audience. And now, the Netflix growth has expanded into a bubble that is quite literally about to burst.
But even industry insiders cheering the downfall of Netflix are aware that once a media disruptor, always a media disruptor. It could be relatively simple for Netflix to problem solve its way out of their own mess and bounce back. As author Isaac Hayes (who co-wrote the book Binge Times: Inside Hollywood’s Furious Billion-Dollar Battle to Take Down Netflix) plainly said when he spoke to Vanity Fair, “[Netflix] defined what streaming is,” and, thus, he is not betting against their comeback. Still, it is interesting to consider the Netflix of the past with the Netflix of today, especially in relation to the belated return of one of its biggest cash cows. Unlike the other preeminent original series, Stranger Things never really fizzled out in one way or another. Black Mirror (though recently renewed for another season) nosedived critically, House of Cards crumbled under Spacey; Orange Is the New Black, once a cultural phenom, just seemed to disappear from the social consciousness until it quietly died. Stranger Things dropped Season 3 back in 2019, and though there is arguably no reason to shoehorn another story into a series that should have ended after its first season, there was also no reason not to.
Now, Stranger Things is returning to an entirely different world, like the titular Kimmy Schmidt emerging from her years spent trapped as an underground mole woman. Still held afloat well enough by popular, big-budget series like The Witcher, Bridgerton, and Squid Game, it has become difficult to differentiate Netflix from a trashy cable TV channel, and harder to substantiate a reason for sticking around after rising prices, dwindling quality and choice in content, purported crackdowns on password sharing, and flirting with the implementation of ads to counter the fiscal loss from people who do so. The platform is even trashier in comparison to what other competing streamers, like HBO Max and Hulu, are now offering audiences: not only more consistently better original programing, but a richer library of films to choose from.
Though Stranger Things, like Squid Game, became a hit just through catching the attention of audiences, Netflix is more risk-averse than ever. And maybe the promise of another chapter of one of the platform’s most popular shows of all time will be enough to entice those who recently left the streaming service to join back. But will Netflix be able to prove themselves worthy of their hefty price tag after audiences have finished Season 4? (And, honestly, might people be turned off entirely just from the episodes’ ludicrous runtimes?)
It is perhaps ironic that the show which once seemed to tantalize a future of more daring output, has, instead, become a marker for what Netflix turned into. But it’s also not ironic at all if we recall Mark Lawson’s quote. The thing is, Stranger Things was always a safe bet. It was a safe bet in 2016, and it is a still safe bet in 2022. The series had offered the enticing familiarity of nostalgia, and its existence represents a nostalgia entirely of its own; the security of content that will be a surefire success for Netflix without needing to take any risks. Once a poster child for this promising new era of prestige original streaming, Stranger Things returns to a landscape that it only helped to corrupt.
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.
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