Stranger Things still

Stranger Things: Analysis of a TV hit

The hit of the summer of 2016 wasn’t a pop song, or a blockbuster movie, it was a TV show: Netflix series Stranger Things. But why was it so, so popular? Let’s break it down.

Stranger Things is an eight-part sci-fi/horror series set in the 1980s starring Winona Ryder and Matthew Modine and a host of brilliant young actors. But you probably know that already, right? Upon its release on Netflix in mid-July, Stranger Things burst across both social channels and the wider news media, with viewers and journalists alike falling over themselves to proclaim their love for it. Even if you haven’t seen it yourself, it’s been hard to avoid the chatter. But why this show, at this time? Here’s our analysis:

Summer loving
The timing of Stranger Things’ release is pertinent. Autumn is the traditional time to put out big hitter new TV shows. For schedulers the summer is usually deemed a time for sport (particularly in an Olympics year, for goodness sake) or reality TV. In part this is due to the assumption that people will be on holiday or out enjoying the late summer evenings so will miss episodes or the start of a series, and then not get into it. But that, of course, is based on the old school idea of TV, not Netflix and its binge-watching, release-all-eight-episodes-at-once approach.

Certainly, we prefer summer viewing that is lighter, more easygoing though – but in that Stranger Things, with its pop culture touchstones and appealing characters, provided the perfect summer fling. Plus: the media is always scratching around for stories in the summer months; come up with a hit and you’ll have every magazine or website scrambling to write about you.

Stranger Things
All Stranger Things stills courtesy of Netflix
Stranger Things still
Stranger Things still

Its attention to detail is superb
And boy did Stranger Things give the media something to write about. Directors The Duffer Brothers, despite being only 32 and thus youth of the 1990s, know an awful, awful lot about 1980s life, and particularly 1980s movies, and have put all of that knowledge into their show. And thus a trillion ‘listicles’ were born, collating all the show’s film references (over 25, according to one list on NY Mag’s Vulture) as well as its general 80s vibe, from crappy technology to frozen waffles, Dungeons & Dragons to acne.

For design fans, there was an extra treat in the title sequence, which was designed by Imaginary Forces and, according to the directors themselves, paid homage to Richard Greenberg and his titles for the likes of Alien and Superman, as well the font used in Stephen King novels.

Stranger Things poster
Poster for the show, featuring illustration by Kyle Lambert; image courtesy of Netflix

The amazing casting
Much has been made of the ‘realness’ of the kids in the show, compared to the Disney-fied perfection that we tend to find in movies these days. The cast of Stranger Things are attractive, sure, but also kind of normal looking, in the way that kids were in 1980s TV and movies. Plus they can really act.

And then there’s Winona. Ryder has appeared here and there in movies and on TV since her 1980s/90s heyday, but it’s been a while since she’s been seen in a big hit. It’s a joy to see her head up a larger vehicle, and of course, with Stranger Things’ penchant for all things 80s, it seems perfectly correct that she is there.

Stranger Things
Stranger Things
Stranger Things

The nostalgia, oh the nostalgia
Stranger Things’ love of the 1980s is of the non-critical, all-consuming kind. The show doesn’t use its setting in the past as a vehicle for exploring something else, in the way that say the TV version of Fargo does, but instead nostalgia in many ways is the story. Its referencing is shameless and fan-like and, as mentioned previously, goes very deep.

There is a danger with this degree of devotion: while the storyline of Stranger Things is strong, by the end of the series it felt kind of easy to guess what would happen as we’d see this plotline play out in so many forms before. Netflix and the Duffer Bros presumably realised this, and took a punt on the fact that audiences wouldn’t care, and might, in fact, love that: a wise bet, it turns out.

Plus the nostalgia had positives beyond the fun of playing spot-the-80s-reference too. It made the show very familiar and very addictive really quickly, a point that’s crucial for a subscription channel in a deeply competitive market.

Stranger Things Poster
Stranger Things Poster; image courtesy of Netflix

Leave it to the fans
While Stranger Things did a great job of taking us back to the 1980s, it was via very 21st century means that we all expressed our love for it, first across social media, and then by creating fan sites (an 80s-style computer game and title sequencer generator being two examples) and Stranger Things-themed gatherings. Plus the cast themselves also took to social media to share behind-the-scenes treats and pics.

Fans and the media worked in a circular loop reporting on each other throughout the summer, all the while spreading love for the show further and further. It quickly became the show you had to love, with any churlish criticism suffocated by the adoration.

And thus we arrive at the denouement: this week’s longed-for news that a second season has been commissioned, giving Stranger Things the perfect happy ending.

As if Netflix could do anything but.

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