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Netflix is claiming, during a quarterly earnings call, that the third season of Stranger Things was viewed by 64 million people in its first month of release on the streaming service. No, there isn’t much in the way of independent verification, but Netflix is a publicly traded company so one presumes they wouldn’t want to get caught fudging viewership numbers too badly. Anyway, Netflix counts a “view” as a member household watching 70% of one episode of a series of 70% of a feature film. They initially claimed that the show netted 40.7 million viewers in the first week, with 18 million member households finishing the eight-episode season within a few days.
Presuming these numbers are anywhere close to accurate, the data affirms that the Duffer Brothers ‘ Stranger Things has become Netflix’s signature show and (arguably) their signature entertainment product. The show debuted in the summer of 2016 with a modicum of “Hey, this looks interesting!” fanfare, only to become one of the most talked-about pieces of pop culture that year alongside Beyonce’s Lemonade and the Pokémon GO! mobile game. The show was a prime example of my oft-repeated advice, namely “don’t remake, rip off.” Yes, it was built with copious spare parts from 1980’s pop culture, including Amblin features, Stephen King novels and related early-1980’s fantasy like The Thing and Ghostbusters. But it was still its own thing.
Stranger Things has told an original story (about a small town invaded by interdimensional beasts and a telepathic young girl who might stop them) featuring new characters who have become pop culture favorites. The folks who watched Stranger Things season 3 didn’t do so for the worldbuilding or the pop culture references, but because they wanted to spend more time with Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), Will (Noah Schnapp), Nancy (Natalie Dyer), Chief Hopper (David Harbour) and Joyce (Winona Ryder) amid whatever the newest supernatural mystery happened to be. Like Lost, The X-Files and the Harry Potter series, Stranger Things understood that the characters were far more important than the plot and the spectacle.
It’s a lesson that was even learned by the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as those movies, love them or hate them, have all been explicitly character-driven dramas where the superhero spectacle, long-form storytelling and interconnectivity have been added value elements as opposed to the reason for the season. Fringe learned the same wrong lesson from X-Files and Lost as did many other imitators, opening with a huge mystery and the promise of grand narrative plot twists before pulling back to focus on its trio of supernatural/super-scientific crime stoppers. Ditto DC Films in the run-up to Justice League, before righting that ship starting with Wonder Woman. Sadly, for the likes of The Event and the Dark Universe, this was a fatal miscalculation.
It sounds simple enough, but characters whom audiences want to see is the most important element of any major would-be franchise. It’s why audiences still love Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy, why 24 was able to turn a one-trick-pony into a nine-season Jack Bauer-centric epic and what separates The Hunger Games and Twilight from Divergent and Mortal Engines. Moreover it’s what made The Fast & Furious into the biggest ongoing “non-Disney” and “non-superhero” franchise going, as opposed to a short-lived Point Break rip-off. Universal’s cars-n-guns franchise became iconic specifically because it used the freedom of an “unofficial” adaptation to give us Dwayne Johnson’s Dom Toretto, Paul Walker’s Bryan O’Conner and a host of other colorful action figures.
We’ll see if Stranger Things lasts longer than Netflix’s current “three or four seasons and you’re done” template, as they clearly think having more (and more frequent) new shows is more useful for getting new subscriptions than keeping the older stuff around is for keeping current subscribers. Stranger Things is fantasy filmmaking done right. Warts and all, the show treats nostalgia as a topical seasoning, long form storytelling as a side note and pop culture references as a bonus. The show worked in July of 2016, October of 2017 and July of 2019 specifically because it was an unapologetic rip-off, not a remake or a reboot, which focused on character as its primary source for drama, comedy and entertainment.
I’ve studied the film industry, both academically and informally, and with an emphasis in box office analysis, for nearly 30 years. I have extensively written about all