It’s pretty safe to say that at this point in time, Netflix has become a giant in the television field, having produced series that consistently outperform those on other networks. The streaming platform has forever changed the way audiences watch TV — we have Netflix to thank for the concept of “binge watching,” for instance — as well as the way in which series are created in the first place — again, with binge watching in mind. So it shouldn’t be surprising that its latest endeavor, Stranger Things, would find itself in the same popular position as prior original series. And yet, the overwhelming fan fervor surrounding Stranger Things seems to come as something of a shock to everyone. It isn’t just that the show has garnered fans; it’s that the level of fandom the show has garnered has almost immediately reached a level on-par with Trekkers, X-philes, or Whedonites.
This isn’t a review of the series. I’m not here to talk about the Duffer Brothers’ homage to ‘80s cinema and Steven Spielberg in particular, nor am I going to weigh in on the individual performances of its cast members. Stranger Things, in the grand scheme of new shows, falls on the better side of good. It certainly isn’t the best thing to hit TV in the last decade, as some of its fans would attest, but it is a great piece of entertainment. Its impact on the television industry, however, has little to do with its critical makeup and everything to do with its hold on audiences.
What’s fascinating about its appeal is that it isn’t necessarily geared toward the general public. Rife with nods to sub-culture references (I see you, Dungeons and Dragons fans) and a writing style that showcases not just one but numerous “outsiders” as heroes — the obvious being Mike and Eleven, but also loner Jonathan and, curiously enough, best friend Barb — Stranger Things is a celebration of all things “other,” and, as it turns out, it’s those who identify as “other” in the real world who wind up having the loudest voices.
So perhaps Stranger Things only feels like a television juggernaut because its built-in fanbase has perfected the art of being heard after an entire adolescence of being pushed down.
It is interesting to note that Stranger Things — unlike other popular projects currently in the industry — is an original genre piece. While it certainly pulls heavy inspiration from prior films, it isn’t an adaptation or a remake or a reimagining. It isn’t based on a true story or on your favorite fringe comic. Stranger Things is the total brainchild of the Duffer Brothers, which is a refreshing deviation from the norm.
More so, it falls into the science-fiction/horror genre, a cinematic category that gets a lot less love than it should, considering its box office potential: something like 2013’s The Conjuring may have only made $318M worldwide to date, but with a budget of only $20M, its profit margin is nearly 94%; whereas the most recent Avengers film, with a worldwide box office of $1.4B but a cost of $250M, has a profit margin of only 82% to date. Essentially, it’s the genre pieces that are most cost-effective for Hollywood, and if there’s anything to learn here, it’s that those genre pieces are the ones that resonate the most with the loudest fans.
This isn’t to say that Stranger Things has nothing to appeal to those with a more mainstream upbringing. On the contrary, the series doubles as a great exercise in ‘80s pop culture trivia, if nothing else, so anyone with the slightest bit of sentimentality for the Reagan years will find comfort in Stranger Things’ dark and slimy embrace.
And it’s this overwhelming sense of nostalgia that the series shares with its big-budget competitors. The same people who fell in love with the idea of seeing their childhood comic heroes hit the big screen are (a lot of the time) the same people who played D&D in their parents’ basements… and maybe still do, just in their own living rooms now. The beautiful thing about these projects is their normalization of the things that we as ‘80s kids were told was shameful. It’s no longer embarrassing to idolize superheroes or look forward to weekly boardgames with friends or to be really interested in the idea of alternate realities. If anything, we as “others” have come together, with an even louder voice.
Maybe the key to success in Hollywood is really just a matter of appealing to our childhood sensibilities. Particularly in this day and age, who could resist the opportunity to retreat back into the comfort of adolescent imagination?
Or maybe I’m just reading too much into it.
You can catch all eight episodes of Stranger Things on Netflix now.