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Five years after it aired, Stranger Things and its irresistible, uncynical hyper-nostalgia is still Netflix’s biggest asset. ‘Once you open up that curiosity door, anything is possible.’
Do you recall when you watched Stranger Things for the first time? Like a perfectly-formed asteroid from a bygone time, it arrived on Netflix without much of a precursor; no posters, billboards, and few trailers. The platform had ‘tremendous faith in the instantaneity of our culture and the contagion factor, the viral potential of this world right now,’ producer Shawn Levy said.
A muted drop had intrigue, prompting some to investigate. Some genre-scrollers clicked it on a whim. Weeks later, it was one of the most talked-about shows on the planet, amassing 14 million viewers in the US alone. By the time we arrived at season three, it had been watched by 40.7 million households across the world within just four days. The Duffer Brothers were just ahead of the curve.
Those opening minutes in season one were the perfect aperitif: a scientist runs from an unseen monster in a cold hallway, pulled up into its slimy grasp like a Xenomorph claims its prey. It quickly cuts to our quartet of Mike, Dustin, Lucas and Will, played by Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin and Noah Schnapp respectively, playing Dungeons and Dragons, who later meet the super-powered Eleven, played by Millie Bobby Brown.
The Goonies is my favourite film of all time, sitting among other beloved 1980s titles like Stand By Me, RoboCop, The Terminator, and The Thing. Watching these young kids bicker with potty-mouthed glee, winding each other up and riding their bikes around Hawkins, threatened by a phantasmagorical dimension and government conspiracy, I remember feeling totally entranced.
This, plus a cast with Winona Ryder and Matthew Modine, hits an extremely sweet spot; appealing to younger generations who grew up on the classics and the adults who experienced them way back when, a popular cocktail in the current climate of rehashing and revisiting older properties.
Then that theme, that immense theme. Composed by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein of Survive, which featured heavily in the underrated The Guest, it’s a deep synth, slow-building climax brought together by the title’s blood-neon lettering. It even won itself an Emmy, and could be attributed in part to the rise in retrowave, alongside Drive.
To count every single inspiration would take a Wiki-sized list – which you can read here. At the very least spiritually, the DNA of Steven Spielberg’s affection for childhood adventure and romanticism of the otherworldly, Stephen King’s similar yet harder-edged take on growing up, James Cameron’s flair for icky, pulse-pounding set-pieces, the visual language of John Hughes and John Carpenter’s cool, coursing supernatural horror is present throughout every season.
The vintage references have only ramped up, whether it’s New Coke, the casting of Paul Reiser and Sean Astin, Dart being reminiscent of Gremlins and E.T., Ghostbusters outfits, the priceless use of The NeverEnding Story, a staticky screen like Poltergeist, or the silhouette of Hopper, played by David Harbour, nodding to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
The show is overflowing with small touches, but they’re all calculated and never let it become less than the sum of its parts. Outside its world, the ’80s retro boom is still going. It, an adaptation of King’s totem, felt hugely indebted to the show – especially as it stars Wolfhard – and went on to become the highest-grossing horror movie of all time.
Then you have the likes of Dark, The OA, I Am Not Okay With This, even Black Mirror‘s ‘San Junipero’ and most recently, Netflix’s own Fear Street trilogy, which feels distinctly Stranger Things-esque. The adaptation of Ready Player One, very much a Leonardo-DiCaprio-pointing-meme movie, felt possible through the resurrected lens of geekdom.
Yet, in that hunger for ‘delicate, but potent’ throwbacks, Stranger Things still dominates the conversation, and nothing since has summoned such a notable, decade-defining impact.
Here’s to think it was rejected by 15-20 studios before Netflix picked it up. ‘When we sold this, it had no pre-awareness title, no big star actor or show runner, just these young twin brothers with a crazy idea, vividly realised, and a movie director as the producer. They really empowered us and let us lead the way,’ Levy told The Sydney Morning Herald.
‘You either gotta make it into a kids show or make it about this Hopper character investigating paranormal activity around town,’ one executive told Matt and Ross Duffer, as Rolling Stone reports. The Duffer brothers replied it would ‘lose everything interesting about the show’. For them, Stranger Things is a tonic for the uber-stakes of superhero blockbusters, bringing audiences back to a time where the biggest thrills came from ‘ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances’.
‘It’s not nasty or mean or condescending or ironic or any of those things, which a lot of content can be right now,’ Matt told Time, specifically focusing on the word ‘content’, just as Bo Burnham would. ‘Because there’s just so much of that. And there’s a lot of shows about protagonists doing really nasty things to other people.’
It’d be remiss not to mention how Stranger Things essentially spearheaded the modern binging model, with audiences ready to gorge on ‘content’ every week, if not every day. Some platforms are moving away from it, focused on sustaining a show’s life in the conversation for more than two weeks, but it’s unlikely Netflix’s mascot will ever return to the archaic ways of yesteryear.
It’s arguably Netflix’s most popular show, even above The Crown, The Witcher or You, with a massive international fan-base, an eye-watering smorgasbord of extended media in books and comics, and magazines and websites fervently searching for details to share about the upcoming fourth season. Be honest, what is the first series you think of when it comes to Netflix?
Just like producers once balked at John Wick‘s concept – yes, really – any hesitation around Stranger Things seems totally Upside Down. There may be something sad in our pursuant love for an era out of reach, but one thing is certain: there’s nothing strange about it at all.
There’s currently no release date for Stranger Things’ fourth season.
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