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    Can ‘Stranger Things’ Season 4 Still Be a Sensation for Netflix?

    In an early scene from the Season 4 premiere of Stranger Things, Eleven is California dreaming of Mike, who’s back home in Hawkins. She’s writing him a letter in anticipation of an approaching reunion, to which she’s counting down the days. She’s also counting up the days since she and her growth-spurting paramour parted. “Today is Day 185,” she narrates. “Feels more like 10 years.”

    The first seven of the penultimate season’s nine episodes will hit Netflix on Friday, which will be Day 1,058 since Season 3 dropped on July 4, 2019. That’s a little less than three years, but it feels like 10, too. It’s not just that the world has moved on since pre-pandemic times; it’s also that the entertainment landscape Stranger Things once saturated has undergone rapid IP adaptation, expansion, and proliferation. The nerd-culture market Stranger Things caters to has only solidified its stranglehold on American culture during the series’ extended hiatus, but in its pursuit of slices of that almost allencompassing pie, the TV industry has spawned competing tentpoles and streaming services like the Mind Flayer sprouting tentacles. The show that helped propel genre TV to streaming supremacy still has a huge number of fans who’ll be happy to have it back and who’ll undoubtedly devote enough combined hours to watching Season 4 for Netflix to brag about. But the franchise-first zeitgeist that the series’ bike-riding kids once popped a wheelie on has probably passed Stranger Things by.

    Returning to Stranger Things after all this time is a little like going back to class after a middle- or high-school summer vacation; it’s nice to reunite with old friends, but disorienting to see how hard some of them have been hitting the pituitary gland. As countless slideshows and viral tweets have breathlessly reported since the cast hit the red carpet in mid-May, the formerly child-sized leads of Stranger Things have gotten older and larger in the past few years, as teens tend to do. (Shout-out Isaac Hempstead Wright.) That unsurprising but still-striking reminder of the passage of time—echoed by the season’s prominent ticking clocks—evokes another epistolary Stranger Things sound bite, from the Season 3 finale. “I don’t want things to change,” says Hopper via voice-over, reading a letter he left for El in which he confesses to trying “to maybe stop that change. To turn back the clock. To make things go back to how they were.” But, he concludes, “I know that’s naïve. It’s just not how life works. It’s moving. Always moving, whether you like it or not.”

    Whether Netflix likes it or not, things have changed since David Harbour delivered those lines. Remember Barb, the breakout recurring character from Stranger Things Season 1? I barely do, but I know she supplied a significant percentage of this website’s content in 2016, which was Stranger Things’ and The Ringer’s rookie year. The last of the links in the preceding sentence points to a Stranger Things–themed blog about the Baltimore Orioles published three months after the first season aired. That Hopper and Co. could cross over into an October 2016 article about baseball is as good an indication as any of the extent to which late-Obama-era America had Stranger Things on the brain. (Speaking of Obama, he welcomed the young stars of Stranger Things to a White House event that same month.)

    That seems like a long time ago, in more ways than one; as Orioles/Stranger Things blogger Michael Baumann puts it to me, “Stranger Things’ heyday was so far in the past the Orioles were good.” (For those of you who don’t follow baseball: The Orioles have the fewest wins of any MLB team since 2017.) The still-cellar-dwelling Orioles are newly relevant, having recently promoted MLB’s top prospect, Adley Rutschman, who had just finished high school when Stranger Things debuted. But Stranger Things may lack a comparable attraction to deploy in its bid to bring back eyeballs.

    Forget about the Barb frenzy from summer 2016, if you haven’t already; there were far fewer scripted series to steal Stranger Things’ oxygen then. Even July 2019, when Stranger Things last came and went, was an earlier epoch in a fast-evolving and increasingly crowded sector. Game of Thrones had been off the air for only six weeks (leaving a TV void that even Stranger Things couldn’t quite fill), and Avengers: Endgame was still racking up its record-breaking box office haul. Disney+, HBO Max, Apple TV+, Peacock, and Paramount+ had yet to launch. Star Wars was still primarily a film franchise; neither Lucasfilm nor Marvel Studios had made its first foray into live-action TV. (Nobody knew about Baby Yoda!) Binge-watching was still the way of the world on streaming platforms, and international juggernauts such as Money Heist and Squid Game had yet to break big among domestic viewers.

    “Keep on growing up, kid,” Hopper said in Season 3. Sometimes growing up means growing out of old obsessions. If the prospect of another Stranger Things season tastes a tad stale to some former Hawkins heads who aren’t as psyched about the series as they once were, it’s probably because of a combination of factors, only some of which were under the Duffer brothers’ (or Netflix’s) control. Stranger Things may have fumbled the bag a bit by taking so long to return to action, but even its absence stemmed from a mélange of unavoidable and self-inflicted delays.

    As was the case for many other shows, the pandemic played a part in its prolonged layoff: The series entered production in February 2020, shut down in mid-March, and didn’t resume until late September. But filming stretched on for nearly a year after that, a product of the new season’s supersized scripts and longer list of shooting locations. Season 4’s protracted run times total about 13 hours—almost twice as long as previous seasons—culminating in a two-episode coda due out July 1 that includes a roughly Dune-length finale. Perhaps the scope of the season, which the Duffer brothers have likened to Thrones, will justify the wait and give the discourse surrounding the series longer legs, but “out of sight, out of mind” is a serious concern given the glut of TV alternatives.

    The Duffers ran a risk by taking a swing so big that it limited them to producing a single season in the time it took Taylor Sheridan to create and/or write a small streaming service’s worth of movies and series. In one way, at least, that risk backfired: Because the creators opted for length over alacrity, they missed the pandemic-driven streaming boom that bolstered huge hits for Netflix like Tiger King, The Last Dance, The Queen’s Gambit, Bridgerton, and Squid Game. Stranger Things has name recognition that those series didn’t when they first appeared, but Season 4—which has drawn largely glowing early reviews—will still have to contend with a laundry list of entertainment options that weren’t widely available when potential viewers were more confined to their quarters.

    For the first time in a decade, Netflix is losing subscribers as the peak-pandemic streaming surge recedes and the fight for over-the-top TV market share intensifies. The barrage of negative news has caused the service’s stock to sink, and the company has responded by laying off employees (including many of those in its diversity departments) and reining in spending by getting more aggressive about canceling scripted series, lowering episode orders, and shifting focus to more cost-efficient fare like documentaries and reality TV. In that sense, the scale of Season 4—which carries a reported price tag of $30 million per episode—places it out of step with an era of newfound Netflix austerity. And aside from holstering the season’s last two episodes for a little more than a month, Netflix is stubbornly resisting the recent trend toward building cable/broadcast-style buzz by releasing episodes on a week-to-week schedule rather than in a bingeable one-day drop.

    In that respect, Stranger Things stands in contrast to its entertainment competition—the kind that doesn’t even require relocating from the couch. Stranger Things Season 4 arguably isn’t the most anticipated TV show arriving this Friday: Obi-Wan Kenobi will debut on the same day, forcing fans to choose which one to stream at 3 a.m. ET. (Or, you know, a normal hour.) According to data from market research company MarketCast, Obi-Wan has drawn about 25 percent more cumulative mentions than Stranger Things across social media since the start of the year. The Boys—a show that didn’t debut until after the third season of Stranger Things, and that pivoted to weekly releases in Season 2—will embark on its third season one week after those heavy hitters go head to head. Ms. Marvel and For All Mankind will land on Disney+ and Apple TV+, respectively, the week after that, and The Umbrella Academy and Westworld will be back later in June. Those are just the sci-fi/superhero highlights coming in the next month; TV doesn’t take summers off anymore, and there’s already a backlog in many viewers’ content queues from the Emmy eligibility crunch that crammed a ridiculous number of high-profile premieres into May. That Stranger Things is about to be back and bigger than ever mostly makes me fret about the mind-flaying amount of TV on my entertainment itinerary.


    Maybe Stranger Things will surprise me and grab the belt back again, whether this year or in a sensational final season. I’d be happy to have my former fervor rekindled. Against that busy backdrop, though, the series simply feels less singular and essential than it used to. It doesn’t help that a number of projects released since 2016 have borne some resemblance to Stranger Things, from the It movies (featuring Finn Wolfhard!), to I Am Not Okay With This (from two of the EPs of Stranger Things!), to Homelander’s Eleven-esque upbringing on The Boys, to a host of other series and movies that emulate the already-recycled nostalgia-plus-paranormal-plus-kids formula that made Stranger Things so successful. And although the series’ second and third seasons drew reasonably strong reviews from critics and audiences alike, the third season’s reliance on another portal to the Upside Down and even more Mind Flayer made it feel less than fresh. The series has parceled out its mythology so stingily—and with such a seeming reluctance to subtract characters—that I’ve dropped the paddles on my curiosity voyage. On the plus side, I’m not stressing about being spoiled by board games.

    According to murky streaming metrics, Season 3 was the series’ most popular yet, and even if Netflix’s growth has stalled, the service still has many more subscribers than it did in 2019. (Netflix’s share of the streaming market may be shrinking, but continued cord-cutting has made that market grow.) By “hours watched,” Season 4 may set a new high score for the series, if only because it contains so many more hours. But those figures might not capture a decline in its water-cooler cultural cachet.

    As Jonathan Byers once advised, “You shouldn’t like things because people tell you you’re supposed to.” Nor should you spurn things because they aren’t as trendy as they once were. If you’re as excited for Stranger Things as ever, I envy and affirm you; I just can’t join you. I could try to feign 2016-level (or even 2019-level) enthusiasm, but friends don’t lie. Like a lot of people, probably, I’ll watch Season 4 out of residual fondness for these characters, combined with an unhealthy completist compulsion. But Stranger Things, once an immediate, must-see standout, has now merged with most media: The new season is something I’ll get around to instead of something I’ll devour right away.



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