“Stranger Things” returns this week to Netflix and finds itself in a very different position than it was in summer 2016, when it was released to relatively little fanfare to become one of the year’s biggest TV success stories. Can it possibly live up to fans’ heightened expectations, or will it have trouble evading the pitfalls that other buzzy shows have recently encountered?
The nine-episode second run of sci-fi phenomenon “Stranger Things,” which brings back Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and the gang, heads into its Oct. 27 launch with a seemingly unprecedented level of excitement and hype. Case in point: “Mindhunters” and other Netflix shows certainly didn’t get a countdown clock on the streaming service’s homepage that ticks down to their release, as “Stranger Things” Season 2 currently has.
Netflix certainly has a lot riding on the new season. “Stranger Things” was its biggest awards play of the past year, landing 18 Emmy nominations ahead of last month’s ceremony (although the show went home empty-handed in all major categories). And it can be argued that none of the company’s shows of the past 12 months was more talked-about, with perhaps the exception of controversy-courting “13 Reasons Why.”
Jason Mittell, professor of film and media culture at Middlebury College and author of “Complex TV,” told TheWrap that rather than sputter, “Stranger Things” is likely to follow the path of previous Netflix shows that increased their viewer awareness long after the first season’s release as word spread and subscribers got caught up with earlier episodes.
“Programs that release seasons in ‘full-drop’ mode, like on Netflix, definitely follow a different cycle of buzz than weekly series do,” he told TheWrap. He cited “House of Cards,” “Orange Is the New Black” and “Narcos” as previous Netflix offerings that appear to have had a bump in attention in their second and third seasons.
Not every hit show is so lucky. A few recent breakouts have been plagued by the dreaded sophomore slump, including USA’s “Mr. Robot,” which was perceived as having declined in quality in Season 2 after its widely praised first run that earned Emmy nominations for best drama and best actor. (It wasn’t nominated for either after Season 2.)
Mittell doesn’t see “Stranger Things” at risk of experiencing this — at least, not yet.
“A sophomore series on a more traditional release, like ‘Mr. Robot’ or ‘UnREAL,’ can become more of a victim to perceived declines in quality — both of their second seasons got mediocre reviews, leading to dwindling attention in the press and social media,” he said. “But such drops in quality tend not to be felt over the course of a full-drop series, as everyone is viewing episodes on their own schedules.”
Indeed, perhaps shows like “Mr. Robot” or “UnREAL,” while both at one point critically adored, never quite touched the zeitgeist the way that “Stranger Things” did, making them more susceptible to losing fans with a false step.
“I think you have to distinguish between a hot, edgy niche show — ‘Mr. Robot’ — and a genuine phenomenon like ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘Stranger Things,'” said Neil Landau, author of “TV Outside the Box” and head of UCLA’s Writing for Television program. “The second season of ‘Stranger Things’ will eclipse and build from Season 1 — I guarantee it.”
Although he doesn’t see the momentum fading this quickly, he does think it’s a good idea that series co-creators Ross and Matt Duffer plan to end the show after only a few more seasons.
“The kids will inevitably age up, and the series might lose its charm and innocence,” Landau said. “It will surely peak well before [Season 5 or 6].”
Saul Austerlitz, pop culture writer and author of the book “Sitcom,” says viewers tend to find Netflix projects more gradually. The reason? Because streaming shows don’t present quite the same compulsion toward immediate viewing as a linear show, given people’s need to make space on their DVRs.
“I think one of the oddities of the contemporary TV landscape, which simultaneously adds to its richness, is that everyone is experiencing a slightly different version of TV, with streaming a major part of it,” Austerlitz said. “I don’t think Netflix shows get forgotten so much as find their way into the cultural bloodstream irregularly.”
Mittell believes that if fans do respond negatively to the new “Stranger Things” episodes, the lack of interest would come in Season 3, not 2. Of course, given that Season 2 currently has a 92 freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes, a critical backlash seems unlikely.
“A good test case might be ‘Arrested Development,’ as its fourth season debuting on Netflix was seen by many as a disappointment — I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of fans will be wary of the next season unless critics assure them it’s a return to form,” Mittell said.
“Stranger Things” returns to Netflix with Season 2 on Oct. 27.