Stranger Things Won’t Save Netflix

If anything, the hit show’s triumphant return is only further proof of the streamer’s unsustainability.

Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven lying with eyes closed, wearing a white body suit
Netflix

Netflix, long branded as Hollywood’s disruptor, has lately looked to be in need of disruption itself. In April, the company revealed that it had lost customers for the first time in a decade, as rising subscription costs and increased streaming competition drove audiences away. Shares plummeted, as did shareholder confidence. Discussions began over plans to introduce ads and crack down on password sharing. Previously ordered projects, even those with A-lister support, were canceled to help reduce spending.

Enter Season 4 of Stranger Things, the sci-fi horror series that returned over the weekend after a three-year hiatus. In the weeks leading up to its latest season, critics speculated that the show would be the streamer’s best hope in reversing its misfortunes: It had been one of Netflix’s most reliable hits, as sure to draw eyeballs with each new installment as monsters are to escape the Upside Down. It’s the archetypal Netflix title, with a plot fueled by escapist, algorithm-friendly nostalgia and a cliffhanger-ridden format that makes it highly bingeable. Besides, Netflix seemed to have gone all-in on everything Hawkins: The company reportedly spent $30 million per episode for the new season, and treated its rollout like an event, splitting the season into two parts and bloating each episode past hour-plus run times. The show’s 1980s pastiche catapulted it into the zeitgeist when the series began in 2016; now, in 2022, money would help it do the same.

The supersizing worked—according to Netflix, at least. The streaming platform reported Tuesday that Stranger Things 4: Volume One had garnered a staggering 286.79 million hours watched over the course of its first weekend, breaking the platform’s record for an English-language TV show. All three previous seasons also landed on last week’s top-10 list, accumulating almost 85 million hours of viewing from audiences around the world who were either catching up or rewatching.

And yet, the numbers indicate little beyond the success of Stranger Things itself; they demonstrate the series’s popularity, not Netflix’s return to form. Even watching Stranger Things 4: Volume One showed the limits of Netflix’s strategy, which has been built on spending exorbitantly: The show looked cinematic, with seamless visual and special effects, but the story strained to fill the increased run time. Some of the enhancements came off as unnecessary, if not absurd. Millie Bobby Brown's face was superimposed onto an even younger actor's body throughout repetitive flashbacks. A subplot taking place in California caught fans up on supporting characters such as Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), but it dragged on to the point where some of those same fans questioned the need for these narrative detours. Another demogorgon battle took place, except this time in Russia, because, well, why not? The coffers weren’t empty yet.

But watching the series show off its budget stings, too: Behind the scenes, Netflix has been laying off hundreds of employees, some from departments it had created only months before, in an attempt to recoup its losses. With one final season of Stranger Things to go, how much more will Netflix sink into the show to make it a chart-topping triumph? How much will a Netflix subscription cost by the time Season 5 comes around?

The success of Season 4, in other words, is only further proof of Netflix’s unsustainability. A $30-million-an-episode budget is unlikely to be replicated for other projects in the company’s pipeline. Not every show can afford to be turned into event viewing. And as with previous headline-making statistics the streamer has released, the figures touted this week come with a heap of salt: Stranger Things last aired in 2019, and since then, Netflix has changed its model of determining ratings, making it impossible to accurately compare the success of this season with that of previous ones. (The third season also broke records, for instance, but viewership at the time was tallied according to the number of households watching at least 70 percent of an episode, not the number of total hours streamed.) So yes, 286.79 million hours is indeed a record-breaking number—but only in terms of data the company began collecting last year. And even then, the show’s achievements seem paltry when non-English-language series are added into the mix. In its best-performing week, the Korean drama Squid Game accumulated more than 571 million hours viewed, eclipsing Stranger Things’ total.

Perhaps a data point Netflix doesn’t track would be more instructive for the company. Over the weekend, Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” hit No. 1 on iTunes. The song first topped charts almost 40 years ago, back in 1985, but peaked again after being used in the show during a pivotal scene in Episode 4. In it, Max (Sadie Sink) is on the brink of death, trapped in the Upside Down, but she’s reminded of reality by the tune, which happens to be her favorite. Her subsequent escape is both epic and poignant—memorable enough for Stranger Things fans to search for the track, immersing themselves in the show beyond simply pressing “Next Episode.” Maybe that’s the lesson Netflix should take away from the show: The company doesn’t need to turn entire seasons into can’t-miss events by maximizing as many elements as possible. Being selective can be just as powerful—especially if a good story is being told.