Can ‘Stranger Things’ Bring Back The Communal TV Event?

We haven't experienced a TV event like this since the 'Game of Thrones' finale.

stranger things season 4 volume 2

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The final two episodes of Stranger Things Season 4 will drop on July 1st, two epic movie-length episodes that will conclude an immensely popular season.

According to Netflix, Stranger Things 4: Volume 1, which aired in May, has become their most-watched English-language TV show of all time on their platform, topping lists in over 90 countries. The hype around the finale has become palpable — from an abundance of memes on social media, to songs from the show such as Kate Bush’s 1985 classic ‘Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)’ topping the charts again as a result. We can only assume that the final episodes are going to be equally huge, if not bigger.

It makes me wonder if perhaps Netflix has managed to revive the phenomenon of the “television event” from the cold grave that streaming originally buried it in. If the binge isn’t dead, maybe we should kill it?

The exciting thing about what Netflix is doing with Stranger Things is the two-volume split, essentially putting a month in between the release of Volume 1 and Volume 2 — something that has never been done with previous seasons of Stranger Things, and is a recent experimentation by other shows on streaming services, including the final season of Ozark.

Shows getting huge numbers of viewers isn’t new, or even particularly noteworthy. Stranger Things 4 reportedly had the biggest opening weekend for an English-language show on the platform, getting 286.7 million hours of viewership. Squid Game holds the record for the most-viewed show on the platform in its first 28 days, with 1.6 billion hours viewed. Bridgerton Season 2 only recently held the previous title of Netflix‘s most-watched English-language TV show. Because of how streaming works, we see a long tail of people watching these shows after they’re released — but you could say that their cultural moment is always brief and ephemeral.

The binge format which streaming introduced shortened the cultural lifespan of a show, compared to the weekly episodic format over many months that narrative TV used to have to rely upon. This could be because of many reasons, such as the fact that we are in peak content, with an over-abundance of shows and streaming services, that make it hard for one show to fight among the wealth of competition and grab significant attention- and hold it.

But it could also be the actual format of binge-watching too — a 2017 study from First Monday found that bingeing television shows might actually be less memorable and less enjoyable than watching new episodes on a weekly basis, with viewers unable to remember as many details from the shows they are watching.

Plenty of streaming services have brought back the weekly episode drop, such as Disney+, who have made it a standard for their Marvel and Star Wars franchise shows. It’s a good way to fight back against this short cultural life span, and in cases like WandaVision, grew the show into a surprise hit.

But it sometimes seems that what binge TV truly killed off was the television event.

The Television Event

The last true television event we had — separate from simply a show that a lot of people enjoyed and watched — was the Game of Thrones finale in 2019. Across HBO and its various platforms the conclusion of the long-running fantasy series drew 19.3 million viewers. In addition, 13.6 million people in the USA watched the 9pm telecast on HBO alone, breaking the record for the biggest single telecast in HBO history. The previous record-holder was the Season 4 premiere of The Sopranos in 2002, which drew 13.4 million.

If the binge isn’t dead, maybe we should kill it?

This wasn’t just reflected in the cold stark reality of viewing numbers — it’s also about how we reacted culturally that made it an event. From weekly recaps, to rabid online fandoms, the television event was more than just water-cooler conversation, it became the conversation. Game of Thrones became particularly known for live screenings of its episodes, where people would cram into bars and gasp at each brutal murder in unison. This was all ratcheted up another notch for the finale — a true event, even if it was almost universally considered a flop. It didn’t matter, we experienced that flop together.

Even at the time of the game of thrones finale, the television event was written off as dead, said about many shows from The Sopranos to LOST. There was a fear that with television exploding beyond the confines of a couple of national networks, the communal act of significant portions of the world sitting down and watching the same episode of something — events like “Who Shot J.R.?” or “Who Shot Mr Burns?” would be lost. And considering the global nature of streaming, there is the potential for far bigger TV events — global rather than national, which we saw somewhat with Game of Thrones.

It just goes to show that a true television event is less about format — network, streaming, binge or otherwise — and about earning it. Could the first season of Stranger Things — as popular as it was — have created an event by splitting the season? Probably not. The show has worked to create a huge fanbase, a massive community of engaged viewers, and perhaps most importantly, an epic and scaling narrative.

It’s All About Story

For a show to have a TV event, it needs to have earned its status as an event through the narrative. In numerous ways, the pivot to binge streaming means it’s harder to build a story to that crescendo — fewer but longer episodes, shorter seasons, a focus on creating viral moments rather than investing in long-term storytelling, and somewhat trigger-happy cancellation of seasons that should have been given a chance to grow. But as long as shows do get the chance to invest in long-term storytelling like Stranger Things has, it’s not impossible.

Stranger Things has always been built for epic storytelling — it’s an unabashed homage to big ’80s film narratives, geared around cinematic moments and building deep lore. It’s not surprising that it’s made a play for a big TV event too,  the show is deeply influenced by one of the original, defining TV event shows, the first season of Twin Peaks. The mystery of who killed Laura Palmer changed how we watch television, of communally being excited by a show, and even the idea of TV as being worthy of investing attention to.

It’s exciting that we’re seeing an event now, we can only assure the finale of Season 5, which the Duffer Brothers have confirmed as the final season of Stranger Things, will be massive. It seems that despite the changing formats of television, and the ever-shifting whims of technology, a TV event is something that persists and grows despite and regardless of these circumstances. Perhaps they are only ever possible when big storytelling happens.

The binge format has dominated the streaming age for the past few years, and I think if platforms are willing to keep experimenting with how they deliver TV shows and narratives, then we could start seeing TV events come back. But only if they’ve earned it, and only if they’re worth it.

Patrick Lenton is a journalist, author, and former editor of Junkee. His new book Sexy Tales of Paleontology is out now. He tweets @patricklenton.