Unless you called in sick today or are a career insomniac, it’s unlikely you finished streaming the insanely anticipated second season of Stranger Things.
But, like me, you probably started to watch last night, and tried to power through until your eyes protested and you drifted off to the Upside Down. Now, the first full day after the show’s release, seeing only part of the new season feels like harboring part of a secret that could also be used against you at any moment. This is a uniquely crappy position for a TV fan, but it’s not your fault. It’s Netflix’s.
The binge-watch, of course, is Netflix’s signature, paradigm-shifting method–their digital coup that has scared many traditional cable networks shitless. It is hard to argue against the flexibility that this method offers a consumer who doesn’t want to schedule weekly appointments for TV, but this method doesn’t take into account the opportunity for top-tier success or demand: people want to be part of a cultural conversation right away. The binge release makes sense to cultivate an audience for a new show; less so for the second season of a hugely popular show. If Netflix is replacing one form of appointment television with another, then who really stands to benefit?
Let’s begin with the release schedule. For a show that has so diligently leaned into meme cultureand campaigned on social media, Netflix fumbled by releasing its most hyped show ever at such an inconvenient time. If you are on the West Coast, you maybe stayed up past your bedtime to sneak a few episodes at 12 a.m., but if you’re a fan on the East Coast, the 3 a.m. release time would have made you sleep well through your alarm the next day. Why not release at 12 a.m. EST and 9 p.m. PST to at least give the other half of your audience a chance to chime in? It’s hard to start a conversation if half of your domestic audience is asleep.
More importantly though, the joy of a show like Stranger Things should come from communal detective work and no-holds-barred fan theories. Since the show mines endless ‘80s references (for better or worse), there is sprawling lore to unpack in a more deliberate way. But rather than patiently dusting off clues with friends, viewers spend their initial time simply slogging through nine episodes, and then keeping relatively quiet for fear of spoiling anyone that might not be as far. The binge release stifles conversation by turning what should be a communal moment into an isolating race to the finish.
THE BINGE RELEASE TURNS WHAT SHOULD BE A COMMUNAL MOMENT INTO AN ISOLATING RACE TO THE FINISH.
If the release schedule was weekly, fans could engage with the show in a more thoughtful way, and Netflix would have a much longer, consistent marketing opportunity to make the case for next year’s Emmys. Though scientific studies have pointed out that binge-watching stymies enjoyment and memory of the experience, it mostly feels intuitive to TV audiences at this point. Half the reason shows like Lost, True Detective (season one, obviously), and Rick and Morty are the phenomenons they are is that fans have time to celebrate, theorize about, and grapple with each episode on a weekly basis, creating a much deeper mythology than the shows create for themselves. It’s more sustainable and vastly more rewarding for the viewer. I understand that Netflix is catering to a younger audience whose viewing patterns differ from mine, but young Rick and Morty fans still stormed every McDonald’s across the country for a show with a weekly release schedule.
Instead, this season of Stranger Things is theoretically already over. My older brother couldn’t sleep last night and is now done with the entire second installment of a cult phenomenon. But what is the payoff for that kind of dedicated binging? He can’t really talk to anyone about it yet. He’s probably already watching something else.
Stranger Things is the first time Netflix truly has something transcendent on their hands, so why squander it with the same arbitrary rules that also applied to cancelled shows like Bloodline and Hemlock Grove? Rabid fandom would ultimately outweigh any backlash for modifying the typical binge timetable. Release two or three episodes at a time on a weekly basis to simulate the binge-watching experience, while giving fans time to watch and dive headfirst into each episode with each other.
Stranger Things is the company’s only show that can compete culturally with HBO’s Game of Thrones or AMC’s The Walking Dead, so they have a unique opportunity to do something trulydifferent. Netflix has already broken the rules of television once, but it’s time to bend the rules again.
Featured Image: Netflix