This week Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos raised the possibility Stranger Things could become a franchise. With spinoffs expanding the world of the Duffer brothers horror series, possibly even with a show led by Millie Bobby Brown. It’s not a surprise the streaming site wants to find a way to stay in the Upside Down. The series is one of Netflix’s biggest hits, but its creators have an approaching endgame for their story. Plus, studios everywhere are now obsessed with turning everything and anything into an expanded universe. Unlike some IPs though, there’s a perfect way to keep Stranger Things going. One that maintains the defining traits of the show fans know and love, while still offering a totally new tale: a spinoff set in the ’90s.
Stranger Things seemingly has numerous options for a prequel series. Dr. Martin Brenner’s work with gifted youngsters resulted in a (literal) number of super powered kids. Prequel comics have already introduced some of them. And we met one of Eleven’s “sisters” in season two. But one of the most important elements of Stranger Things is the role of the Upside Down. The show would not be what it is without demogorgons, Mind Flayers, and that dark mirror dimension of death and decay.
But while a season four trailer points to the Upside Down having roots in Hawkins long before Chief Hopper was on the job, the sinister world didn’t truly make an impact on that small town until Eleven accidentally opened a portal between worlds.
A prequel following one of her fellow Hawkins Lab test subjects would have to omit that parallel world entirely. And without it Netflix would be making their own Young Mutants and not a Stranger Things spinoff. It’s not as though pop culture doesn’t already have plenty of children with supernatural talent already either. From Stephen King to Netflix’s own The Umbrella Academy, super kids are everywhere. What makes Stranger Things different is that it combines an Amblin Entertainment-like story with the genuine horror of a Dungeons & Dragons dimension come to life.
Netflix could try to maintain that essential aspect by simply doing a prequel or concurrent series about another group of children or adults that accidentally tapped into the Upside Down long ago. With a group that has no connection to Dr. Brenner or Hawkins. But that would also mean leaving out another defining feature of Stranger Things. The Duffer Brothers’ show is a living homage to a specific time—both in America and in pop culture—the ’80s. The series, full of references and Easter eggs to that era, is not just a love letter to the decade though. It’s directly inspired by the influential works that came out of it. From a time many Stranger Things viewers either remember, grew up during, or know the decade’s long-lasting cultural influence.
Going back even further to an earlier decade would make it much harder to maintain that type of connection. Especially with potential new younger viewers. It’s one thing to draw on ’80s classics like Back to the Future or Nightmare on Elm Street. It’s another to do that with ’60s films like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Black Sunday. All four are classics. But more people know and have seen the former two than the latter.
Yet, doing a spinoff also set in the ’80s would likely feel trite. The Duffers have already referenced so many famous, influential films and shows from the decade that avoiding repeats would be almost impossible. And even if a spinoff found drew from entirely different sources, a living tribute to the ’80s is an idea that has already been done and done well.
A Stranger Things spinoff needs to maintain the main elements that make the show what it is. All while keeping its references accessible for its audience and offering viewers something new. The answer to all of these issues is simple: set a sequel in the ’90s.
Netflix could involve original cast members if it wanted. Whether that’s a major character like Brown’s Eleven as an adult, or young Priah Ferguson’s Erica leading her own group of teens in a fight against monster. The show could also stay in Hawkins or move to a new location with an entirely new group that taps into its own dark world. Even there the site would have options. The show could still involve the Upside Down or another Dungeons & Dragons dimension.
No matter the individual choices they make in regards to characters, continuity, and place, the spinoff would still involve monsters and intrepid youngsters. And just as importantly it would serve as a tribute to a specific time. One just as ripe for inspiration. From grunge music and Beanie Babies, to TGIF and MC Hammer, Jurassic Park and Edward Scissorhands, the ’90s has countless cultural calling cards to draw from.
If it feels like the ’90s is too close to work as well as the ’80s, remember Stranger Things debuted in 2016. The earliest it will end is 2023. Though with how much time it takes between seasons, and whether or not we get five or six seasons total, 2024 or later is likelier. A ’90s set spinoff might not premiere until 2026. Putting it exactly as removed from the ’90s as the original show was from the ’80s.
This idea not only makes sense, it’s one that almost feels preordained. The Duffers named their show Stranger Things. Then, rather than go the Fast 7 Furious route with naming subsequent seasons, they have simply added a number. Strangest Things is just waiting to tell its own story during its own time.
Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at @burgermike, and also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.