‘Stranger Things’ and the Limits of the Netflix Model

The next Game of Thrones won’t be a Netflix Original—or an Amazon Studios production.
By  · Published on November 27th, 2017

The next Game of Thrones won’t be a Netflix Original—or an Amazon Studios production.

As we begin to anticipate the end of Game of Thrones, it’s hardly a surprise that many have started looking past the finish line to try to anticipate what might come next—what the next world-dominating phenomenon will be, or if there will even truly be an heir to the throne of the television world. After all, a cultural phenomenon of such an epic scale is not a perennial occurrence, nor are they always televised (e.g. Harry Potter).

While literally everyone would like to come up with the next Game of Thrones, the desire seems strongest of all within the world of streaming to prove once and for all that they are better at TV than television. But as it stands, the next Game of Thrones is not going to come from either Netflix or Amazon. Let me explain.

Another way of saying “the next Game of Thrones” is “a real-life Truman Show.” Not in a reality-TV-has-gone-too-far way, but the pop-culture-phenomenon way. This is an important point of comparison to add because The Truman Show reminds us what happens when the phenomenon comes to an end—a point which Game of Thrones has not reached yet. Why this matters so much I’ll get back to later. First, let’s talk Netflix.

Netflix has been primarily responsible for turning binging into more or less the default television-watching strategy. It’s arguably their signature thing. While their “season dump” model for releasing Netflix original series has certain advantages, the next Game of Thrones will never be released in this way, regardless of the quality of the content, for three reasons: duration, suspense, and synchronicity. These three things are key to the development of a bona fide cultural phenomenon, and the Netflix model undermines all of them. As common sense would suggest, when you minimize what you need to maximize, things are not going to work out all too well.

To develop a cultural phenomenon, you have to maintain an active and engaged fan community. Just like any other living thing, it thrives best when fed regularly. That is when given both something to digest and something to anticipate in the near future. With the episode-a-week model, fans get the anticipation building up to the season premiere, fed by past seasons and/or promotional content, and the weekly anticipation between episodes—time to go over what happened last episode and speculate over what will happen in the next one, for fan theories to be generated and shared and for memes to spread across social media before the next installment ends up invalidating half of them. A typical season of Game of Thrones may be around 10 hours long, but experientially it’s two and a half months, not even including the weeks of hype leading up to the first episode or the week or so it takes for things to start winding down after the finale. The second season of Stranger Things is nine hours long from beginning to end, and it feels like nine hours. Just think, if Stranger Things released an episode a week, we would only be on episode five, and yet it already feels like the season was released a long time ago.

Where social media would still be rife with memes and speculation it has instead moved on to more relevant things, like Porgs and the trailer for the upcoming A Wrinkle in Time (but mostly Porgs). The memes, wonderful and bountiful as they were about the revelation that is babysitter/mom-friend Steve Harrington, have died away, and the speculation never really existed to begin with. After all, there is absolutely no point in speculating what will happen in the next episode when the next episode is not just available to watch but loads automatically. Yeah, a little “what might we see in season three?” has gone on because that’s par for the course, but in terms of phenomenon-building Stranger Things actually shot itself in the foot with this latest season. Quality-wise the sophomore season was within the league of its predecessor, but buzz-wise there’s a lot less going on this time around, and one of the reasons has to do with the recent season finale. To see what I’m getting at, let’s take a look at a quote from executive producer Shawn Levy:

“We very, very consciously limited the plot cliffhangers that commit us to Season 3 storylines. We learned on the first season, as soon as Hopper got in that black car, we had answers that we needed to get. As soon as Will coughed up that slug in the sink, we needed to give explanations. As soon as [Hopper] put those Eggos in that lock box, we were committing to a storyline… On Season 2, we definitely implied that evil has not left Hawkins, and that it’s lying in wait. Other than that, I think it’s a wide-open horizon for the storyline of Season 3. We’re just starting to develop it, and we’re enjoying the kind of wide-open freedom to take these characters almost any way we want, without being too obligated to explain things that we left as breadcrumbs at the end of the finale.”

From a storytelling perspective, this is all very well and good. From a creator’s perspective, this is all very well and good. But from a phenomenon-building perspective, this was a terrible decision. Except for the time between the release of promotional materials and the release of the season, the one and only opportunity for shows released as a whole season package to generate opportunities for community-building, phenomenon-enabling fan speculation comes in the form of the season finale. Those “breadcrumbs” feed the fandom. Season 1 left breadcrumbs that kept people talking. Season 2 did not and though most of us will be happy to tune in for Season 3, our attention has moved on to other things. Having those breadcrumbs there enables a show to stay relevant and for the fan community to remain in the engaged, active mode for long after the season’s release before hibernating for the off-season.

Of course, while most of us do not possess the desire nor perhaps the self-control required to watch a show released as a season package one episode at a time, most of us don’t have the freedom in our schedule to quite binge the entire season in one sitting as soon as it’s released. As such, except for some friends or family members you might literally be watching the season with, pretty much everyone between “haven’t started” and “finished” are in different places.

Phenomenon-building requires community building and this loss of the synchronicity seriously undermines the community element of being a fan. The active state of mid-season fandom I mentioned earlier requires the synchronicity made possible by people all across the country, if not the world experiencing the same episodes at more or less the same time. I watched the most recent season of Game of Thrones in three different countries. I almost always watched the episodes live, even though in the case of two of the three that meant 2 AM local time. As you would imagine, I was watching the show alone. But I never felt alone, between texts from friends and family reacting to various twists and turns and interacting with fellow fans (and for the most part total strangers) on Twitter. It’s an experience I find both compelling and fascinating, and I think a major reason why people both start tuning in and keep watching a show like Game of Thrones separate from an interest in the show’s actual content—the desire to participate in that experience. A show packaged by season and made for binge-watching is, by design, less of a long-term experience and more of a brief mania. It can be great and compelling and entertaining and accrue critical acclaim, but it’s almost certainly not going to explode into the next worldwide cultural phenomenon.

Of course, in the beginning, I called out Amazon in addition to Netflix and brought up the whole Truman Show thing, so I should probably connect those dots. As you may have heard, Amazon really wants the next Game of Thrones. And as a recent multi-season deal indicates, they are quite clearly banking on a Lord of the Rings adaptation (which might end up costing in the range of $1 billion) to be their Game of Thrones, because sometimes real life truly is just that predictable. But even if they release this series on a weekly basis and sidestep the caveats of the “season dump” model I have already described, a Lord of the Rings television series will never reach a Game of Thrones style fever pitch.

This is where The Truman Show finally comes in. Because in that film, not only does the phenomenon to end all phenomena that is The Truman Show operate with the tagline “How’s it going to end?,” but the film also shows you exactly what happens when The Truman Show does end: people move on. They change the channel. The fervor behind a cultural phenomenon comes from the existence of lingering questions, from the building anticipation of answers.

If Game of Thrones was only brought to television after George R. R. Martin finished A Song of Ice and Fire, I feel quite confident in saying it would not be the phenomenon it is today. Even if the show deviated from the books in certain ways, the narrative would already have an ending, even if it’s not the exact same one. The urgency would be gone.

This is exactly the case with The Lord of the Rings. Anyone who doesn’t know what happens at the end is just three books, films, or a quick Google search away from getting the answer: the good guys who aren’t played by Sean Bean mostly end up pretty happy. Aragorn becomes king. Samwise Gamgee has a small army of children. Everyone’s fate is laid out in pretty extensive detail. The Lord of the Rings doesn’t have some measly epilogue, it has extensive appendices because that’s the sort of guy J. R. R. Tolkien was. (Although, before the Tolkien nerds—Tolkienites?—get all excited, yes, I know it did have an actual epilogue at one point in an earlier draft.

I won’t even try to predict what the next Game of Thrones will be, or if there will even be one in the next several years. But unless they change their strategies, neither Netflix nor Amazon Studios will be behind the next king of the pop culture world.

But wait, some of you might be thinking, what if Amazon takes the set-up of The Lord of the Rings and then does something drastically different with it?

While I wouldn’t write it off as an impossibility, if they think they could still win over Tolkien’s large existing fan base with such a move, I have just one thing to say:

Oh, you sweet summer child.

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Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.