In 2016, Stranger Things seemed to arrive practically out of nowhere. Netflix released a surprise trailer on June 9th, highlighting the show’s combination of Stephen King horror and Spielberg-esque wonder; barely a month later, the series was streaming across the globe. It almost immediately became a viral sensation, earning a place in the broader pop culture conversation, and by the end of August, a second season was already in the works.
But something happened en route to the second season premiere on October 27th. The little show nobody knew about became the show nobody could escape. There were endless trailers, marketing tie-ins, and promotional campaigns. There were targeted celebrity tweets and voice-activated tie-in experiences for Google Home and Amazon Alexa. The build-up to Stranger Things season 2 had more in common with the marketing hype wave for a tentpole movie franchise than for a streaming television show. In the process, what once felt like a cherished discovery that spoke to every viewer individually became something else: just another piece of mass-market, blockbuster entertainment.
The broad appeal of Stranger Things is often just chalked up to nostalgia. While that’s ultimately reductive — it ignores the well-rounded characters, breakneck pacing, and impressive performances — there’s no denying that the references are part of the show’s essential charm. The series is filled with 1980s callbacks, and everything from the score to its aesthetic sensibilities pay homage to other films, TV shows, and books.
Most movies and TV shows that rely on nostalgia use it to appeal to some broader, preexisting cultural sensibility: the way Star Wars: The Force Awakens echoed the story beats of the 1977 original, engaging its millions of fans, or the way something like Fuller House leverages the vague, wistful sentiment of a generation that associates a mediocre family sitcom with their childhoods.
Normally nostalgia is used as a pop culture cudgel; ‘Stranger Things’ was smarter
Stranger Things did the opposite. Rather than being a direct sequel or remake of something like E.T. or Aliens, it instead evoked those movies’ styles and tropes. That may seem like a small difference, but in practice, it’s a monumental shift. Remaking a well-known property is the equivalent of a pop culture cudgel. It’s designed to draw in audiences just through the gravity of brand-name awareness. Appropriating aesthetics and conventions is more of an interactive process, relying on the audience’s ability to recognize and respond to those cues, even if only on an instinctual level. The creators behind Stranger Things expect their audience to be smart enough to follow along. They aren’t just dropping a laundry list of references, like we’re seeing in the marketing of Ready Player One.
As a result, the first season of Stranger Things let each viewer go through a process of discovery. Nostalgia is personal by its very nature, and without any larger context or hard-sell, each reference or story beat in the show that resonated with a viewer made it feel as if the show had been designed expressly for them. It wasn’t simply, “Oh, these kids have a poster for The Thing on their wall.” It was, “Wow, these kids have a poster of The Thing on their wall — just like I did!” Obviously, Stranger Things was designed as mass-market entertainment. But the way it was made and sold created a unique opportunity that allowed people to take the show on its own terms, and theirs. The tactic built a rabid, invested fan base almost overnight.
But for the second season, with the show already a high-profile hit, that kind of subdued rollout wasn’t an option. With so few of Netflix’s non-Marvel shows getting the kind of mainstream attention that Orange Is the New Black and House of Cards once enjoyed, Stranger Things has arguably become the most important show in the company’s lineup. Leveraging it through every possible brand tie-in and marketing opportunity possible wasn’t just a financially savvy move — it was a vital strategic one, the best way for the service to solidify its position as a top-tier creator of content in an increasingly competitive landscape. So, in February during the Super Bowl, Netflix aired a vintage Eggo waffles commercial that morphed into an early look at the new season. (Ironic, given that the Duffer brothers have stated that the brand’s appearance in the first season was a creative choice rather than paid product placement; the same goes for the extensive references to Three Musketeers candy bars in season 2.) But that was really just the beginning.
Today, there are Stranger Things-branded versions of Monopoly and Ouija, and a waffle-themed card game out on the market. There are Funko dolls, and clothing lines at Target and Hot Topic. Eggo has taken to social media to promote waffle-oriented recipes, and distributed instructions on how to turn an Eggo waffles box into a flashlight holder, purse, or boombox, because that’s apparently a thing somebody thought would be a good idea. For several days during the second season’s premiere weekend, Lyft had a promotion that would take riders in Los Angeles and Philadelphia on a simulated ride through Hawkins, Indiana, while Spotify rolled out a special “Upside Down” skin for its player. Netflix itself wasn’t content to just rely on the series: it added an after show dubbed Beyond Stranger Things to its library.
For anyone online over the past month, the relentless advertising barrage has been exhausting, and it’s undercut the charm that made the first season of the show such a wonderful surprise. There is no sense of individualistic discovery to shows being advertised at the Super Bowl; there is no resonance or sense of identification when the lead characters’ Ghostbusters Halloween costumes are being used as a marketing point, starting with the first publicity stills and trailers.
There’s no sense of individualistic discovery when a show is sold during the Super Bowl
It’s a little like discovering an unknown band when their first album comes out — and then coming back for the follow-up, only to learn they’re now chart-topping megastars. But this isn’t just the hipster optics of something seeming cooler because less people know about it; it’s about the presentation and marketing actually impacting the experience of watching content itself. The players are the same, and the overall vibe may be intact, but that feeling of personalized ownership that came with the first season of Stranger Things is gone. Something that was once able to form a direct and personal connection to the audience has now just become another piece of commodity entertainment, run through the same over-sold and over-merchandized publicity machine that every successful intellectual property is subject to today.
Shows like Stranger Things can still be extraordinary, just like a blockbuster movies like Thor: Ragnarok can reinvent and surprise. While I don’t think the second season of Stranger Things holds up to the first, it’s nevertheless an entertaining show, and I’ll certainly be back to see what happens over the next several seasons that the Duffers reportedly have planned. But the Stranger Things phenomenon does speak to just how rare the emergence of original shows can be. In a world where everyone is connected to everything, and few pieces of mass entertainment can be produced and released without every single secret or surprise being spoiled, there’s something almost precious about the idea of a film or show slipping into the public eye without fanfare, and creating such a distinct, direct bond with its audience. It speaks to a time before the internet, and before social media; a time when we engaged with people face-to-face, rather than face-to-smartphone-screen.
It actually reminds me quite a bit of the 1980s — and maybe that’s why the original release of Stranger Things seemed like such a perfect match for the show itself — but it still serves as a reminder of nostalgia’s sad, unspoken truth: we might be able to visit Hawkins, Indiana and marvel at how innocent things were 30 years ago, but inevitably we have to come back to the present.