While Netflix’s business model of producing original programming seems to be akin to flinging spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks, few people could have predicted the success of its sci-fi drama Stranger Things. Before its release, little was known about the project beyond the involvement of Oscar-nominated actress Winona Ryder (Bram Stoker’s Dracula), so the show was billed as her major comeback to the industry after a quiet decade. Its creators, the Duffer Brothers, were best known for a little-known horror film, Hidden, and their work on the Fox series Wayward Pines. The show itself was considered a summer viewing stopgap before the premiere of Netflix's more hotly hyped (and wildly more expensive) drama The Get Down, which would arrive a month later.
Yet within its first month of release, Stranger Things would go on to become one of the streaming service's most critically adored seasons, as well as its most popular debut drama. While Netflix don't release viewership numbers, Symphony Technology Group estimated that the show averaged around 14.07 million adults between the ages 18–49 in the United States alone. Those are the kind of ratings traditional networks can no longer retain for their dramas.
A year later the show has managed to retain its hype, which is no mean feat in the age of Peak TV and Netflix releasing new shows with increasingly regularity. The five child actors in the ensemble, most notably Millie Bobby Brown, have become major stars and staples of the convention circuit, David Harbour went from respected bit-part actor to fan-favorite, and the future Hellboy, and the show took home the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series. Suffice to say that Netflix's expectations for Stranger Things have dramatically increased since the series' debut.
Stranger Things season 2 is set to debut on October 27th, just in time for Halloween, but promotion for it began months ago when Netflix paid the hefty price to advertise during the Super Bowl. That teaser may have only been 30 seconds long, but it set back the streaming service at least $5m. It ended up being a savvy investment and increased online buzz for the show, which it’s retained over the following months. The challenge for Netflix and the Duffer Brothers won’t be to keep the hype going so much as live up to it, which will be a lofty feat unto itself.
Every successful first season faces the possibility of the sophomore slump, wherein the promise of the set-up stumbles in its execution. This is an especially common phenomenon with genre shows: Twin Peaks took a noticeable nosedive in its 2nd season; Lost offered a 1st season cliff-hanger for the ages then became too tied up in its own convoluted oddities to keep the momentum going; and The Walking Dead confined most of its action to Hershel’s Farm, bringing the action to a grinding halt. Building the mystery is one thing: Paying it off and keeping the story moving forward is much more difficult, and even some of the great show-runners can’t keep up the runaway pace. Stranger Things’s second season promo has already promised more of the big bad monster from the upside down, which is certainly a dramatic raising of the stakes, but the need to keep doing so could shift the focus away from the richness of the ensemble, where the real magic lies.