Why ‘Stranger Things’ is the Future of Storytelling


Netflix's “Stranger Things” is more than just a retro, binge-worthy homage to ‘80s sci-fi—it is defining the way stories can be told in the 21st century.
Photo Courtesy of EPK

Think about this for a moment: on October 27, 2017, people across the world threw parties to celebrate the release of a streaming television series. Christmas lights were strung across the wall above rows of painted alphabet letters. Various Eggo Waffles-inspired treats were available for snacking. Signs like “Welcome to Hawkins” were hung from mailboxes or front doors, and partygoers dressed as their favorite Hawkins resident, be they man, woman or monster. And then, when the time had arrived, everyone gathered around the screen and began watching the second season of “Stranger Things.”

Doesn’t that seem, well, strange to you? Maybe we don’t realize how unique all of this is because we’re right in the middle of it, but let me remind you: this whole binge-watching thing is super new. Ten years ago, Netflix was primarily sending DVDs in the mail. Then, they announced they would also be delivering movies through the Internet. Fast forward to today, and we can’t imagine entertainment any other way. As of this year, 221.8 million people will stream online videos in one form or another. Neil Hunt, Netflix’s CPO, argues that Netflix is what all of television will look like in 2025. And it doesn’t seem like he’s wrong. The widespread love for “Stranger Things” represents more than just our nostalgia for the ‘80s or our love of waffles; it indicates that the way we create and consume stories is changing in a big, big way. And, to quote Chief Jim Hopper, “Nothing’s gonna go back to the way that it was.”

The widespread love for “Stranger Things” represents more than just our nostalgia for the ‘80s or our love of waffles; it indicates that the way we create and consume stories is changing in a big, big way.

The driving force behind this big, big change is—you guessed it—technology. Developments in technology have always affected the way we tell and receive stories, but in the last century especially those changes in technology have occurred much quicker. Photography paved the way for film, film for television and television for the Internet. With the Internet came “new media”: those hard-to-define things like online videos, blogs and podcasts. In 1936, cultural critic Walter Benjamin saw how cinematic technology was changing stories and wrote that “the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character… Literary license is now founded on polytechnic rather than specialized training and thus becomes common property.”

Translation: if you can use the technology, you can tell the story.

That is true today more than ever. Anyone can share or experience a story simply by pulling out their iPhones. Everyone can be both author and audience.

So what does this mean for stories? Does it mean that, as Benjamin suggests, these technological advancements will only produce “[works] of art designed for reproducibility” for “absent-mind” audiences? There’s truth to that, sure. A few minutes of scrolling through YouTube will reassure you of that. But I’m optimistic for the future of stories, and I’ll tell you why: “Stranger Things.”

The very existence of “Stranger Things” provokes the question, “What exactly is ‘Stranger Things?’” In one sense, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. Like any good Stephen King novel, “Stranger Things” has mysteriously-named chapters, a huge cast of characters and a monster terrorizing a small Midwestern town. Sound familiar? And like any good Steven Spielberg film, it tells a story of a ragtag group of friends and their fight against the unknown. Think “E.T.,” think “Jaws,” think “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Plus, the show borrows its format from television miniseries like “Roots” or “Band of Brothers,” each season telling its story in eight or nine hour-long increments. In many ways, “Stranger Things” is just like the books, movies and television that we all love.

Stranger Things LightWorkers David Harbour

Photo Courtesy of EPK

On the other hand, though, “Stranger Things” is certainly a creature of new media, a streaming show that is meant to be consumed successively—yes, through “binge-watching.” Cliffhangers are a thing of the past; commercials are absent; now, shows can flow as one continuous, cohesive narrative. Netflix provided “Stranger Things” creators Matt and Ross Duffer with the freedom to tell their story the best way possible. Episode lengths vary depending on the needs of the narrative. Each season is released in one go. Only on Netflix could the Duffer Brothers realize their dream of “an epic eight-hour movie,” as they put it. That’s exactly what the show feels like, too. At the end of the first episode, when Mike, Dustin and Lucas discover Eleven in the middle of the woods, there is no question—you’re watching the next episode, and the one after that, and yeah, the one after that. Streaming shows are designed to keep you watching.

What’s really exciting, though, is that streaming allows for stories to be utterly immersive. You know the feeling when you stop reading a book for a second and the real world floods back in and you realize just how deeply invested you were in the story? That is the power of “Stranger Things.” You are meant to be completely immersed in the world of Hawkins, Indiana, in Eleven’s journey, in Joyce’s searching and in Hopper’s discoveries. You are taken for a ride. You pulled through every terrifying, heartbreaking, invigorating, joyous moment.

In a bitter, divided world, “Stranger Things” makes you believe that human connection might just save us yet.

In addition, “Stranger Things” manages to tell a story set in the ‘80s that is meaningful today. It would have been easy for the Duffer Brothers to parody the tropes of ‘80s movies and culture ala “The Wedding Singer,” but what they did was far more difficult: they made “Stranger Things” an earnest, human show. If characters appear to be stereotypes—Steve Harrington the pompous teenage jerk or Dustin the dumb but loveable friend—they never remain that way. Each person is shown to be complex and worthy of empathy.

Ultimately, the prevailing message of “Stranger Things” is an affirmation of community in the face of darkness.

That’s a pretty timely message. In his impassioned acceptance speech at the SAG Awards, actor David Harbour (who plays Hopper) claims that the show should “serve as a forceful reminder to folks that when they feel broken and afraid and tired, they are not alone.” That might seem a bit lofty for a series about monsters and teenagers, but it’s not. In a bitter, divided world, “Stranger Things” makes you believe that human connection might just save us yet.

So that’s why I’m not too worried about the future of stories. Sure, we live in a technological age, and sure, “literary license” is “common property,” anyone can create or consume stories however and whenever they please. But this time of cultural transition allowed for two brothers to tell their story the way they wanted to tell it. Established forms of storytelling are giving way to the new and unknown, and that should be exciting. As I see it, the future has the potential to look a lot like “Stranger Things”: a blending of old and new, traditional formats and immersive technologies, the nostalgic and the timeless truths of humanity.

So to the “Stranger Things” partygoers of 2017, the Elevens and the Demogorgons who munched on Eggos, listened to The Clash and watched Season 2 in one whole night, I say celebrate! This is just a taste of what’s to come.

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