The Guide #42: Is Stranger Things the biggest show on TV? It depends …

In this week’s newsletter: Since Game of Thrones died off, there hasn’t been that one show everyone is talking about. Has Netflix’s nostalgic thriller taken the crown?

What is “the show” of the moment, that big TV hit it feels like everyone is watching and raving about? For a large chunk of the past decade that would have been an easy question to answer (Game of Thrones, next!) but ever since HBO’s fantasy drama limped off our screens in 2019, the issue has become a lot more difficult to discern.

Game of Thrones was often described as the last “monoculture” TV show, the one series that it felt like everyone was experiencing at once. When it launched, broadcast television was still dominant and streaming was still finding its sea legs, but by the time of that 2019 finale, the landscape had shifted dramatically. Now, broadcast TV has been largely replaced by a smörgåsbord of streaming services, each pumping out an endless array of shows to watch at your own pace. That makes the task of discerning that “watercooler” series all the more difficult – and streaming services being evasive about their viewing figures doesn’t help either.

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So yes, in 2022, figuring out what “the show” is has felt like a near-impossible task. But then came the latest season of Netflix’s Stranger Things, a series that I had long written off as on an interminable slide towards irrelevance. After the breakout success of that first season, Stranger Things’ second and third outings were greeted with a bit of a shrug. People seemed to be watching them but almost out of a sense of grim obligation, and the show felt nowhere near the centre of the cultural conversation (especially while Game of Thrones was still around). But with its fourth season, released in May this year, suddenly it felt significant again. Nielsen’s (admittedly questionable) streaming ratings had it down as the most streamed TV series ever, reviews had ticked cautiously upwards, social media was abuzz with takes and memes and the like. Stranger Things even had the power to drag Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill and Metallica’s Master of Puppets, both released nearly four decades ago, back to the top of the charts.

All of which must mean that Stranger Things is “the show”, right? Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that. For a start, while it is almost certainly the most watched programme around, that metric, while important, isn’t everything: The Big Bang Theory was the highest-rated show in the US for much of the 2010s, but no one would argue that those nerds were remotely central to the culture of the time. Then there’s the complicating issue of how people watch Stranger Things. Netflix’s increasingly unfashionable all-in-one go binge-watching model ensures against the ‘watercooler’: after all, how can people excitedly discuss a series when one of them is on episode two and the other has raced forward to episode eight? Plus, the all-in-one go model means that there’s no anticipation-heavy build to a climax each week (though in the case of Stranger Things, Netflix did at least drop two feature-length episodes a month after the rest of the series, to give a vague sense of a standalone event).

But there’s also the issue of the stakes of Stranger Things itself. Despite some surprisingly grisly bits in its fourth season, it is largely a “safe” show: it’s unlikely to kill off a major character, or provide many jolting moments. Its appeal is in its nostalgic quality: a great way to get people watching, but not necessarily a way to build a conversation around a series. It isn’t really about much either: there’s no timely, chewy real-world issues for viewers to sink their teeth into, unlike other big shows of the age.

But if Stranger Things isn’t “the show”, then what is? At times Succession has felt very close to attaining that status. Certainly it feels like everyone I know is watching and discussing it at the same time, but that may be down to the bubble I live in: compared to quite a few series, its ratings are pretty small (see also the brilliant Severance). Euphoria is popular – HBO’s biggest show since 2004, aside from Game of Thrones – and extremely buzzy, but it often feels like that popularity is built on one very largely engaged audience of younger people. Marvel’s series are big, but the sheer number of them dilutes the chances of one of them attaining ubiquitous status, and they frequently feel like table-setting exercises for the bigger thrills and spills of the MCU films. (The same goes for the Star Wars series, though The Mandalorian does inspire some real devotion.) Meanwhile Squid Game felt like a genuine event, but it probably needs that second series to confirm it’s a lasting concern – and that’s unlikely to arrive until late 2023 at the earliest.

If any series is closest to attaining “the show” status it might be The Boys, Amazon’s superhero satire, whose third season finale just launched this morning. While not quite hitting Stranger Things levels, it is hugely popular as well as critically acclaimed, and unlike Stranger Things it has control of the watercooler – barely a week goes by without viewers shrieking wildly about some shocking moment, be it the latest atrocity caused by the show’s fantastically horrible villain Homelander or a mass superhero orgy. It’s able to tap into our present moment, playing with themes of white nationalism, corporate responsibility, and pop-culture’s infantilised superhero obsession (excellent cake-having, cake-eating behaviour here). It’s not the best show on TV … but it might just be “the show”.

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Gwilym Mumford

The GuardianTramp

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