Netflix’s ‘Stranger Things’ debuted its third season a week ago, but thanks to our binge-watching culture, it feels like it’s over already
Spoiler alert: The following column contains spoilers about the first episode of “Stranger Things” Season 3, but ONLY the first episode of Season 3. You’re welcome.
For me, the scariest thing about the first episode of the new season of Netflix’s “Stranger Things” was not the exploding rats. It was not Steve Harrington’s Scoops Ahoy uniform or the sight of the hunky Billy Hargrove being dragged off to who-knows-where by who-know-what. It wasn’t even the REO Speedwagon track that accompanied one of Mike and Eleven’s make-out sessions.
As terrifying as all of that was, the thing that had me screaming into my hands had nothing to do with what happened in the first episode of the new season. It had to do with the morning of July 5, one day after Season 3 began streaming. The morning I looked on the Entertainment Weekly website to find that my favorite pop-culture source had posted a review of the “Stranger Things” Season 3 finale. The finale! Less than 24 hours after Netflix made all eight new episodes of its buzzy sci-fi series available for streaming, it was already over.
Nothing to see here! Nothing except all kinds of stuff many of us won’t want to know for at least a few weeks.
In our old, pre-binge world, we would not be talking about the “Stranger Things” Season 3 finale right now. The first new episode would have aired on July 4, and we would be eagerly anticipating the arrival of second episode, which would be airing one week later as the TV gods intended. We would all be on pop-culture tenterhooks as we waited to see where the “Stranger Things” puppet masters would be yanking us next.
We would be distracted and jumpy. Our cuticles would be trashed. But at least we would be together, huddled around the entertainment water-cooler like the social species we are.
Thanks to the to the dubious joys of binge-watching, however, the morning-after conversation is not the ritual it used to be. Instead, the people who did not consume the new season of “Stranger Things” in one gulp are busy running the online spoiler obstacle course while reminding their speed-watching friends not to tell them ANYTHING until they’re all caught up. And who knows when that will be.
Meanwhile, the binge-watchers have already digested, discussed and moved on. By the time the TV turtles have caught up, their jack-rabbit friends won’t even remember what happened on “Stranger Things,” much less how they feel about it. We may all love the same show, but when it comes to fandom, we are sofa ships passing in the night.
This is not the way TV is supposed to work. While the days of the entire country uniting behind “Bonanza,” “All in the Family” or “American Idol” are long behind us, it wasn’t until streaming services started dropping full seasons of new shows all at once that the TV ties that bind truly snapped.
Unlike “Game of Thrones,” whose must-watch series finale felt like the Super Bowl for TV geeks, we will never be on the same TV page with “Stranger Things.” Or Hulu’s “The Handmaids Tale.” Or Amazon Prime Video’s “Fleabag.” Given the cost of streaming subscriptions, we might not even be in the same TV library. And if you love the way the thrill of a cliffhanger or the agony of a botched season finale can bring people together, you have to be mourning the loss of one of pop-cultures great unifiers.
And you have to especially mourn what the full-season drop has done to the adventures of Eleven and Mike and the gang. Because if there was ever a show that did not deserve the binge treatment, it’s “Stranger Things.”
In the nail-biting tradition of such sci-fi classics as “Lost,” “The X-Files” and “Battlestar Galactica,” “Stranger Things” is all about the OMG rush of the cliffhanger and the long-simmering intrigue of the mystery arc. OMG, what is the thing that dragged hunky Billy into the creepy abandoned factory? OMG, what did Dustin just pick up on his new ham radio? And what is the Upside Down, anyway? What is the Mind Flayer, and what does it want?
Whether it’s an end-of-the-episode shocker or a big question that stretches over multiple seasons, the power of shows like “Stranger Things” is rooted in the individual jolt of surprise and the shared experience of suspense. And when the secrets are out and the collective experience is splintered into a million different time lines, that power takes a big hit. How do you savor a cliffhanger that you know is coming because you accidentally saw it on Twitter? How do you unravel a mystery with your friends when they have the answers already?
I love “Stranger Things,” but I kind of hate what the binge-watching craze has done to it. I have seen the monster, and it looks like the black hole where the water-cooler used to be.
And that’s scary.