Fans have waited a long time for season four. Have they waited too long?
Season four of Stranger Things arrived on Netflix May 27, almost three years after season three premiered. For a series built on kids riding bikes and trying to escape the bad guys in Hawkins, one wonders to what degree viewers will still root for the characters if they are now steering Subarus instead of Schwinns.
Industry watchers believe the demand for Eleven, Mike, Dustin and the gang remains strong. “For a piece of IP as strong as Stranger Things, long hiatuses serve to build appetite,” said Sarah Unger, partner and co-founder at consultancy Cultique. “Risk of low awareness is fairly minimal, especially as the series is one of Netflix’s most communal, intergenerational, year-over-year successes.”
Set in the 1980s, Stranger Things is a mix of science fiction, horror, teen drama and nostalgia. Based in fictional Hawkins, Indiana, where a government lab conducts clandestine supernatural experiments, a boy named Will disappears. A girl named Eleven, who has psychokinetic powers, escapes from the lab and befriends Will’s pals as they search for their friend.
The Duffer Brothers created the show. The cast includes Millie Bobby Brown, Finn Wolfhard, Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Gaten Matarazzo, Noah Schnapp and Caleb McLaughlin.
Myles McNutt, associate professor of communication at Old Dominion University, called Stranger Things “the first big fan show on Netflix.” Squid Game and Bridgerton may have been watched by more viewers, but McNutt said Stranger Things has long possessed a unique connection with its viewers. “It’s the first Netflix show that became a real cultural touchpoint,” he said.
Season three amassed 582 million hours viewed, per Netflix, for second on the list of English-language series on the service behind Bridgerton.
While season four premiered May 27, the second part of the season will be available July 1. Season four takes place six months after the battle of Starcourt, which caused serious destruction in formerly sleepy Hawkins. “Struggling with the aftermath, our group of friends are separated for the first time — and navigating the complexities of high school hasn’t made things any easier,” according to Netflix.
Season five will be the final one.
Netflix has a knack for building excitement around a Stranger Things season, McNutt said. The show is adept at “going from zero to 60,” he said. “You forget it exists for two or three years, and it comes back and feels like an event.”
The two premiere dates are a first for Stranger Things. Netflix offered an uncharacteristically gloomy earnings report April 19, and the strategy may prevent fans of the show from watching the entire new season across Memorial Day weekend, then cancelling Netflix. Zak Shaikh, Magid VP of programming, global media & entertainment, said streaming standout series with weekly releases, such as The Mandalorian on Disney Plus and Hacks on HBO Max, enjoy a more sustained buzz than an all-at-once release. “It allows the shows to stay part of the conversation longer,” he said. “With Stranger Things, it’s how does Netflix get it to be part of the conversation beyond that first weekend?”
The kids in the Stranger Things cast are not really kids anymore. McLaughlin is 20, Wolfhard and Matarazzo are 19, Brown is 18 and Schnapp is 17. Does the audience lose their connection with the cute young cast as they grow up? McNutt said no, noting how viewers of series on The CW have grown accustomed to watching teen characters push into adulthood. “A lot of fans follow the actors on social media,” he said. “There’s an attachment to the performers as much as the characters, and viewers are willing to go on that journey with them.”
Unger too believes the viewer-character connection stays strong, citing the Harry Potter film franchise as an example of viewers enjoying watching child characters mature. “The ability to stick with a cast as they evolve is both engaging and comforting for audiences,” she said.
Netflix’s Stranger Things hype machine has been at full throttle for months. Stranger Things – The Experience, featuring a mock-up Hawkins Lab as well as a Mix Tape Area for superfans to enjoy a “medley” of “fan-favorite moments,” opened in New York May 7 and debuts in San Francisco in early June. T-shirts, socks and other Stranger Things merch can be bought at Target, Old Navy and a host of other retail chains.
In terms of marketing and licensing, “I’m not sure any other Netflix show comes close,” McNutt said. “Stranger Things lives outside of Netflix more than any Netflix show.”