I love Stranger Things, but it needs Netflix to break its golden rule...

Dustin, Max and Erica in Stranger Things season 4
(Image credit: Courtesy of Netflix © 2022)

When the first season of Stranger Things debuted in July 2016, the big question wasn’t so much about whether you’d watched it as how quickly you’d binged the whole lot. The Duffers’ heartfelt ode to the collected works of Steven Spielberg and Stephen King was a genuine cultural moment and – thanks to the brothers’ propulsive storytelling and instinct for killer cliffhangers – watching one episode at a time was never going to be enough.

When we made our first trip to Hawkins, Indiana, Netflix’s “every episode, everywhere, all at once” release model was already well-established, but few of Stranger Things’ predecessors on the streaming platform had been quite so more-ish. Along with the lovingly crafted nostalgia for ’80s movies that – like the Duffers – I’d grown up on, this instant bingeability was a major reason I fell in love with the show. When you knew that the next instalment was waiting for you on the internet, sleep was something that could wait until later.

But now, six years on, it feels like a weird blast from the past that the show is still following the same release pattern. In fact, I’d have been much happier if season 4’s first volume had launched its seven episodes on a weekly basis.

Eleven screams as she activates her powers in Stranger Things season 4

Eleven's presumably as eager to find out about Dr Brenner's return as we are. (Image credit: Netflix)

Event TV 

Stranger Things 4 has arguably been the best since its debut year, but it’s not the show it once was. As its characters have grown up, the storytelling has followed suit – these days it’s bigger, significantly more complex, and as it amps up the horror, you're much more likely to find references to Hellraiser than The Goonies.

As the multiple, interweaving storylines have moved beyond Hawkins city limits to take in California, Nevada, Alaska and even the Soviet Union, runtimes have expanded well past the hour mark, with the final episode of season 4 volume 1 clocking in at a whopping 100 minutes. At that length, the “just one more” formula that made the show a hit in the first place becomes rather less practical for anyone who needs to go to work in the morning.

And releasing all seven episodes at once is doing them a disservice. Each one is a movie in all but name, and they should be celebrated as the pop culture events they are. They may be longer than ever, but none of the season 4 installments has felt over-stretched – indeed, each one leaves you with so much to unpack that they deserve to be contemplated on their own terms.

Dropping the episodes simultaneously has denied us the chance to have collective discussions about Kate Bush’s ‘Running up that Hill’ saving Max from death-by-Vecna. Or come up with theories about Dr Brenner’s return from the dead. Or even get to the bottom of Victor Creel’s recollections about that creepy haunted mansion. The undeniable gratification you get from moving instantly onto the next episode can’t mask the fact that brilliant TV moments are simply being absorbed into the ever-expanding mass of Stranger Things content, vaguely remembered but never the focus of the conversation.

Moments that could have been the driving force behind discussions at water coolers (other locations for pop culture chat are available) are just things that happened, as we all exist in a state of conversational paralysis, desperately trying to avoid spoilers for ourselves – and, if you’re a decent human being, others. Negotiating social media or online news stories becomes a minefield, as even vague hints or headlines are liable to spoil a key development from an episode you’re yet to watch. 

This leaves you with a choice – either shut yourself off from the internet, or embrace that binge. But in a market crowded with quality TV – within days of Stranger Things 4’s debut, we were treated to the launches of Obi-Wan Kenobi, The Boys season 3 and Ms Marvel – where do you find nine hours to binge seven episodes of one show just to avoid spoilers?

Max sits in front of Billy's grave during the day time in Stranger Things season 4

Max's big episode deserved more time in the spotlight. (Image credit: Netflxi)

Back to the old status quo

Going all at once clearly hasn’t done Stranger Things 4 any harm as it sits pretty at the top of the Netflix charts. And the release strategy worked perfectly back in 2016, when building momentum and establishing an audience were essential for the fledgling – it seemingly paid similar dividends for Sweet Tooth in 2021. But as soon as you start to build a mythology, when spoilers become as potentially damaging as an extended stay in the Upside Down, that short, sharp hit becomes rather less appealing.

It’s ironic, then, that Netflix – the disruptive newcomer who shook up TV with its paradigm-shifting broadcast model – now looks like the streaming platform behind the times. Although their binge-friendly model quickly become the norm – even the BBC, arguably the spiritual home of the traditional TV network, releases many new shows as “box sets” – its rivals have largely moved away. 

Amazon Prime Video, for example, launched The Boys season 3 with three episodes, before moving to a week-by-week release schedule – showrunner Eric Kripke told The Wrap that the production team  “wanted it to be released this way because we wanted to have time to sort of slow down a little bit and have conversations about everything.” Meanwhile, Disney Plus’s Star Wars and Marvel series traditionally air week-by-week, effectively returning to a broadcast pattern that’s existed – more-or-less – since the beginning of television. Rarely has going back to the old status quo been marketed to feel so radical…

Some shows remain ripe for the all-in-one binge, of course, especially when they’ve been sitting in your watch list for months. But when you’re dealing with event TV of Star Wars/MCU/Stranger Things proportions – and the sort of complex mythologies that fans want and even need to discuss – leaving a week or so between episodes has to be preferable. And besides, if Netflix had followed its rivals’ lead, perhaps we wouldn’t be enduring this hellish five-week wait to find out how the remaining two episodes of Stranger Things 4: volume 2 play out.

Stranger Things 4: volume 2 streams on Netflix – in its entirety, obviously – from July 1.

Richard Edwards

Richard is a freelance journalist specialising in movies and TV, primarily of the sci-fi and fantasy variety. An early encounter with a certain galaxy far, far away started a lifelong love affair with outer space, and these days Richard's happiest geeking out about Star Wars, Star Trek, Marvel and other long-running pop culture franchises. In a previous life he was editor of legendary sci-fi and fantasy magazine SFX, where he got to interview many of the biggest names in the business – though he'll always have a soft spot for Jeff Goldblum who (somewhat bizarrely) thought Richard's name was Winter.