Can Netflix Fix Network TV’s Supernatural-Mystery Show Problem?

L-R: Dollhouse, Stranger Things, Lost Photo: Fox, Netflix, ABC/Getty Images

There’s a specific genre of fiction that has a very particular reputation on network television — shows like FlashForward (or The Event, V, Persons Unknown, Revolution, Alcatraz) do not last. Remember The River? How about Believe? All this has been a concerted effort to recapture the magic of Lost since it premiered in 2004, and the attempts almost universally fail. There’s also no shortage of postmortems and dissections about why that is. Shows reveal things too slowly, or too quickly. The logic of the mystery is too complex, or too simple. It’s too procedural, or not enough, or the characters aren’t developing in interesting ways, or the central premise is so high-concept that it’s like walking an impossible tightrope — here’s looking at you, Dollhouse.

These shows all suffer from the same fundamental reality — they’re network TV shows. There are a lot of different contexts and programming frames going on for each, but they’re all defined by the same deep trickiness of writing long-form stories for network TV, a difficulty we know all too well. If they’re successful, they’ll be renewed for another season, but they don’t know that from the outset. How to best organize the timing of big reveals if you’re not sure how long you’re going to run? Do you build toward one big mystery, or do you immediately link it to new questions? How can you possibly sustain 22 episodes over several seasons without falling victim to the dreaded (absurd) “making it up as you go along” criticism? How do you avoid what Damon Lindelof famously described as Lost’s mid-series “tap dancing”?

In the past several years, TV has figured out some possible workarounds. You can write shorter, cable-length 13-episode seasons. You can write anthology series, removing the burden of “season two, now what?!” You could also do what Damon Lindelof did next — take the idea of a central supernatural mystery and make a show about how tragic and frustrating it is when there are no answers. The inscrutable opacity of The Leftovers is hardly the stuff of popcorn-y summer fun, though.

The new series Stranger Thingswhich premiered today on Netflix — offers a different way forward, one that solves a lot of these problems. It’s only eight episodes, and in typical Netflix fashion, they’re all released at once. It’s a classic monster mystery, full of lurking shadows and things that go bump in the night, but there’s no need to worry stretching out the suspense too long, or resolving things too early and needing to come up with more story. It renders the “making it up as you go along” question irrelevant. We meet a set of characters at the beginning, we learn more about them, and we get to stick with them through the end — no one will be stumbling over another plane full of characters to bring in some new blood.

As a result of this short, Netflix-y season, Stranger Things is relaxing and familiar, and fun in a way that network TV in this genre has had a hard time being. It’s very weird to describe a horror show that works hard to be startling and scary as relaxing, but there it is. You can settle in and feel confident that these episodes will do the job they set out to do. Monsters are scary, after all, but mid-season cancellation is scarier, and that’s a monster Netflix has figured out how to slay.

Especially for a supernatural-horror adventure — where so much rests on the eventual reveal of a central mystery and turning a terrorized community back into a safe suburban town — the Netflix model offers huge advantages. In addition to the shorter, more controlled season, and the ability to plan everything at once, the Netflix binge is especially friendly to atmospheric horror. Cliffhangers and spooky surprises catapult you immediately into the next installment (and Stranger Things takes good advantage of this, including some literal hangings from cliffs). Plus, watching big gulps of the show all at once can help steamroll over a show’s weaknesses, which, in the case of Stranger Things, includes a preteen girl protagonist with little characterization other than an interest in friendships and what it means to be pretty.

At the same time, it’s worth noting that much of this Netflix model looks like something other than TV. One of the best things about Stranger Things is how much fun it has with its 1980s setting — kids zipping around on bikes with gloriously incandescent lights on the front (no painfully bright LEDs here), reverent D&D games, a soundtrack put together with all the benefit of a few decades’ hindsight, and so many vests worn over ringer T-shirts that it looks like a reenactment of an early Star Wars convention. Most of the writing about the show points out that its biggest influences are '80s movies. “Barely a scene goes by without some kind of echo of E.T. or Jaws…” writes Alan Sepinwall. Jen Chaney’s review for Vulture is even more explicit: “Anyone who starts watching an episode of Stranger Things out of context could easily be convinced they’ve stumbled upon a movie made in 1983 instead of a 2016 TV period piece.”

That recognition of the show’s influences has mostly to do with its tone, its explicit references, its atmosphere, and its themes. But it’s also deeply related to the series’ narrative structure — because it’s a Netflix show rather than a 20-plus-episode series on network television, it gets to be a little bit more like a movie and little less like TV.

There are TV beats still at work in Stranger Things. Its episodes have titles, its eight parts are all built with an awareness that they are supposed to have some internal arc, and the whole thing is certainly looser than the same story would be in a 100-minute feature film. There is also no room for the kind of weird digressiveness that a TV format can make space for. There’s no vestigial procedural rhythm that often becomes frustrating on a show like this (but which can sometimes produce fun, unexpected, surprising things). There are no guest stars or weird standalone episodes.

Don’t get me wrong — I love all of those things, and I’ll be sad when streaming paradigms and short seasons kill them all. But for a genre like this, where plot is king and everything rests on a puzzle-box mystery, guest stars and standalone episodes are unnecessary, unwelcome side quests. Stranger Things’ departure from familiar TV rhythms is precisely what makes it work as a supernatural TV show.

The question of what a second season might look like makes this whole thing even fuzzier — sequels and second seasons are a whole different can of worms. But for now, the new frontier in TV storytelling (streaming and binging and short seasons) is exactly the same thing that gives Stranger Things its potently nostalgic feel.