Just under two weeks ago, Netflix gifted us with a Halloween present in the form of a return ticket to Hawkins, Indiana with the second season of Stranger Things. The first trip to the small Midwest town introduced us to a slew of interesting characters, a conspiracy which involves the experimentation on children, a bizarre nightmare world that parallels out own and all of the mysteries that unfold due to the interactions of each of these elements. Sprinkle in some righteous 80s nostalgia and style, and you have the perfect recipe for a cultural phenomenon. With such a strong reception, it makes perfect sense to return to that formula for even greater success than the first time, right?
Not so fast.
The key element that kept audiences attached to the first season and constantly chasing the proverbial carrot on a stick was the mystery of what was plaguing this small town. While the second season had some mysteries, they were not nearly as strong as the first, as the best mysteries had already been solved. The identity of Eleven, the goals of the laboratory experimenting on both her and the Upside Down, and fates of many of the characters within the series have already been solved. Yes there were some new ones, but they aren’t nearly as big or compelling as those in the first season. As a result, the second season has seen slightly more tepid reviews than the first.
It is that reaction, as well as the fact that the second season is not as strong as the first and it was almost impossible that it would be, that brings up the titular question: should Stranger Things have been an anthology series? Anthology series’ have their benefits as well as their weaknesses which we will address here in an attempt to answer that question and analyze the future of Stranger Things.
Let’s first cover how the series could benefit from an anthology model. The power of anthologies lies in their concise, direct and focused narrative. By focusing on only a run that spans over eight to ten hours of television as opposed to an extended run which can going on for over 100 hours. This keeps the ending of the run always in sight with the narrative always moving towards that ending. The show never has a chance to lose its way and wander in circles for episode after episode. This issue famously plagued Lost as it lost sights of its ending and failed to drive forward at a consistent pace. More recently, The Walking Dead faced that issue with its second season infamously taking place on the farm and being drawn out to the point where the momentum of the season came to a complete halt.
High quality anthology series’ don’t have this issue as they do not have time. Ryan Murphy, the producer behind some of the most high profile anthologies on television right now, said about the initial idea for American Horror Story, “‘There’s no way that a series could sustain this. We’re going to burn through all of this plot [too quickly].’” Murphy and Falchuk realized they could head down one of two paths: Slow down the pacing of the pilot (and subsequent episodes), or, as Murphy recalls, “speed it up and tell an entire story in a season. And that’s what we decided to do.” The pace of an anthology is at a near break neck speed compared to a more drawn out series that has plot lines extending across multiple seasons that span multiple years. This is not an issue that detracts from Stranger Things, as its second season behaves in many ways as if it were a reboot from the first, but there are some elements that continue from the first that don’t deliver the kind of punch that they could have.
The ability for Murphy to reinvent American Horror Story after each season has played a large role in the resurgence of the anthology in modern television.
Another way that anthologies benefit is in the fact that these new stories are just that: new. Going back to Hawkins was nowhere near as interesting as the first time going to Hawkins. A no location with new mysteries and character will always feel fresh, and that will come with new enthusiasm from the audience. Even though we love the old characters, there is always value in getting to know a new batch of characters. The changes in the story could range from having a completely different concept all together, to a story existing within the same universe just at a different time or a different location. Hawkins would be different in the 90’s or the 60’s than it is in the 80’s. Perhaps in the world of Stranger Things, there are multiple labs set up across the country all trying to figure out the Upside Down with differing results. Instead of the story taking place in a small Midwestern town, it could take place in a suburb near a major coastal city, or out in the desert playing off of Area 51 tropes and clichés, or in the frozen Rocky Mountains with a relatively small number of people being there to stop the new threat from the Upside Down.
The core narrative of stranger things is very flexible; it can be applied to a wide variety of locations while still being able to produce high quality and compelling stories. Using American Horror Story as an example again, much of the cast can return as well which adds to the eagerness to see each new season. Not only are we going to see a brand new story, but it is going to involve many of the same actors in new roles that are completely different from past seasons. Seeing the cast of Stranger Things return in completely different roles has so much potential for fun and interesting characters and roles. Another result of this is that it opens the door for more high profile actors to have short-term roles in the series. These actors (and even writers or directors) could be brought on for a project that has a more concise shooting schedule than they would for an ongoing series that demands continued commitment. This is not necessary for this particular series, but it would always be interesting.
The final major bonus is that anthologies are extremely binge-friendly. Considering that Netflix rose in profile thanks to the ability for audiences to binge watch entire seasons of a series over the course of a weekend, it only makes sense for one of their own most high profile series to be an anthology that feeds into that habit. An anthology allows for entry into any season without worry of missing out on critical information. If someone wanted to catch up on a show such as Game of Thrones, it could somewhere between 50 to 60 hours to grind out all 67 episodes of the series. That is quite a time commitment for someone to make, while it only takes about 10 hours to get through a single season of an anthology series. The return of the anthology is in many ways thanks to Netflix and other digital streaming services which created a sort of instant syndication for shows which omitted the need for a series to span over several years before it can be shopped around to other networks.
While an anthology has many benefits, it also has its own pitfalls. Chief among them is the fact that each new story has to be able to live up the previous ones or the audiences will tune out. This is the problem that True Detective ran into during just its second season. After a stellar first season which receive rave reviews as well as many industry awards, the second season fell off in quality as it couldn’t maintain the same level of execution as the first. The series was then suspended as it searched for a new direction, and it is only recently that the first rumblings of a third season are starting to appear.
Even after an incredible first season, a mixed second season was enough to put True Detective on life support with a third season still a ways away.
American Horror Story also suffers from some inconsistency. Despite arguably being the catalyst for this anthology renaissance, its seasons have fluctuating viewership throughout the seasons. In order for an anthology to continue, each new story has to be as strong as the last. Part of coming up with a quality season is coming up with a quality idea, which is what has fans of Fargo worried. Creator, Noah Hawley, has stated that he will only make a fourth season if he can come up with a good story to tell. If he can’t than it could be some time before the series returns- if it ever does.
Another key weakness in an anthology is time- particularly time spent with the characters. Because they are so much shorter than other longer form television series’, there is significantly less time spend with the characters. Watching the growth and change of characters like Walter White and Tony Soprano are part of the greatest strengths of television. Films can create some of the most memorable characters of all time, but we only ever spend a couple of hours with them. Television, meanwhile, allows us to spend dozens, if not hundreds of hours with our favorite characters. Anthologies certainly allow for more time than a film, but it still pales in comparison to extended television series’.
There are very few characters from an anthology series that are considered among the greatest characters in television history, while characters from shows that stretch over multiple years give audiences ample time to get to know them and watch them grow and change. One can even use Stranger Things for a strong example of this; Steve is a character that has come a very long way from his initial appearance in the series from a typical high school jack-ass who is cooler than everyone else and who thinks he can do whatever he wants, to a character with depth and who takes pride in his ability to babysit.
Even knew characters are only able to reach their full potential if around established ones that we are already familiar with. Sean Astin’s character was another highlight of the second season that we would not have gotten if the series were an anthology. Even if Astin was in a second anthology season, and even if he played essentially the same character, his impact may not be as high without seeing how his character plays off the ones that we already know.
There is no doubt that the anthology is only going to get more popular in the near future, as the ability for major talent to come on board a shorter, film-like project attracts some big names and as more channels and producers seek out their own versions of American Horror Story, Fargo, True Detective and others. But we have not yet answered the central question to this article about if that strategy would have been the best for Stranger Things.
The presence of a character like Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine) was severely lacking from the second season, but this character could have been a fascinating one for an anthology take on the series.
If it were up to me, I would have gone in the anthology route. A structure more in line with American Horror Story where the core cast returns in different roles to tell different stories about bizarre science fiction happenings set in different time or locations had quite a bit of potential. Retaining the premise of the Upside Down as a means to tether each series to each other, or even keep Matthew Modine’s character returning in the same way through time and space would have given the show a supernatural spin, and perhaps even feel a bit like an extended Twilight Zone episode. Even leaving the cast of the first season behind in favor of following one of the other test subjects of Hawkins Lab could have been a fresh take for the second season instead of awkwardly shoehorning it into the season.
Would Stranger Things have been better if it were an anthology? That is impossible to say. What isn’t is that there was tremendous potential for the series to deviate from its current path and explore new stories in new places while still applying the same mix of charm and nostalgia that helped fuel it to its tremendous success. The first season wrapped up nicely without any real cliffhangers with only one last tease of Eleven’s fate being left unfulfilled, leaving ample room for the show to go in a plethora of different directions. That the series decided to return to Hawkins with many of the same characters is not disappointing, but it is definitely a missed opportunity, as aside from shows structured in the same way as the classical anthologies, such as Twilight Zone, there is a dearth of science fiction anthologies to compliment long form series’ like Stranger Things. One day we will get a series that quenches our thirst for science fiction in the same way that American Horror Story satisfies our desire for horror. Until, we are going to have to settle with more of the amazing adventures of Steve, the world’s best babysitter; a compromise that I am more than ready to accept.