Way back in 2016, when Stranger Things first hit Netflix, the world was a different place. The streaming service itself cost $8, and if you weren’t turned on by the prospect of endless, if vastly quality-variable content, there was the small matter of Stranger Things to convince you to hit that subscribe button. It had 80s nostalgia in spades, a soundtrack better than most John Hughes movies, and somehow seemed to do Stephen King better than the writer himself – or at least those film-makers and showrunners who have tried to bring the horror maestro’s work to the screen.
Flash forward six years and Stranger Thing returns following a three-year break (presumably disrupted by Covid). Now Netflix is no longer the streaming revolution’s bright young thing, but a creaking behemoth that costs up to three times as much as it used to, especially if you’re viewing in UHD, and has 6 million competitors. It’s lost 200,000 subscribers and is predicted to lose 2 million more. Stock valuation has fallen more than 25% and there’s even talk of an advert-fuelled cheaper version of the service, something Netflix said it would never do.
Meanwhile, critically acclaimed Netflix-produced shows such as Archive 81 and The Baby-Sitters Club are being axed before they have really had a chance to shine, and there’s the small matter of the most massive summer season of streaming TV in memory around the corner, with the likes of Disney+’s Obi-Wan Kenobi and Ms Marvel, Amazon’s Lord of the Rings and HBO’s Westworld all set to muddy the waters. Truly, the Demodogs are at the door, and if they’ve not yet broken in yet, it’s probably only a matter of time.
All this means that the service needs its biggest beast to win back subscribers harder than Elle (Eleven) once needed to get out of Hawkins National Laboratory, especially with Ozark having recently completed its four-season run. To put things in perspective, the third season of Stranger Things was Netflix’s most-viewed show of all time when it hit screens in October 2019, with more than 64m views in its first four weeks and more than 582m to date. Since then, it’s been overtaken by seasons one and two of Bridgerton, but is almost guaranteed to take back its crown with season four.
Luckily the first part of season four is a tour de force unlike anything ever seen before on TV, its appearance after all this time like discovering a fabulous, late-blooming batch of rogue rhododendrons that you swear you never planted in your garden (even if you are fully aware this evil but lovely shrub will probably turn out to be at least part Venus flytrap when you put your hands anywhere near it.)
Ostensibly taking place six months after the events of season three, though some characters seemed to have aged about 10 years in that time, there is a new central baddie to replace the Mindflayer – or perhaps sit alongside it. He’s a terrifying undead wizard known as Vecna, who (like all Stranger Things monsters) has literally leapt direct from the game box of Dungeons and Dragons.
We meet Hawkins’s new hero, the lovable, slightly cowardly metal-head and incorrigible dungeon master Eddie, who finds himself accused of the murders that Vecna is really committing (with excruciating bone-snapping horror) in the upside down. There’s even Elle’s journey back to Hawkins lab, because we all know she’s never going to be allowed to live a normal, happy teenage existence. Meanwhile, Winona Ryder’s Joyce and Brett Gelman’s Murray Bauman find themselves bumming around Siberia in a desperate effort to find the long-lost Hopper (David Harbour), who if you will recall was last seen disappearing into hell with some Soviet miscreants.
The cast seems to have expanded exponentially beyond the initial four horsemen of the upside down apocalypse – Dustin, Lucas, Will and Mike – who we met way back in season one. Maya Hawke’s Robin Buckley is now a fully fledged member of the anti-Mindflayer team, and Sadie Sink’s wonderful Max is still dealing with the psychological and supernatural fallout of her bumptious brother Billy’s death in season three. But if there’s a whole lot more story to tell, it doesn’t really matter because most of the episodes now clock in at around 80 minutes, which makes the season’s part one not just an epic TV experience like no other but a glorious collection of seven interconnected, sprawling mini-movies that must clock in at around 500 minutes plus. And that’s before the final two episodes debut in July. Take that, streaming rivals! This season makes HBO Max’s four-hour plus version of Justice League look like an episode of Friends.
So will Stranger Things put Netflix back on its feet, win back those lost subscribers and allow the men in suits to breathe a sigh of relief? On this evidence the return of the show is certainly not going to do subscriber numbers any harm, and switching off before July’s two-part finale would be about as smart as trying to French kiss a Demogorgon. Longer term, it remains to be seen if the streaming service can keep breaking new ground, but it’s just rolled the equivalent of 20 on one of those many-sided D&D dice. Just stop putting the price up now, please.