A couple months back I encountered the newly released trailer for Stranger Things, Season 2. Aside from the utter disappointment that came with the realization that the trailer was only a play on audience anticipation and gave no narrative information, I found myself disappointed in me. Why? Because despite ranting and raving about the brilliance of this show, I had to stop and think, ‘what happened last season?’. Blasphemy, I know. But this is the paradox of binge-watching.
For those of you who don’t know, Stranger Things is Netflix’s greatest success. Season 1 was an engaging mix of 80s nostalgia, sci-fi/horror hybridity, and beautiful character development.
Most people are quick to describe it as similar to the best horror movies of the 1980s; and although Stranger Things is a perfect example of this sentiment, the truth is that this is a period of time in which TV has become far more cinematic than it has ever been in the past. We are currently in a new age of storytelling that conflates the escapism of the cinema with the accessibility and interactivity of TV.
The Cinematic TV Experience
We are presently experiencing TV in a way we never have before. Some go as far as to call it the Golden Age of Television, referencing the sheer quantity of quality TV available. Traditionally, TV has been thought of as the cinema’s crass younger sibling; it was originally a space for variety shows and game shows, and eventually moved towards the sitcom. For a long time, TV shows were rigidly structured and predictable in a way that cinema was not. Of course, to be fair, the cinema had had decades to mature by the time the 1950s saw the birth of TV.
Though the introduction of TV (and later the VCR) initially worried the film industry, the fears eventually proved to be unfounded. Stats from the 1980s show that people actually attended cinemas in record numbers. There are different ways to interpret this, but what seems evident is that TV and movies do not cancel each other out. They offer different viewing experiences. Or, at least, they once did.
Back in 2000, historian and theorist Anne Friedberg wrote a critical essay aptly titled, “The End of Cinema: Multimedia and Technological Change.” This essay highlighted the ways in which spectatorship had been altered, first by the advent of the television, then by the advent of the VCR, and finally by the advent of digital media. Astoundingly, her arguments do not feel at all dated when we think of them alongside the advent of content streaming. Rather, it seems she was prophetically telling the origin story of Netflix.