Ohat is the “show” of the moment, this great television success that everyone watches and raves about? For much of the past decade, that question would have been easy to answer (Game of Thrones, next!), but ever since HBO’s fantasy drama hit our screens in 2019, the problem has gotten much harder. to discern.
Game of Thrones has often been described as the last “monoculture” TV show, the only series that everyone felt like they were experiencing at the same time. When it launched, TV television was still dominant and streaming was still finding its sea feet, but by the time of this 2019 finale, the landscape had changed dramatically. Now, broadcast TV has largely been replaced by an assortment of streaming services, each delivering endless shows to watch at your own pace. That makes the task of discerning this “watercooler” series all the more difficult – and streaming services being coy about their viewership numbers doesn’t help either.
So yeah, in 2022, figuring out what “the show” is seemed like an almost impossible task. But then came the final season of Netflix’s Stranger Things, a series I’d long considered an endless slide into insignificance. After the resounding success of that first season, the second and third outings of Stranger Things were met with a slight shrug. People seemed to watch them, but almost out of a sinister sense of obligation, and the show felt nowhere near the center of cultural conversation (especially while Game of Thrones was still around). But with its fourth season, released in May this year, it suddenly felt meaningful again. Nielsen’s (admittedly questionable) streaming ratings had it ranked as the most-streamed TV series of all time, reviews had grown cautiously, social media was abuzz with takes and memes and the like. Stranger Things Even Had The Power To Drag Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill and Metallica’s Master of Puppets, both released nearly four decades ago, are back to top the charts.
All of this has to mean that Stranger Things is “the show”, right? Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that. For starters, while it’s certainly the most-watched program, this metric, while important, isn’t everything: The Big Bang Theory was the highest-rated show in the United States for a great part of the 2010s, but no one would dispute that these nerds were central to the culture of the time. Then there is the complicated question of How? ‘Or’ What people watch Stranger Things. Netflix’s increasingly old-fashioned all-in-one binge-watching model protects against the “watercooler”: after all, how can people enthusiastically discuss a series when one of them is in episode two and the other rushed to episode eight? Plus, the all-in-one go model means there’s no anticipation-heavy build to a climax each week (although in the case of Stranger Things, Netflix at least dropped two feature-length episodes a month after the rest of the series, to give a vague idea of a stand-alone event).
But there’s also the matter of the stakes of Stranger Things itself. Despite some surprisingly macabre elements in its fourth season, it’s largely a “safe” show: it’s unlikely to kill off a major character or provide many jerk-off moments. Its appeal lies in its nostalgic quality: a great way to get people to watch, but not necessarily a way to build a conversation around a series. It’s not really about much either: there are no timely, fluffy real-world issues for viewers, unlike other great shows of the time.
But if Stranger Things isn’t “the show,” then what is? Succession has at times felt very close to achieving this status. Admittedly, I have the impression that everyone I know is watching and discussing it at the same time, but this may be due to the bubble in which I live: compared to a lot of series, its audiences are quite low. (see also the brilliant Severance). Euphoria is popular – HBO’s biggest show since 2004, aside from Game of Thrones – and hugely animated, but it often feels like that popularity is driven by a very largely engaged audience of young people. Marvel’s series are big, but their sheer number lessens the chances of any of them achieving ubiquitous status, and they often feel like table-setting exercises for the MCU movies’ biggest thrills and upsets. (The same goes for the Star Wars series, although The Mandalorian inspires genuine devotion.) Meanwhile, Squid Game looked like a bona fide event, but it probably needs that second series to confirm that it is is an enduring concern – and it’s unlikely to happen late 2023 at the earliest.
If any series is the closest to reaching “the show” status, it might be The Boys, Amazon’s superhero satire, whose third season finale has just been launched. this morning. While it doesn’t quite reach Stranger Things levels, it’s hugely popular and critically acclaimed, and unlike Stranger Things, it controls the water cooler – barely a week goes by without the viewers only scream wildly about a shocking moment, whether it’s the latest atrocity caused by the series’ insanely gruesome villain Homelander or a mass superhero orgy. He’s able to tap into our present moment, playing with themes of white nationalism, corporate responsibility, and the infantilized obsession with pop culture superheroes (great cake behavior, cake eating here) . It’s not the best show on TV…but maybe it’s just “the show”.
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