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The Duffer brothers and the transformation of TV

Netflix and thrill

The TV business is changing, giving auteurs creative opportunities they’ve never had before. Gady Epstein settles in with the popcorn

The TV business is changing, giving auteurs creative opportunities they’ve never had before. Gady Epstein settles in with the popcorn

Gady Epstein | December/January 2018

Binge-watching the second season of “Stranger Things”, the hit TV show that twin brothers Ross and Matt Duffer made for Netflix, viewers come to appreciate what they have created: not a season of television, but a nine-hour movie. This is no accident. Each episode is a “chapter” and the whole series is called “Stranger Things 2”, as if it were a sequel. By exploiting the full potential of streaming video, the Duffers are helping to redefine television.

This is TV’s new golden age. Shows like “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” brought a novelist’s taste for detailed storytelling, thematic depth and subtle characterisation that was rarely found in popular shows before 2000. Later “True Detective”, a cinematic thriller, proved that movie stars like Matthew McConaughey could make winning career turns on the small screen, and that directors like Cary Fukunaga could get noticed there too. Executives at HBO, which made those shows, reckoned that to get subscribers, they needed to produce quality programming that would generate passion and commitment from just one part of the audience – as opposed to the garbage that draws broad audiences for advertisers. The subscription model transformed television for the better.

Now the streaming model is powering another transformation. The medium is becoming the playground for experimentation that cinema once was. The Coen brothers are coming to Netflix, with a Western anthology series. So, too, has David Fincher, with a drama about FBI agents tracking down serial killers in the 1970s called “Mindhunter”. Netflix, Amazon and now Apple are luring auteurs with astonishing sums of cash. But it is the combination of money and the increased artistic freedom that streaming allows that makes this era particularly special.

In “Stranger Things 2”, the suspense of the central storyline – deadly monsters threatening to cross over from the show’s creepy netherworld, the Upside Down – builds to a climax as it would in a good film. The long format allows the creators to develop multiple characters, building to a crescendo. Even minor characters that might seem one-dimensional at first are given enough time on screen for viewers to care about them.

Episodic television also develops characters over many hours, but the fact that most fans were going to watch “Stranger Things 2” in one or two sittings gave the creators the confidence to stretch out characters and storylines as they saw fit. Shawn Levy, an executive producer of the show, calls this “spreading the mortar more thinly”, and it is the kind of creative decision that might freak out a network executive concerned about packing too little excitement into a particular episode. The “watch next” feature of streaming mitigates that fear. “We feel very comfortable doing that because we know that that next instalment will be consumed very soon,” Levy says. “Watch next” also means, he says, that the end of each chapter is going to be more “cliffhanger-y”, to ensure the viewer does not hit the pause button. But when done right – and “Stranger Things 2” does it right – the result for the viewer is a sensation not of cheap thrills but of continual propulsion through the story.

The differences between week-by-week television and the “watch next” format are subtle, and each has its artistic merits. At HBO, “True Detective” proved a show could build its audience each week by creating a sense of mystery with its elliptical storytelling. The writers can end an hour on a note of ambiguity: “They’re saying to you,” says HBO chief Richard Plepler, “I don’t want to write force-fed to a conceit.”

Duffers by name, not nature

The precocious twins behind “Stranger Things” are looking to the future – along with executive producer Shawn Levy (far left)

The Duffers are themselves chronic bingewatchers. Like many millennials, they lack the patience to watch television week by week. The bearded 33-year-olds grew up in Durham, North Carolina, wanting to be film-makers. They didn’t get into television until it was possible to watch whole seasons on DVD, including “The Sopranos” and “The Wire”. The stunning visuals of “True Detective” persuaded them of the potential to tell stories on television that still felt cinematic. But it was Hollywood that pushed them to television: they could not get studios to buy their quirky ideas for genre films. “No one was interested in our movie ideas,” Matt Duffer says. Cinemas had become the preserve of blockbusters based on, as the expression goes, “pre-existing intellectual property”. Originality was not a plus. The studios kept asking instead, Matt says, “Do you have any TV ideas?”

They started brainstorming ideas for what became “Stranger Things”, a multi-generational monster story set in the 1980s. Several networks turned them down. The conventional wisdom was that children could not star in a show aimed at adults. But Netflix, keen to get more subscribers, was eager for a drama the whole family could watch together. Crucially too, the streaming service had money to burn on risky projects.

That was in the summer of 2015, before both Netflix and Amazon went global with their video services the following year. The competition in television has got much stiffer. Levy, like many stars and directors in the industry, had still attached a stigma to doing television back then. No longer. “Forget stigma. It’s now aspirational to do television.” The buzz in Hollywood over TV at the moment feels like an investment craze. Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos has instructed his executives to come up with a huge hit. HBO has put four teams of writers to work on possible spin-offs of “Game of Thrones”. Netflix may spend as much as $10bn next year on film and television content – about four HBOs. Disney is launching its own streaming service in 2019; expect to see “Star Wars” TV shows. Sources say the “Lord of the Rings” franchise will be developed for the small screen as well.

To an auteur, this might seem a worrying trend. “Pre-existing ip” could come to dominate TV as it does cinema. But unlike the distribution constraints of physical cinemas, there is theoretically no limit of hours to fill on the internet. And niche creations can draw in subscribers. “It doesn’t have to do ‘Game of Thrones’ numbers,” Plepler says. “We are gallerists and we want the greatest painters coming in here.”

The Duffers are beginning to think about what they will do next – after making perhaps two more instalments of “Stranger Things”. They have a science-fiction idea in mind, though they are not sure yet how long it needs to be. That could make it perfect for the boundary-less world of streaming. “I can’t think of another time in history where film-makers are able to go, ‘OK, how long should this story be?’” Ross says. Whatever medium they settle on, they will have no trouble finding a buyer. Now that they have shown what they can do on Netflix, it is the movie studios that are trying to get meetings with them. The balance of power is shifting in Hollywood.

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