Last year, I decided to give the third season of Stranger Things a shot when it hit Netflix, despite only having seen part of season one. The show’s concept seemed to check all the boxes of what might interest me, but back in 2016 when the series premiered, the final product just didn’t resonate, and I tossed it back in the ever-rising Ocean of Content. There are always dozens of new shows to watch, anyway, and they're all in constant competition not just with each other, but with my phone, my laptop... all of these screens (small, medium and large) provide infinite content, which unravels my attention like it was a spool of thread. Rarely does what I'm staring at on one of these glowing devices feel meaningful anymore.
But there I was, back for more, willing to dedicate at least five minutes to see if it’d click this time. Prior to hitting play on season three, I looked to the internet for a reminder of the basics: Stranger Things takes place during the mid-1980s in a fictional town called Hawkins, Indiana. For more specifics on what I’d missed in the first two seasons, I caught up through a quick skim of one of the many recaps I found online. Television is a bit of a lonely journey these days – we’re often not in sync with other viewers, given the amount of content and the binge-viewing release style, but the conversations are out there, ranging from stale to fresh, and recaps are left like breadcrumbs for those who are a bit further behind.
Within minutes of beginning the season, I could tell that aesthetically nothing had changed since it premiered. The show’s creators, the Duffer Brothers, have been lauded for bringing a Spielbergian DNA into their series, and sure, we’ve got kids riding bikes with purpose at dusk, and they've certainly brought a knowing, affectionate appreciation of ‘80s cultural detritus. At times, however, this just comes off as a manufactured nostalgia trap; an eBay E.T. This show is set back then, but it’s a product of the now and is closer to formulaic content than art, reflecting a Buzzfeed listicle (“50 Things Only ‘80s Kids Understand”) more than a Spielberg classic.
In the beginning of season three, a mall comes to town, and one of the characters comments on the new addition, a one-stop-shop for everything; who wants a single store when you can have more than you ever knew you needed, all in one place?
"I know everyone loves the mall,” she says, “but how many small businesses have closed since it opened? It's changing the fabric of our town." I'd argue that streaming services like Netflix, the platform that Stranger Things is on, is the mall here.
Morgan E. Ellithorpe, PhD, Assistant Professor at Michigan State University, has studied the effects of binge-watching on mental health. “Upwards of 90% of TV viewers have binge-watched at least once,” she told me, “and up to 70% report doing so regularly… 3 to 6 episodes over a 3-hour period." While short binges seem benign, serious and constant binging can come with "a cost to our health and well-being at a certain point," she said. "Excessive television use is associated with reduced sleep quality, poor dietary quality, sedentary behavior, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and mental health issues like depression and anxiety."
Our insatiable need for more TV, our constant binge consumption of it, is burning us out, and we barely remember what we just saw. Rewatch an episode of a show you loved and binged, really pay attention, I guarantee you will think you are seeing some scenes, or hearing some lines, for the first time. Ellithorpe told me, "I suspect it has something to do with our capacity to focus cognitively on one task for an extended period—we have a limited pool of mental resources and the fewer resources we have available, the less we are able to encode and store in long-term memory."
The couch potato seems like an archaic, lovable mascot compared to the streaming zombies of today. And in my opinion, we’re all better off with the old routine of watching an episode per week per show. I mean, do you even remember watching TV? Like in the old days?
The last show I remember getting into before streaming services and Twitter existed was Lost, which premiered in 2004; I started tuning in a little later than others, as whispered discussions about the series turned into loud theorizing for hours at the bar. Those who were watching seemed to talk about it incessantly, and I decided to join them. After all, there wasn’t a whole lot going on around the networks or even on HBO at the time. We were just introduced to Weeds, The Office, Grey’s Anatomy, and How I Met Your Mother that year. Meanwhile, 24 was entering its fourth year on air. Sex and the City just ended. And Deadwood was picking up steam. Shows we took in over eight months then would take just eight hours to watch now. But there was no easy-binging yet, Netflix didn’t start streaming until 2007; to catch up on Lost back in 2005 I had to order the DVDs from the service.
Once I was caught up and watching “live,” I eagerly awaited a new episode each week, as its characters attempted to probe the secrets of the uncharted island where their plane had crash-landed. Among those secrets were The Others… inhabitants of the island who hadn’t been on the plane. Viewers were dipped in and out of timelines, were shown a lot more about those stranded, and were plunged into a mystery that sustained our gleeful attention week-to-week, for six seasons.
For the most part, the show’s audience was tuning in each week, live, and talking IRL with friends about it. In those days before social media, there weren’t a lot of places online to chat about the show during, or immediately after, it aired. Reddit had just been founded and the Lost subreddit wasn’t even launched until 2008, four years after the show premiered. Television Without Pity was blessedly there from day one, however, offering a sprawling nine-page (small font!) recap for the pilot.
But there was one place to have a little back-and-forth chatter online back then: the Yahoo! Message Group.
The introduction of services like Twitter have rendered such platforms as Yahoo! Message Groups obsolete—in fact, after a prolonged sputtering out, it was shut down last year. Which is a shame, because that platform allowed for thoughtful extended discussions, delivered to and from a selected group of participants. Even when it was current it seemed somewhat archaic, but it worked, it did the job we needed it to do, and looking back now, compared to the rat-a-tat-tat of hot takes on Twitter, it was heaven.
In the Lost days, I was invited into such a group, a place for friends and friends-of-friends to discuss the show we were all obsessed with. It featured among its members a collection of young minds who were developing their own creative voices and harnessing their critical acumen—some would go on to make names for themselves as pop culture influencers and creators of television: Aziz Ansari, Paul Scheer, Ricky Van Veen, Kate Spencer, and Pete Holmeswere among the more active members.
It was called “Oprah’s Lost Club.” I don’t know why.
There were 51 people in the group total, but only a handful would eagerly participate. Most were in New York, and would sometimes meet up in person to watch together, as well. Regardless, after every episode, thoughts came flooding in through the Yahoo! Message Group service. The emails were filled with theories, suspicions, jokes, screenshots, and even declarations of loyalties as we got to know the people on the island.
“I remember that very fondly,” Pete Holmes told me. “Event television was a new thing.”
“This was the most Twitter show pre-Twitter,” Paul Scheer said. “The best thing about Lost was that everyone was watching it… It begged to be discussed,”
Today, among other things, Scheer is one of the voices on the highly bingeable Big Mouth series on Netflix. But long before that, or even before launching the successful How Did This Get Made? podcast, he was a 20-something comic working the New York stages, and cutting his critical teeth on Lost.
“I think [Lost] is responsible for mainstreaming some elements of fan culture that often times were left to Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and Star Trek,” Scheer said. “Some people were content to just casually watch, and others wanted answers, or felt it was their duty to solve the show.”
Back then, Pete Holmes was a Solver — at the time, a just-married standup from Boston, who used Oprah’s Lost Club, in part, to make friends in his new home city of New York. When I caught up with him, Holmes just put out a book, Comedy Sex God, and concluded his own excellent television series, Crashing. But in those Lost days, like Scheer, he was working out his stage act, and turning up as a talking head on Best Week Ever.
In our group, he zeroed in on a few characters, including Daniel Dae Kim’s Jin-Soo Kwon, who initially only spoke Korean on the show.
“I remember there was like a ‘Next week on Lost’ flash, and it showed Jin, and Jin was speaking English,” he recalled. “I wrote [about] how ‘Jin is in,’ how Jin is pretending that he doesn't speak English because he's one of the Others… That was sort of our version of Twitter, getting the chats going on that thread.”
“I'm looking now, you definitely had a ‘Jin is In’ email in here,” I told Holmes.
In fact, there were several, it was an ongoing theme. Down the line, Holmes revisited it: “Don't get all ‘Jin is fine’ on me now... the truth of Jin will be revealed! Jin is in,” he wrote after an episode aired in October 2005. “Remember when Sun yelled at Jin in english in season one? He stops in his tracks and starts to tear up at the ENGLISH. Cuz he speaks it, sons.”
“Remember it was a time in my life I was pretty new to New York, and it was a way to make friends,” Holmes told me. “I didn't really give that much of a shit about whether or not Jin was in on it. I just remember the feeling of, ‘I have something to say and a ball to hit around and it would feel cool if my theory was right,’ you know? I remember it having a primarily social function, in that I wanted friends, I wanted these people to be my friends, I wanted to have laughs with them. That ‘Jin is In’ theory was really my first attempt.”
He was planting ideas in other places online, too. “I remember Aziz had a blog, and he'd post about Lost,” Holmes recalled. “[So] on my website, occasionally I would upload a picture from Lost into the HTML and… I'd write my own tweet, basically. There was no way to comment on it, there was no way to ‘like’ it, there was no way to interact with it, it was just one thing on a comedian's website.”
The post-show online chatter wasn’t the only communal aspect; for some, watching the show together kicked each week of feedback off. “Even the commercial breaks, that's when we would talk,” Holmes said. “You'd mute the TV and everybody would discuss, it was like manifested Twitter. People would talk in real time in a room together breathing oxygen, and then we'd resume when the commercial was over. Those breaks were part of it. They knew what they were doing. And that's how TV used to be.”
“In many ways, our group was the beginning of the end, it was a glimpse of the way we live now,” Scheer said. “We were replacing real conversations with virtual ones, but I still argue our version was better, it was this private group — no trolls, no spoilers and best of all, it assured you that you were talking to a group of people who were as fervent as you in this show.”
And spoiler-territory was sensitive, as Scheer noted—Aziz Ansari once messaged the group to say, ”I accidentally spoilered myself with some info about the bearded guy from the boat,” but instead of ruining it for everyone else, concluded, “email me if you want to know the tidbit.”
No one was more fervent than Holmes, though.
“I want a T-shirt that says ‘I'm a Locke-Man.’ Then someone else can have ‘I'm a Jack-Man’ and I'll disagree with them,” Holmes wrote after "Everybody Hates Hugo" aired (S2, E4), referring to two of the main male leads on the show — one a level-headed straight man (Matthew Fox’s Jack Shepard), the other (Terry O’Quinn’s John Locke) cracking open a more spiritual door to the viewers.
"Oh yeah, the Locke shirt... I made that shirt," Holmes told me. "I printed out my own T-shirt. I bought inkjet iron-on T-shirt paper, so I printed out my own graphic of Locke and it said 'I'm a Locke'... it's foreshadowing sort of where my career has gone, because I liked the believer guy. I liked the guy that was like 'There's more going on here. There's something mystical happening.' Jack is obviously the rational person that's like 'Don't be stupid, we need to use our heads.' So I'm still a Locke, even though he was scary."
It’s now fifteen years later, and Holmes can still remember not only these Oprah’s Lost Club moments, but he said he vividly recalls the premiere of the show’s second season, and its revelations about the mysterious island portal known as the Hatch: “When [the episode] opens, there's a guy in an apartment, and then [they] reveal that's what's in the Hatch. That moment goes down, for me, with the finale of The Sopranos. I remember where I was when I watched the finale of The Sopranos, and I remember where I was when I watched that, and I was at Ricky's apartment with Aziz and Paul Scheer… and we lost our shit."
But challenge him to remember something from a favorite show he recently binged, and you don’t get that kind of recollection. “One of my favorite shows is Big Mouth, and you can't not binge it,” Holmes told me. “I mean, it was designed to binge, Nick [Kroll] and the staff wrote in jokes about how you're binging it, it's sort of how it's meant to be consumed. But then a couple months later we decided to watch it again, like we just loved it so much… and I felt like I was participating in some sort of Johns Hopkins double blind study of the effects of binge TV on the brain, because I didn't remember anything. I was like, ‘I would've bet $1,000 that I had never seen that episode before.’ That just speaks to the ethereal nature of binge television.”
Scheer believes this has something to do with bingeable TV shows now feeling more like movies—”you start to lose some nuance and remember your big overall emotional feelings and some big picture moments,” he said. “I love Fleabag but if you were to have me break down single episodes it would be harder, it’s become much more of a collage for me.”
“Binge television... It's television as a fire hose,” Holmes said. “I understand that's what we're doing, and I'm not here to fight the power and resist that, but I wouldn't be surprised if TV that is released weekly or more deliberately, doesn't sort of take off... in the way that young people enjoy VHS tapes. There's that sort of retro appreciation. [Right now] we know what we want and we know how to mainline it, [but] I think we're going to yearn for that sort of yesteryear. I definitely do.”
And part of the magic equation that made TV so exciting back in the day was the communal chatter about it. "Fandom is thriving but discourse about it might be dwindling," Scheer said. "I love a water cooler show, I like when we have a Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad going on, and everyone is talking about it, but with the amount of shows, if you don't watch a show on its release week — and I'm talking more about streaming — it quickly falls from the cultural conversation. Then when you finally watch it, you're in a no man's land.”
“Remember Breaking Bad?,” Holmes asked. “Like when we'd all be talking about it for seven days? I love that feeling in the air when you see a friend and you know you have something in common, whereas with Stranger Things, you have to say, ‘Are you done… have you finished it?’ You couldn't even say ‘Are you on episode 4?’ because that has no meaning, it's just a waterfall. Streaming television is just constantly flowing and we sort of lose ourselves in the storm… it can be discombobulating. What was that girl's name on Stranger Things, that died?” he asked. “See, I don't even know. What episode was it that the nerd girl died?”
I didn’t really watch it, I told him.
“What's the point, it's over... You could talk to someone who binged it—I'd just be like, ‘I remember liking it.’ It was just an airplane flying overhead, it's gone, it's gone. Whereas Lost, I'm telling you about a memory I have… where I sat on the couch, and I remember what I was wearing, you know what I mean? It's a memory. And that's not to say everything was better, but this one thing, I would argue, was better.”
Recently, I recalled something that had appeared in another endless stream of content: my inbox. Years ago, someone had emailed me telling me that they had read some pieces I’d written about Montauk in the 1980s. (When I was growing up, our neighbors had a house there, and invited my family out every summer.) This guy who emailed me was working on a new series—it was set in Montauk, he said, and he was hoping I’d be able to provide memories, anecdotes, “authentic perspective,” and photos of my time there. I will talk to anyone about Montauk in the ‘80s, so I happily shared a Dropbox filled with photos, and over the course of a few weeks, I also shared everything I could remember about the area and my time there: Places I remembered fondly, the creepy old Camp Hero, the drugstore that’s still there, an old movie theater that’s now a Soul Cycle, the baseball diamonds where we’d lazily round the bases after dinner and before the sun went down. The boats, the sharks, the locals… The creators were said to be “excited” about my insights, and my photos were used in the show’s original lookbook.
I never heard anything more about it and figured the series never panned out. I didn’t even think to Google the names of the people I communicated with back then. Case closed.
A few months ago I was looking around for examples online of the “bibles” created for television series. Lost had one, laying out its blueprint, and it showed just how much an idea for a series can change from bible to pilot script. I also found one for a show called Montauk. Could this be “my” Montauk?, I wondered, and I clicked on the link to open this PDF, where I learned that in its early stages, Stranger Things had been called Montauk, and was to be set there.
I looked back at my emails... I had been in touch with the Stranger Things team. While the characters had been relocated to a town I’ve never been to, some of them looked familiar to me:
Maybe if I hadn’t been standing in front of a streaming content firehose, I’d have been able to recognize my own real-life Spielbergian DNA.