Culture Clips: The Upside Down Edition

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Netflix will face some pretty serious challenges in the coming months. Right after NBCUniversal announced that it’ll pull The Office from the popular streaming site when its contract runs out (in 2021), Time Warner chimed in and said it’ll yank another wildly popular sitcom, Friends, in 2020 and slap it on HBO Max. Forbes’ Stephen McBride has declared that “Netflix’s glory days are over.”

But Netflix is offering a strong rebuttal to all this gloom and doom: Stranger Things.

Though the streaming network rarely releases viewership figures, it made an exception for its nostalgia-soaked sci-fi sensation, bragging that 40.7 million households  have been watching the show since the new season dropped July 4. Nearly half of those folks as of July 9—18.2 million households worth—have already watched the entire eight-episode season.

Those numbers are worth a little perspective. Consider that Game of Thrones—which some had contended was culture’s last watercooler show­—drew an HBO-record 19.3 million viewers to its grand finale earlier this year. (Note, that’s viewers, not households, as Netflix measures.) On more widely available broadcast television, NBC’s Sunday Night Football was by far the most-watched program, also boasting 19.3 million viewers. That means that Stranger Things is at least doubling the viewership of today’s most popular non-Netflix shows.

Of course, we have to take Netflix at its word, and it’s possible that the company is lying like the Soviet Union circa 1985. But judging from the number of folks I know who won’t stop talking about the show, methinks that Netflix’s figures may be pretty on point.

And my friends aren’t the only ones discussing Stranger Things. The Atlantic tells us that the new season not only takes a deep dive into 1980s nostalgia, but tweaks the conspiracy theories that were in play back then, too. The Verge goes a step deeper, noting the show’s focus on “Cold War paranoia” and suggests that Stranger Things is more than a celebration of the consumerist, Reagan-era 1980s: The creatures always seem to crawl back, after all. “Stranger Things creators Matt and Ross Duffer love the ‘80s, but they also realize that something in that idyllic past went horribly wrong and needs to be fixed,” writes Noah Berlatsky.

Others are more concerned with the show’s impact on the here and now. The Parents Television Council says that Stranger Things is more explicit in Season 3 than in its previous (and already pretty graphic) two outings. And actress Evan Rachel Wood called out the show’s frumpy, violent and surprisingly jealous police chief Jim Hopper for “unacceptable” behavior on Twitter. “Extreme jealousy and violent rages are not flattering or sexy like TV would have you believe,” she said. A group called the Truth Initiative is calling out Stranger Things (and other Netflix shows) for its depictions of smoking (another of Hopper’s bad habits). “The growth of tobacco imagery on these popular shows is enabling content to essentially become the new tobacco commercial,” its CEO Robin Koval said. Some viewers are also a little freaked out that the show’s young teens are smooching.

And even as the show outed one of its main characters, speculation on the sexuality of another—the much-tortured Will Byers—has been the subject of much speculation when one of his friends said that he didn’t “like girls.” (Noah Schnapp, the guy who plays Will, says the characters’ sexuality is “really up to the audience to interpret it,” but he personally believes that Will just “still wants to be a kid and play in the basement like he did in old times.”)

But Stranger Things isn’t the only place where the world seems a little … upside down.

Fans are mourning the far-too-early death of 20-year-old Disney star Cameron Boyce, who died from a seizure brought about by an “ongoing medical condition.” His co-stars from Disney’s Jessie praised their former workmate. “He was younger than me but taught me how to spread love and kindness more than anyone that has ever been in my life,” wrote 21-year-old Peyton List, who played his sister on the show. And indeed, it seems as though Boyce was quite determined to spread that love and kindness. He helped raise more than $30,000 for the Thirst Project, a charity dedicated to bringing clean drinking water to impoverished communities. And in his last interview, he reaffirmed his commitment to helping others.

There’s a long line of difference makers in my family. I’m following in the footsteps of some really strong men and women who have showed me what it means to give back; it’s the greatest way to fulfill yourself.

If a Disney star was all about giving back, Disney itself is taking back a plush toy based on Toy Story 4’s character Forky. (Turns out it was something of a choking hazard.) But it’s not taking back its decision to cast Halle Bailey, as the star of the live-action redo of The Little Mermaid. Some folks fired off racist objections to the casting—sometimes even creating fake accounts to do so. But the original Little Mermaid, Jodi Benson, was just fine with it. “We have, as a family, raised our children and for ourselves that we don’t see anything that’s different on the outside,” she said at the Florida Supercon.” I think that the spirit of a character is what really matters. What you bring to the table in a character as far as their heart and their spirit is what really counts.”

We could go on and on and on, of course. But let’s return to the world of TV and revisit the story examined in HBO’s recently-aired documentary I Love You, Now Die. The doc examines the case of Michelle Carter, a 17-year-old Massachusetts girl who, through reams of disturbing text messages, seemed to encourage her boyfriend (18-year-old Conrad Roy) to kill himself.

The whole case was strange and tragic enough. But the HBO show unearthed something else: Many of Carter’s texts and social message missives were lifted straight from the once-popular show Glee. Director Erin Lee Carr speculates that Carter was enamored with Glee star Lea Michele. And when Michele’s boyfriend Cory Monteith died of a drug overdose, perhaps Carter was hoping to create a parallel story path for herself in pushing her own beau to commit suicide. Carr tells USA Today:

As a young teenager I was obsessed with “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” I would recite it ad nauseam, but I never participated in grabbing dialogue from a show or an interview and using it as my own. So for me, it was the clearest example that Michelle Carter was living in a different reality. One of the scarier parts was that Lea Michele’s on-camera and real-life boyfriend died due to a drug overdose and it basically set this plan in motion. When Lea Michele’s boyfriend died, she was able to grieve, and everybody looked up to her and said, “You’re doing such a good job.” Potentially, I’m not certain, but what if Michelle Carter was like, “Maybe that could be me.”

The world can indeed turn upside down. And sometimes, we’re its own monsters.