It started as a simple, yet vitally important, question: How much more content can we, the writers of the internet, squeeze out of Barb from Stranger Things? That query lead to others. Such as: Wow, posts about Barb still? Can I get in on this or is too late?
Barb, frumpy yet beautiful in plaid ruffle-neck blouses, her auburn hair swirling like a lonely cloud devoid of conditioner. A stalwart friend, Barb has revealed herself to be a rich, nigh-bottomless mine of content, the substance of which far outstrips the character’s paucity of, like, actual scenes. SHE IS BARELY IN THE SHOW.
Barb wasn’t so much a character as a mirror. Gazing at her, we saw ourselves. Or something. Listen, I don’t know why Barb blew up. It’s crazy to me. All I know is, despite the fact that no one in Hawkins, Indiana, shed a single tear over Barb’s disappearance, she has transcended, and extended, the commonly held boundaries of what constitutes fresh content. She is the most content-efficient television character ever.
But, how do we quantify this? The answer, after much research and toil, is:
CUPS (Content Units Per Scene).
The formula is simple: (Google News hits) divided by (total screen appearances) = CUPS
Barb’s ascent to the forefront of the contemporary consciousness would likely have been impossible in, say, 2001. The modern television recap essentially began with Lost (2004–2010). Before that, writing about television on the internet was less prevalent.
Additionally: Due to various factors including, but not limited to, the rise of the binge-watching model (Netflix, Amazon) and the influence of basic cable (Lifetime, History Channel), prestige basic cable (A&E, FX), and premium cable (HBO, Showtime), many, if not most of today’s television series shoot between eight and 10 episodes per season. The modern television show is structured for maximum CUPS. Also, recency bias applies heavily here. So don’t ask me where Zack from Saved by the Bell (45.73 CUPS) is.
I probably haven’t crunched your favorite character’s CUPS score. That’s because, as you may have heard, we’re at PEAK TV, with some 450 (give or take) scripted shows vying for our ever-narrowing attention spans. Settle down, hoss; I’ll get to it. Eventually.
That said: heat counts. At this precise moment in pop-culture history, anyone can access the internet and write a “How Barb Explains Australia” or “Why Barb is the Grandmother I Never Had” or “Why We Should Worship Barb as an All-Powerful Goddess Whose Tears Nourished the Crops Between the Tigris and Euphrates” blog post that, in all likelihood, would cake-the-fuck-up in likes, shares, or whatever sui generis metric applies. You can’t do that with Mozart from Mozart in the Jungle (is he in that?). In short: Don’t @ me.
Google News hits aren’t perfect, but it’s what we have. It’s that or ignorance. Our team (really just me) will, of course, continue to improve the data sets and methodology. But, rest assured, we (again, just me) stand behind our (my) findings.
This list accounts for scripted shows only. A reality television–based list is currently under evaluation, so hit the recommend button if you want to see it. You know the drill.
Now, without further ado, here are the top-10 television characters by CUPS
1. Barb, ‘Stranger Things’ (2016)
Current Posts Per Day (PPD): 1,100–1,200
We may never again see a more content-rich television character. Barbara “Barb” Holland appears in five of Stranger Things’ eight episodes for a total of six scenes. Despite that paucity of screen time, Barb has generated more than 200,000 pieces, and counting, of individual content units. This means that, by herself, Barb accounts for more than 20 percent of Stranger Things’ total content score (TCS).
Even more startling, Barb’s current 1,100–1,200-range posts per day is double her PPD over a similar span just last week.
What’s behind Barb’s recent spike in PPD? Regret. Barb’s surprise breakout forced series creators the Duffer brothers to answer why not a single person in the town of Hawkins, including Barb’s mom or alleged best friend Nancy, seemed to give a shit that she had disappeared and is lying dead in a pool in the Upside Down with slugs crawling out of her distended mouth.
The lack of in-story mourning for Barb resulted in the audience grieving by proxy. Here, perhaps, is the real secret of Barb’s high CUPS rating. Chief Hopper is leaving cold waffles in a random forest lock box for Eleven. What does Barb get? Exactly what she got in life: nothing. This, the internet shouted, via memes, GIFs, and blogs, must not stand.
The numbers suggest there’s more to come. The hype cycle has just barely begun to edge into backlash territory. Barb promises to remain a vital source of content for the foreseeable future. By this time next week, give or take, I expect “BARB is TRASH” takes to be in high demand.
2. John Stone’s eczema-afflicted feet, ‘The Night Of’ (2016)
Scenes: 10 (it only feels like a lot more)
This legitimately shocked me. Before the raw data had been fully analyzed, the general consensus at Ringer HQ (a.k.a. Slack) was that Barb and the Members Only Jacket Guy from The Sopranos (more in him in a bit) would take the top two spots. Nope. Through seven episodes, The Night Of has a TCS of 95,857. Meaning Stone’s feet, like Barb on Stranger Things, represent more than 20 percent of its show’s overall content footprint. This is troubling. I’m on the record as being pro-eczema subplot. If you live in New York City, at least twice a week, you’ll find yourself sitting on the train next to a person with exposed lower legs that resemble Walking Dead prostheses. You get used to it. But, a CUPS in excess of 16K for diseased limbs, not even a character, has me reevaluating my position. In light of these numbers, it’s clear that Stone’s oozing, ashy funk overpowered the story itself.
The good news: eczema feet’s PPD is trending down, with the bulk of its hits coming from last week, right around the time that Stone acquired the magic Chinese medicine powder which was likely made from the dried and ground genitalia of endangered animals.
3. Eleven, ‘Stranger Things’ (2016)
4. Mike Wheeler, ‘Stranger Things’ (2016)
Barb issues aside, Millie Bobby Brown, the actress who portrays Eleven, is Stranger Things’s breakout star. Her impressive PPD and CUPS can be attributed to: (1) the recently released video of her getting her head shaved; (2) continuing coverage of her YouTube channel, where she can be seen singing various songs pop songs of yesterday and today; and (3) audiences continuing to work their way through the last few episodes, in which Eleven dominates like a combination Firestarter/E.T./Starman.
Wheeler’s CUPS soared into elite non–Barb/Feet territory when a video of actor Finn Wolfhard playing Nirvana’s “Lithium” gave his PPD a surprise boost (it has since dropped off to replacement-character levels). The lesson of Eleven and Mike Wheeler for showrunners: Always save some random video content of your actors so you can boost CUPS scores once the buzz from the show begins to fade.
5. Don Draper, ‘Mad Men’ (2007–2015)
The most successful high-volume shooter on the list. Though he appeared in every episode of Matthew Weiner’s critically acclaimed series about high-functioning-alcoholic racists who try to quit smoking in 1960s New York, Draper’s just under 1.2 million OCS (overall content score) propels him into the top 10. Even more impressive, more than a year after the series ended, he’s still scoring mid-single-digit PPD. That, as they say, is what the money is for.
6. Members Only Jacket Man, ‘The Sopranos’ (2007)
PPD: < 1
Every once in a while, Sopranos creator David Chase gets interviewed and invariably is asked about the fate of Tony Soprano and the role Members Only Jacket Man played therein. This explains MOJM’s enviable CUPS score and continuing place in our cultural consciousness.
(Sidebar: It doesn’t matter if Tony is dead or alive. The point was to generate a feeling of panic, similar to what Tony experienced preceding his many fainting spells. Also, he’s dead.)
7. Khal Drogo, ‘Game of Thrones’ (2011)
On a day-to-day basis, Khal Drogo’s 300–500 PPD is surprisingly stable. This is especially impressive, considering Drogo has been dead for five full seasons. Further research is needed, but, at the moment, Drogo’s staying power appears to stem from GoT fans’ predilection for cosplay nuptials (see above picture); the speculative nature of the fan culture surrounding the books and show; and the constant rumors that the character will return as either a flashback or in fully resurrected form. Just this week, in fact, actor Jason Momoa was spotted partying in Belfast with showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.
8. Nancy, ‘Stranger Things’ (2016)
Take this number with a grain of salt. Nancy’s CUPS and PPD can’t be isolated from the power-chord bombast of data noise generated by Barb’s numbers, at least not with the technology we have available. This much, though, is clear: Nancy is undeserving of both her CUPS score and Barb’s friendship.
9. The Russian in the Pine Barrens, ‘The Sopranos’ (2001)
PPD: > 1
Speculating on the fate of the perhaps mortally wounded, but extremely hardy Slavic gangster has been one of the surest clicks on the internet for 15 years and counting.
10. The Soup Nazi, ‘Seinfeld’ (1995)
PPD: +/- 1
Twenty years later, and the Soup Nazi’s mere six scenes still resonate. This is especially true in the burgeoning food-blog space, where references to the S.N. are understood to impart hard-to-identify ethnic authenticity, deliciousness, and a dash of acceptable fascism. An amazing achievement.
Odds and Ends
- Parks & Recreation’s human meme emulator, Jean-Ralphio, is rocking a very solid and surprising 160.7 CUPS, despite only appearing in roughly 41 scenes over 21 episodes and the show having been off the air for over a year. What’s interesting about this CUPS score is much of the character’s recent PPD results from the emergence of a fan theory positing that Steve from Stranger Things is Jean-Ralphio’s father. Fan fiction and fan theories are essentially structures for producing CUPS trickle-down effects.
- The lowest scoring Stranger Things child character is Lucas with a 39 CUPS.
- If we counted Crying Don Draper as its own character, the lachrymose ad-exec would be the most-content rich character in history, with a CUPS in the range of 75,000.
- The frozen-banana stand from Arrested Development scores a 564 CUPS.
Much like our hunter–gatherer ancestors, the modern content creator has learned to use every part of that which sustains them. Lunch does not purchase itself. This process, spurred by parallel developments in technology and a deepening of human understanding, will only continue. CUPS has revealed patterns in the roiling chaos of the internet. We’ve discovered that the highest-efficiency CUPS characters are universal avatars of our fears and vulnerabilities — diseased body parts wrapped in cellophane and grease or telekinetic children who get nosebleeds. We can only guess how modern storytellers will respond to these advances. The 50,000 CUPS barrier seems tantalizingly close. And, when the breakthrough is finally made, let us not forget the person who made it possible. It’s what Barb would have so desperately, desperately wanted.