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‘It wasn’t quite the great Game of Thrones pile-on of 2019, but there was definitely blood in the water.’

By May 14, 2021May 16th, 2021No Comments

In light of the recent online reaction to Line of Duty’s finale, Andrea Cleary speaks to TV critic Jennifer Gannon about how we debate tv on social media, our over-investment in what we watch, and why we binge view…


Poor Jed Mercurio. Following the finale of Line of Duty’s sixth season last Sunday night, the creator and writer no doubt popped on to Twitter, only delighted to find that his beloved work was trending on the platform. I dread to imagine the sinking realisation when he noticed the word ‘disappointing’, which trended alongside the show for a couple of hours that night, also applied to him. 

Fans who expected a great reveal, a gotcha moment of clever foreshadowing, or an Urgent Exit Required shoot-out were left disappointed by the show’s ending, which took a turn for the realistic. 

For the record, I actually quite liked it. 

I was impressed that the BBC managed to shoot the series at all, with all the restrictions imposed on the production during the pandemic. That writers, producers, crew and actors managed to create an entire series of television that was, week on week, exciting, thrilling, and immensely quotable. 

Creating great telly is difficult at the best of times but during a pandemic? 

That’s a miracle. 

But like so much of modern conversation, the social media pile-on was just one side of the story. Of the record-breaking 12.8 million people who tuned in to the finale, they can’t all have hated it? 

Mercurio, bless his heart, took to Twitter in the following days to clear up the reaction to the show. In a truly bizarre move (and one that I can’t help but respect), he posted a series of Tweets addressing the social media backlash and sharing research from average viewer scores, based on poll answers from 1000 random viewers. 

“No one disputes the Line of Duty finale divided social media opinion,” he wrote on Twitter, “but the audience research so far shows a far less extreme picture. We knew a “down” ending would rate less favourably with some viewers, however all 7 episodes varied by under 10% on average viewer score …” 

As far as I can tell, this is the first time a writer has fought back against bloodthirsty reactions online with data that basically says “well, everyone else liked it, so I don’t know what to tell you”. Could it be that social media pile-ons have less to do with genuine disappointment and more to do with jumping on a bandwagon? Interpret the data as you will. 

Telly has been so important to us over the past fourteen months. It’s seen us through lockdown after lockdown, where long periods of time came to be defined by whatever show we were collectively watching. There’s a reason we took to telly over, say, films — a series is long enough to keep us distracted from the real world, and we gain immense pleasure from watching ‘just one more’ as a treat. The quaint Tiger King days of spring, the lascivious summer of Normal People, the horny resplendence of Bridgerton at Christmas, all as definitive to our collective lockdown experience as government announcements, Primetime investigations and the Six One news. 

We binged. We watched. We conquered. We moved on to the next thing, hungry for distraction.

Binge-watching is by no means a new phenomenon, but the sheer amount of binge-able telly consumed in lockdown has to have done something to our brains. Not only are we watching shows as though they’re four to five-hour-long films, but we’ve also become anxious to complete the thing as quickly as possible lest we see a spoiler online, or miss out on the chats by the virtual water-cooler, that a complex reading of the text seems, at best, unlikely. 

“We have a totally different relationship with a show when we binge-watch,” says TV critic Jennifer Gannon. “When you’re binging, it’s like fast food. There are shows that work well to binge — Tiger King, for example, and reality shows like Real Housewives or Ru Paul’s Drag Race are great for it — and we took that on board in the pandemic because we were so anxious, and we wanted to fill ourselves with content to relax us.” 

Honestly, I don’t know if I even remember the ending to Tiger King, or most of the shows I binged during the early days of lockdown. Finales are rarely my favourite episodes of any programme, and when binge-watching, you can simply move on, or even go back and watch your favourite, earlier episodes. When we add a week-long wait, it’s bound to transform our expectations for finales into something grander. Our binging brains and our critical brains are at odds with one another — one seeking the instant gratification of each episode rolling into the next, the other craving a moment of reprieve to form an actual opinion. 

Think back to when you watched Normal People — can you honestly say you were in a fit state to process that show at the time? Or was it so wrapped up in the flurry of early pandemic banana bread baking that the idea of meaningfully returning to those themes fills you with a genuine sense of dread? 

“A lot of what we’ve watched in the past year is bound up in the misery of the pandemic,” Gannon says. 

Take a show like Drag Race, which Gannon has followed since around 2014. There’s been, she says, a noticeable shift in the online fandom that veers towards the problematic characteristics of stan culture. It’s fast-paced, a race to the finish to see who can have the best take in under 240 characters. Real people are pitted against one another, to the point where your favourite member of the cast seems to have some kind of moral implication on your character. 

“It’s enraged and dogged, to the point now where the winner of the latest series [of Drag Race], Lawrence Chaney, had to go off social media the night they won because the whole of Twitter was baying for their blood, just because they thought someone else should have won,” Gannon says. 

“These people [in these shows] have given us so much entertainment over the past eight to ten weeks, that mindset terrifies me.” 

Reality tv has had a problem with looking after its stars that arguably dates back to Big Brother, but started to enter the wider conversation when shows like Love Island started to take hold in the mainstream. But I wonder if we should extend our attitude — and albeit it is a fickle one — of #BeKind when it comes to writers and producers of television too. 

What’s more, many of the communities that have built themselves around telly on Twitter can feel more like walking into an online debate, nervously shuffling your notecards. If you’re going to go against the popular opinion, it seems, you had better have a good reason for it. 

So, what is it about our modern viewing habits that has made us so entitled? Why do we judge the legacy of the telly we love on an ending that didn’t satisfy our personal expectations? And has the social media hive mind coloured our ability to spend time forming our own opinions on media?

“I guess we’re more sophisticated tv watchers now,” Gannon says. “We’ve done the big, long shows. We’ve been through The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones. We’re been burned in the past, and now with every show that we’re fond of, there is this added level of fear that it won’t land the ending.”

“There is a point of no return when it comes to hype. Critically, people want to pick holes in something that is beloved by a lot of people because they think that’s their job. They think they have to be critical about something because there’s a pressure to be the first one to say it — that goes for critics as well as social media. There’s no way that these shows can meet our expectations”. 

Is the alternative a Black Mirror Bandersnatch-style choose your own adventure? Or are we doomed to pick holes in our beloved shows forevermore, simply because the quality of television is so high? Are we taking the easy way out by joining in with reactionary opinions? 

There’s a lot to be said for good television criticism, something which Gannon takes to heart. 

“If you’re a film critic, you see the film once usually and you write your reaction. But with tv, with a whole cohesive show, I think there’s an argument to be made for taking the time to sit with it.” 

“There’s the good side of it, [the camaraderie and community]. The bad side of it is when you go onto social media and it’s like a warzone. I hate that side of it, but I guess you have to take the good with the bad.”


Photo by Francisco Andreotti on Unsplash