The communal TV experience has never been stronger
Game of Thrones and Line of Duty prove that the collective TV event is far from dead
Vicky McClure, Adrian Dunbar and Martin Compston in Line of Duty. Photograph: Aiden Monaghan
The collective narrative experience is dead. Right?
Remember when we gathered at the dock to yell at the ships delivering later numbers of The Old Curiosity Shop. “Did Little Nell die?” we bellowed. “Hashtag spoiler alert!” the sailors answered before confirming the worst.
We felt kindred with the Og Creatures of the Pleistocene era as they huddled around the campfire to hear if Nuggle the Mad had survived his encounter with that deranged mammoth.
Unless I’m making this up, the video revealing who shot JR, massively hatted villain from Dallas, was, in 1980, brought into the United Kingdom under armed guard while police helicopters circled above. Nobody wanted to damage the community of suspicion that had brought together fans of that deliciously vulgar soap opera.
Over the past decade or so, the commentariat has decided that this last incarnation – the landmark television event watched simultaneously across regions and nations – has gone the way of tableaux vivants and bear baiting. We like to binge-watch our way through boxed sets at our own pace. There is so much choice that no TV show can capture near-universal attention. And so on.
There’s always space for 600 words remembering how – as Uncle Gerry waved the rabbits-ear aerial in search of reception – we huddled round the wooden cabinet to see if Benjy from the Riordans would escape the sheep dip. Those days will never return. The stupid millennials are all watching their Metal Mickies. It’s all [deliberate comic misrendering such as “Facechat”] and [deliberate comic misrendering such as “Instasplat”] now. Oh, for the far-off days of The Onedin Line.
None of these complaints hold up. The uniting telly event remains a potent force. With uncanny timing, Big Brother arrived in 2000 and ushered in a school of reality TV that played like live news broadcasts from the Kingdom of the Inconsequential. The following generation of talent show – also a variety of reality broadcasting – relied even more heavily on immediacy. Good luck failing to hear who won X-Factor until your catch-up viewing on Monday night. Nothing involving ovens has ever had the unifying effect of The Great British Bake Off.
More surprising for the armchair Cassandra was the continuing appeal of the episodic drama that emerged on a weekly basis. You know where we’re going with this. I have no excuse for drifting away from Game of Thrones. Nothing went wrong for me. It just seems that I had limited capacity for the show and that capacity was about 5.6 series. The millions made of sterner stuff were there to peer at the murky Battle of Winterfell last weekend. Such events bring participants together and make those who failed to keep up feel as if they’ve been expelled to mope miserably beyond the Wall. The revels are elsewhere.
There will be another coming together of the nations this weekend as the fifth series of Line of Duty crashes to its conclusion. Jed Mercurio’s brilliant procedural crime drama offers a model for any writer seeking to keep the spirit of event television alive. Line of Duty began in 2012 with an apparent complete arc that saw a tight huddle of detectives seeking to bring down a corrupt colleague. Arriving a year after Game of Thrones, it repeated that series’ habit of annihilating key characters when they were still at the height of their popularity. Don’t expect that new officer to survive beyond episode one just because she was once a lead character in Holby City.
The show heightened the stakes with every successive series. Keeley Hawes was terrifyingly miserable as a potentially bent copper from series two onwards. Thandie Newton was better still as a tragically wracked anti-hero – plucking at a septic wound like a sadder Lady Macbeth – in a fourth series that tackled institutional sexism from an unexpected angle.
Taste for cliffhangers
The series broke new ground with its canny use of extended police interviews that employed endless jargon and acronyms. But what really secured its position as telly you have to watch right now was a taste for the cliffhanger ending that would have impressed the creators of silent-movie serials. The viewers want to know what happened after PC Bloke was thrown off the roof and they want to know it yesterday.
As well as sheer impatience, viewers are driven by a need to catch the information before it is discussed on social media. Twitter has, for two complementary reasons, been a sustaining force for event television. The fans want to avoid spoilers. They also want to enhance the collective experience by chattering on the platform as events unfold. In the current century, the world is not only watching together, it is also talking to itself as it does so.
The collective narrative has never been healthier.