How British Crime Dramas Became Appointment TV

LONDON — Crime shows have been a popular British export for decades, but a recent batch of big budget, critically acclaimed BBC thrillers have drawn record weekly viewing figures here, keeping viewers transfixed in a state of constant, existential dread.

This attention partly comes from the knowledge that a show’s main characters could die at any moment. Earlier this year, 15 million viewers watched the series finale of “Line of Duty,” a police procedural that killed off a central character early in its first season, and then another in the first episode of the second. This made it the most watched episode of British television drama of the 21st century so far, based on ratings for the first seven days of a show’s availability.

In 2018, 14 million people watched the finale of “Bodyguard,” a political thriller which unexpectedly lost a key character, according to data from PA, a news agency.

And the BBC’s latest offering, “Vigil,” a drama investigating a mysterious death on a nuclear submarine looks set to continue this trend, attracted double-digit-millions of viewers to its first episode, according to the BBC. Set to air on the U.S. streaming service Peacock later this year, it’s fair to say “Vigil” is also full of unexpected twists and turns.

Ratings like these in a country of 67 million people, combined with the dramas’ critical success, recall the kind of appointment viewing not truly seen for network dramas in the United States since “Game of Thrones,” which ended in 2019 and also regularly killed off its most beloved characters.

All airing on the BBC in Britain, “Line of Duty,” “The Bodyguard” and “Vigil” were also all created by the same British production company, World Productions, based in London. Producers there realized that engaging viewers enough to keep them tuning in week after week meant defying some of the expectations of the longstanding British crime genre, according to Simon Heath, the company’s creative director.

In the past, “you knew that lead characters were going to survive, because they were contracted for a whole series, and the notion was that the audience invested in those characters,” Heath said in a video interview. But “as soon as you introduce an element of threat to the characters, the potential that they could be killed early, the audience then go looking for it everywhere,” he added. “So everyone is on edge.”

Much of the viewership for these dramas is live, in part because there is no option to binge current seasons in one go. Episodes are available only on the BBC’s streaming service once they have already aired on TV, and teasers of upcoming episodes keep viewers guessing about future plot points. As a result, nearly 13 million people watched the “Line of Duty” finale the night it aired, and more than half of the 10 million viewers who watched the first episode of “Vigil” in its first week saw it the same day it was broadcast.

Streaming services often drop seasons all at once — a trend that Netflix started with “House of Cards” and has continued with other tense dramas like “Ozark” and “Mindhunter.” “Bodyguard” also made a big splash when its six episodes arrived in bingeable form on Netflix in the United States, earning Richard Madden a Golden Globe for his lead performance.

For legacy networks with their own streaming services, like HBO, there’s evidence it may still pay to make people wait. Earlier this year, HBO’s popular “Mare of Easttown” aired on a weekly basis, with its finale becoming the most-watched original episode on HBO Max. (The night it aired, the finale of “Mare” drew 4 million views across HBO’s platforms; by comparison, the “Game of Thrones” finale was watched by nearly 14 million people the night it aired.)

In addition to giving some breathing space for all that tension after each episode, airing episodes weekly means British viewers have the opportunity to obsessively dissect and discuss the plots between each episode, as media outlets publish their own theories of what might happen next.

“Shrine of Duty,” a podcast hosted by Rebecca Shekleton, Hannah O’Connell and Brendan O’Loughlin, dissects the complex plot points of “Line of Duty” scene-by-scene to spot hidden clues.

“It’s made a much bigger event out of the show by it all not being available to binge in one go and people having to wait week by week,” said O’Loughlin in a Zoom interview.

These dramas all contain complex writing and interwoven plots that contain multiple theories of culpability, fueling the debate and intrigue. “You need six days to sort of build on that, before you get the next little bit,” O’Connell said.

The pandemic may also have fueled this appointment-to-view culture. “One of the things I felt, last year, in the pandemic, was that people were missing communal social experiences,” Heath said. “And one of the very few ways that we could replicate that was by watching television programs at the same time.”

While these popular crime dramas have different writers (“Line of Duty” and “Bodyguard” were written and created by Jed Mercurio, “Vigil” by Tom Edge), the team at World Productions wants the narratives for all their series to evolve organically during the writing process, Heath said. Rather than map out a full season at the beginning of production, Mercurio gives the editorial teams on his shows an outline for the first script, Heath said, and “then basically Jed writes one episode at a time.”

“We read the outline and we give feedback, but in a way, we’re behaving in the way that an audience would watch it for the first time,” Heath said. “We don’t know what’s coming.”

As a result, he added, “you’re never in danger of signposting the story.”

For Piers Wenger, the BBC’s head of drama programming, the writing is the key to these shows’ success.

“Those particular writers have proved to be so palatable and appetizing to audiences because they are very, very good at setting out the plot and manipulating it so that it’s obscured for just the right amount of time from the audience,” Wenger said.

The dramas are intrinsically linked by the fact that they explore public institutions that can feel somewhat opaque to the general public. “Line of Duty” is about a fictional police unit dedicated to ousting police corruption, “Bodyguard” explores the ethics around domestic government surveillance, and “Vigil” explores the balance between national security and public accountability.

“The Navy is not going to give you a tour around a submarine or tell you about all their mistakes, the near misses they’ve had over the last 30 years,” Heath said. “The large majority of the incidents that happened during the series of ‘Vigil,’ you could probably find real world correlatives if you look hard enough.”

Each show also features relatable characters who are usually fighting a cause in the public interest.

“They offer the opportunity to explore a kind of moral complexity and moral grayness,” Wenger said. “They also offer the opportunity to explore distrust in the establishment and authority, and the power of one or two individuals to resist that.”

“I think that is something that feels very much a part of the national mood,” he added.

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