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This Is What's Behind the Stratospheric Rise of 'Line of Duty'

The BBC One phenomenon seems – on the surface – to be a police drama for parents, so why has it spawned so many younger fans?

by Lauren O'Neill
01 April 2019, 1:27pm

Where were you at 9PM on Sunday night? Sleeping off a hangover? Listening to a podcast in the hope that soothing human voices would be enough to drown out the existential crisis you experience in anticipation of every Monday morning?

As solid as these guesses are, there's also a high chance they're wrong. As the clock struck nine on Sunday, millions of people across the UK were doing something entirely different: tuning into BBC One to watch the Season Five premiere of Line of Duty.

Line of Duty, fundamentally, is a cop show. It's set in a dreary no-name Midlands town, and follows an anti-corruption unit as they scour the ranks for bent coppers. From that description, it sounds like the sort of procedural drama that nans tend to enjoy, or the type of thing your mum asks if you’ve been watching, before you remind her for the sixth time that you don't have a TV. In other words, police shows which match the Line of Duty e-fit generally seem to be made for an older demographic, from Midsomer Murders to The Bill.

However, despite its many similarities with the above shows, Line of Duty is something of a different beast. It began in 2012, airing during the summer on BBC Two. Over the years, its meticulous plotting, shoulder tension-inducing interview scenes and rare but ostentatious action sequences have developed something of a following. By season four, the BBC realised they might be onto something, and in March of 2017 put it in the 9PM Sunday slot on BBC One. They were right: across the live broadcast and catch-up, that season's finale attracted over 10 million viewers.

To be this popular – to be one of the most watched dramas on British television – the show can't (and doesn't) survive on an audience of mums and dads alone. Figures from last night suggest that it's managed to keep up that momentum: today, the BBC told me that Sunday night's episode was the second most-watched broadcast among 16 to 34-year-olds across all channels so far in 2019 (the first was the FA Cup). Quite clearly, the show has real cross-generational appeal: millennials are watching what looks to be a fairly standard, parent-fodder police drama. I’ve got some ideas about why that is.

First, look at the TV climate we're currently in. In 1999, The Sopranos ushered in what American critics call the Golden Age of Television. Since then, US boxset television has become smarter, flashier and generally viewed as pretty highbrow. As TV has become more globalised – with foreign shows aired by UK networks in the early-2000s, and later because of internet buzz and the advent of online streaming services – the UK and Europe have had to step up to compete.

As a result, we've had some truly banging TV – in particular, police dramas: Broadchurch on ITV and Luther on the BBC, both of which have been received as "prestige dramas" due to their starry casts and taut but twisty writing. Then, of course, in Europe there was the Scandi-noir boom, with police dramas like The Killing and The Bridge only increasing the cultural cache of police shows.

Internet hype is also crucial to how young people consume TV. As surrounded by social media as we are, positive buzz about a show puts its title in our minds and encourages viewers to give it a shot. For example, I was only attracted to Line of Duty when I saw people I knew tweeting about the show, posting memes about running themes and phrases ("bent coppers", "we're going to do this to the letter of the law", "son" – I could go on). The internet has also played a role in the show's success in another way: I became even more interested in Line of Duty when I discovered that it was on Netflix, which is another important aspect of its success among millennial audiences.

As of February, 2019, just under 50 percent of Netflix’s user base was under the age of 35, while in September of 2018 a YouGov poll found that Netflix was the "most positively talked about brand" among millennials, so it follows that when a show finds a second life on Netflix, it often also finds a second – millennial – audience.

i news TV critic Sarah Carson agrees: "When Netflix exploded, millennials started to watch TV almost exclusively on there, and the appeal of this drama that everyone in the 'real world' was talking about, [which] only had six episodes per series and [was] sheltered from spoilers because it wasn't talked about among millennials or at uni, meant that it was so easy to gobble up and really accessible," she tells me.

Daisy Jones, a 26-year-old VICE UK staffer and Line of Duty fan, first found the show on Netflix. “A friend told me about it, so I watched it and was immediately hooked," she says. She probably wouldn’t have sought it out on TV, but tells me that – as a Brit – she likes the dreary, familiar world it's set in. This plays a part in its appeal, in that all that bleak familiarity – DI Lindsay Denton eating a sandwich out of a Tupperware, say – easily inspires memes and Twitter jokes.

The internet conversation around the show is vast (to the extent that there's an official podcast – on which I appear as the resident TV critic – and a parody Twitter account for Adrian Dunbar’s DS Hastings, who, with all his catchphrases, is the show's most memeable character). BBC One social media manager Rebekah Ellerby tells me that part of the social strategy for the show is to capitalise on that.

"One of the most brilliant things about Line of Duty, for me as a social practitioner and for younger audiences online, is its memetic quality," she enthuses. "It has incredibly memeable moments and catchphrases. Every five minutes it has an outstanding quote or comedic character expression. The Northern Irish 'Tedisms' are almost as famous as the show itself, and iconic moments like 'Urgent Exit Required' can be endlessly parodied. This is how younger people are responding to the show. They take bite-sized moments and run with them to produce hilarious content."

Mollie Goodfellow is a millennial Line of Duty fan who likes to get involved online. "I think that adds to the fun," she says. "These days, a lot of TV – like Bandersnatch and Fleabag – has a separate internet buzz around it, which almost feels like an entity of its own. There are running jokes and catchphrases in the show which are used amongst the fandom, and it's fun to see how other people react to what you’ve seen."

Lots of millennials also tweet along with the show as it airs live. Because it's always subverting our expectations (while maintaining catchphrases and the recognisable tropes of its own world), Line of Duty lends itself very well to this sort of viewing. As Sarah tells me, "Millennials I know online are basically fans of hyperbole, keyboard-smashing 'I wanna die'-type outbursts of praise, and I've noticed that younger LoD fans veer far more towards the 'OMG WOW WHAT' kind of instant reactions, and enjoying the frisson and collective feeling of live viewing (so rare now!) than older viewers on Twitter, who I think prefer to share theories about what happened and guessing the plot."

Though members of different age groups might respond to the show in different ways, fundamentally, a TV programme can only reach the popularity of something like Line of Duty when it's genuinely interesting, surprising, well-written and well-acted. Truly great entertainment, after all, transcends age groups if it's good enough. That’s how Daisy feels about Line of Duty. "I think when a show has a smart, strong and engaging narrative, it will draw in an audience regardless of their age and life experience," she says. "Line of Duty essentially takes Shakespearean concepts – double-crossing, corruption, romance, murder, tragedy – and projects them onto a relatable(ish) setting – a police force in Birmingham, or Belfast."

Mollie agrees, highlighting the writing and the show’s very popularity as massive selling points: "That there is an overall puzzle to be solved, but in every series a more pressing situation is going on, keeps you engaged at different levels," she explains. "The acting is so good, which means you’re now rooting for this team that you’ve followed over four series. I also like that there's such a fanbase around it and so many of my friends have seen it too."

Rebekah also points out that, crucially, the show requires viewers to be engaged, making viewing an interesting mental exercise. "Line of Duty has incredibly dramatic cliff-hangers and unexpected twists. This makes the audience feel valued. Millennials hate being patronised, and the show asks you to work it all out, while being thrilling if you just want to sit back, watch and go along for the ride," she explains. "This is what gives the show its talking points and makes it a must watch to catch live, before anything can be ruined for you. You want to feel all the feelings about the show with everyone else and then talk about it while it’s still a hot topic."

When a TV show starts to be viewed as an event, it seems to develop a life of its own, as Line of Duty has online and elsewhere. It’s very rare that a UK show becomes such a huge talking point, but if LoD’s track record is anything to go by, we can look forward to season five being a success across all age groups, and to Sundays at 9PM for the next five weeks, when the nation will be interested in one thing and one thing only: catching bent coppers.

You can hear Lauren talking about 'Line of Duty' on the BBC's 'Obsessed With... Line of Duty' podcast, with Lolly Adefope and Brett Goldstein.

@hiyalauren