一世f one thing guarantees a TV hit in 2021, it’s a lukewarm reception. Take Ted Lasso, a sitcom about a perky, naive American football coach transplanted on to British soil. Its first season premiered last summer to barely any fanfare – but little by little came mass critical reconsideration. The show ended up a smash hit, breaking the record for most Emmy nominations for a first season of a comedy. Its second series, concluding next month, has made it one of the most talked-about shows of the year.
Then there is The Morning Show, which stars Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon as breakfast news anchors and returns to Apple TV+ for season two this month. Despite debuting in 2019 to a tepid response, by the end of its first run reviewers were harmonising about a change of heart. Even 演替, back soon for a wildly anticipated third series, was greeted with some ambivalence at first, something its creator Jesse Armstrong took in his stride – even hinting it was an intentional feature when he recently described it as “a prickly pear of a show”.
The sleeper hit has always existed but its contemporary pervasiveness is startling. The lightning-fast nature of social media seems primed for the quickly metabolised, soon-forgotten craze; the instantaneous access occasioned by streaming suggests a world with no time to foster slow-burn success. Yet we have become strangely accommodating to the pop-cultural grower.
Partly, we have the pandemic to thank. While there were flash-in-the-pan sensations during lockdown (notably Tiger King), the fact that film and television production stalled meant demand outstripped supply. The internet was suddenly laden with recommendations for underrated streaming delights. It gave people a chance to catch their breath: with more time than usual on their hands, and freed temporarily from the constant stream of brand new “must-see”, viewers could discover things on their own terms.
There were unpredictable developments. Lad: A Yorkshire Story, an unsung low-budget film from 2011, became a lockdown hit, amassing nearly 2m views. The video game Among Us, a space-themed multiplayer in which certain users secretly sabotage the team, garnered little attention in 2018 but erupted in popularity last year. Its guessing game conceit offered an escape from the stress of the pandemic and let players socialise with friends during lockdown.
One of the biggest Covid TV successes was Schitt’s Creek, a comfort watch that, coincidentally, mined comedy from a family’s uncomfortable confinement. The show saw a serious uptick in popularity as the first lockdown set in – although its slow-burn trajectory pre-dates the pandemic. The Canadian sitcom, created by and starring father-and-son duo Dan and Eugene Levy, originally aired in the US on an obscure channel called Pop TV.
It only reached wider attention after its third season was picked up by Netflix – a phenomenon known as “the Netflix bump” (previous recipients include Breaking Bad). 去年, the show swept the Emmys, winning all seven major comedy awards. It was a similar slow-burn success story for the Cotswolds-set mockumentary This Country – a show about being cut off from wider society in a supposed rural idyll – which met with virtual silence in 2017. By the time its third series concluded in early 2020, it was a ratings triumph, attracting a staggering 52m iPlayer requests.
Streaming has reconfigured the pop culture timeline. Previously, a sleeper hit would develop linearly (Nirvana’s 1991 album Nevermind spent four months climbing the charts), often directed by cultural gatekeepers, such as TV channels repeating certain programmes (The Office gained traction following a sleepy summer debut in 2001). On-demand streaming has derailed those trajectories: something can flop at first, never get another chance from the powers that be, and still find its crowd years later.
Songs, especially, have a longer window for potential success than they once did. Sleeper superstar Lizzo rose from indie concern to the mainstream in 2019, coinciding with the release of her third album, Cuz I Love You. Yet it was two older tracks – Good As Hell (2016) and Truth Hurts (2017) – that cemented her position as the year’s breakout icon. The latter gained massive traction after going viral on TikTok and appearing on the soundtrack to Netflix film Someone Great; the former was simply rediscovered by new converts.
Novelty still drives the web to a degree – but that novelty may come from the past. TikTok has a determinedly untimely approach to pop culture, resurrecting songs both ancient and merely dated. It might tap into shared nostalgia (the renewed interest in Natasha Bedingfield’s 2004 single Unwritten) or grant an audience to a song that never had one: 去年, obscure Orlando indie duo Sales had two songs – 2013’s Renee and 2014’s Chinese New Year – go viral, the former soundtracking 1.2m TikTok clips to date.
While there is often a random aspect to these breakthroughs, it increasingly feels as if pop culture is being designed for the slow burn. Recently named the UK’s most-watched drama of the century, Line of Duty was always brilliant, but such a feat would have been impossible to predict by the end of the deliberately knotty, modestly viewed first series in 2012. It became a word-of-mouth hit, with streaming apparently hardwired into its success: this year’s sixth series repeatedly referenced clues, characters and plots from the first, necessitating a mass rewatch. It might be a mirage, but in retrospect it seems as though Line of Duty was always engineered for the long haul.
相似地, two of the year’s most-anticipated albums look like being growers. Lorde’s 太阳能 is a mellow, unshowy record that slowly ingratiates itself; Billie Eilish’s Happier Than Ever is cut from a similar, if more subdued, cloth – perhaps because, in both cases, precocious superstardom has left their makers less interested in courting celebrity and more intent on securing longevity and sustainability. The series of this summer, 同时, was Mike White’s HBO drama The White Lotus, which for all the slightly hysterical hype turned out to be a nifty exercise in slow-burn appeal. Hooking the viewer in with a mysterious killing, it proceeded to offer a sun-baked meditation on privilege and identity politics that was subtle and simmering.
The internet made culture limitless and the mainstream is more fractured than ever. It creates the impression of an infinite pop-culture stream, all of it eminently disposable. The slow burn cuts through this malaise: there is a sense that despite the overwhelming onslaught of material, quality will eventually triumph.
实际上, it may be even more likely to. In the past, pop’s objective was to shift CDs on the week of release, TV aimed to attract viewers during broadcast and most films only had a limited time to make their box-office mark. The point was to get people to pay for these things once. Nowadays, repeat streams – or consolidated viewing figures – are the key to success in all mediums. Could the internet, counter to most logic, actually be making pop culture less transient? We’ll just have to wait and see.