On Sunday night, around the same time Westworld hit HBO and Game 7 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals aired on ESPN, people watched the season finale of Killing Eve. A lot of people. “A lot” is relative here—the stats aren’t out yet, but considering the previous episode garnered 986,000 total viewers it probably didn’t get near the 2 million people who watched Westworld’s season premiere—but for a show on BBC America that didn’t have the cultural clout of a prestige HBO series, it’s impressive. More importantly, it’s something that hasn’t come around in a long time.
Unlike many shows on TV, Killing Eve has consistently increased its viewership since its series premiere in April: The past seven weeks have seen 47 percent growth in its so-called L+3 rating, which measures the combined viewership of a show’s live airing and time-shifted viewing over the three subsequent days. Those are better viewership gains than any scripted show has seen in a decade, according to BBC America. Moreover, the show’s finale got some 37,000 interactions on social media, according to Nielsen, beating out Westworld as the most popular show on Twitter and Facebook on Sunday night. Put another way, Killing Eve, after just two months, turned itself into appointment television.
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“It’s rare air to get the kind of ratings growth, driven by word of mouth, that this show is getting,” says BBC America President Sarah Barnett, adding that while the network knew it had a good show on its hands, “we didn’t expect to buck trend quite this much.”
In a way, this is quite remarkable. If the always-streaming, everything-on-demand state of TV right now has taught viewers anything, it’s that very little about television is urgent. Sure, there are still a few watercooler shows, and events like the Oscars or the Super Bowl require real-time viewing, but everything else can be watched on an I’ll Get to It When I Get to It basis. Short of one’s peer group pressuring them into watching something right now no one feels they have to be caught up on everything.
Killing Eve, however, was different. As spring marched on and other TV shows wrapped up for the season, the internet slowly became everyone’s peer group, pressuring them into watching. Tweets like this one and/or this one started floating around and soon the show became an inside joke that everyone wanted to be in on. That effect, coupled with the fact that BBC America made the show incredibly easy to watch through on-demand services and its own website and app, made it the kind of thing viewers kept up with. It quickly became one of the most popular shows on BBC America’s platforms, and those views in turn led to more live viewers each week. “We really didn’t expect it to grow like this,” Barnett says. “No one rationally would.”
But Killing Eve’s success isn’t just the result of the fact that it’s good. A lot of shows are good, and can even match Eve’s 96 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes. What this show has going for it is that it’s also delightfully weird. Oh, Sandra Oh as a bored MI5 agent (the show’s titular Eve) who forms an obsession with a charismatic female assassin (Jodie Comer’s Villanelle) isn’t enough? Perhaps the fact that its showrunner is Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge (also now famous for playing the droid L3-37 in Solo: A Star Wars Story) makes it more appealing.
And those are only the top notes. The reason the internet—and the people on it—can’t stop talking about Killing Eve is that it completely subverts every male-driven spy story trope out there. No one drinks martinis; everyone’s a little bit queer, in both the sexual sense and the British sense; and both heroes and villains have feelings. (As Barnett notes, Eve also has sparked dialogue about the representations of women and people of color on TV.) It’s also funny as hell, and the cat-and-mouse chase between Eve and Villanelle plays out as much like a high-school-crush love story as it does a cloak-and-dagger tale pitting British intelligence against a mysterious Russian syndicate. (Sunday’s finale paid off both of those plots with a love-scene-slash-assassination-attempt that is pretty much an Emmy reel for both Oh and Comer.)
The show’s success is also somewhat by design. If its word-of-mouth audience-building and GIF-sharing rabid fandom feel familiar, that’s because they’re not too different from BBC America’s last female-fronted semi-surprise hit: four years ago, Orphan Black amassed a crew of hardcore fans for its second season thanks to the show’s availability on Amazon after Season 1. Eve was able to replicate that process, and even accelerate it thanks to its increased multiplatform availability (BBC America didn’t have an app when Orphan originally aired).
Further ensuring the show’s foothold with fans, BBC America enlisted the help of Molly Templeton, a social media director at strategy agency Everybody at Once who had helped cultivate Orphan‘s online “Clone Club,” to interact with the show’s burgeoning audience. “We had the strategy from the beginning to sort of stan our fans, if you like,” Barnett says. “In the same way that Eve and Villanelle establish this obsession with each other, we wanted to mimic some of that obsessiveness.”
That obsession, Barnett hopes, will carry over into Season 2, which was greenlit even before Killing Eve‘s first episode aired. It’ll continue to be as available to viewers as possible and hopefully have an established, ready-to-watch fanbase in place right when the second season premieres. Will it ever top Westworld? That’s a tall order—but in a lazy summer when even HBO crowd-pleasers are starting to disappoint, a show that knows how to play with its audience means that no mission is impossible.
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