From Big Little Lies to Love Island: are memes shaping TV? | Television & radio

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It was a scream that expressed so much: primal grief, explosive rage, maternal power, Lady Gaga’s vocal range and – most significantly – relief that Big Little Lies’ follow-up series was now an assured success on a par with its 2017 debut. The moment that Meryl Streep’s dinner table howl became a social media sensation – the original audio variously overdubbed with pop songs, ringtones and the perky Parks and Recreation theme tune – was also the moment that HBO could rest easy. That’s how much memes mean to television.

Research from 2017 revealed that around 75% of UK adults now “second screen” – use another device (usually a smartphone, sometimes a laptop), while watching television; among 18-24-year-olds that goes up to 93%. According to US market researchers Statista, the most popular second-screening activities are engaging with the programme, communicating with friends about it and checking social media, all of which may well involve sharing a TV-related internet in-joke or meme, such as Homer Simpson receding into the hedgerow, or a suddenly pregnant Kylie Jenner or “so random” Ja’mie King from Summer Heights High.

Kylie Jenner pregnant video.


Bumpy… Kylie Jenner pregnant video. Photograph: KUWTK

Memes are how we relate to television, memes are how we remember television, and broadcasters understand this well. Amy Everett, online editor at Comedy Central UK, says meme-sharing is the millennial equivalent of the water cooler chat: “Our job is to hit those emotional buttons and spark conversation among fans and friends.”

It is no surprise, then, that the most popular shows of the moment also generate the most memes. ITV2’s Love Island, now on its fifth season since the reboot, is the channel’s biggest show by far – and, beyond viewing figures, the proof can be found on Twitter, between 9pm and 10pm, when timelines explode with still images and gifs from the show, tweaked and repurposed with text for maximum RT-ing potential.

“Most of the classics are conveying a particular emotion so it can be used for a lot of circumstances,” says ITV’s head of digital, Janine Smith. Among these she lists a 2018 gif of Wes plopping himself down in the beach-hut chair, ready to dish (“The moment of anticipation is so brilliantly captured in a couple of seconds; that keeps the meme alive”) and 2017’s Kem and Chris in various guises (2019’s “Reflective Night Vision Michael” is the new “Reflective Night Vision Jack” is the new “Reflective Night Vision Chris”). “We might not have rated these as such iconic moments at the time,” says Smith,” but we see the memes returning year after year, especially in the hour leading up to transmission on particularly dramatic storylines.”

Shady… Love Island.

Some of the season’s most promising to date include dismissively referring to Yewande’s love rival Arabella Chi as “Artichoke”, “Areola”, “Arancini” or “Ara-stocracy” – basically any other “Ar-” word aside from her given name – and Molly-Mae peeking from behind a pot plant, which may yet replace Kim Kardashian-West peeking from behind a plant as the internet’s favoured shorthand for stalking. But images from other shows also frequently grace the #LoveIsland timeline; SpongeBob SquarePants and Celebrity Big Brother are regulars. In turn, the best of this year’s Love Island memes will live on long after the islanders have flown home and the winning couple have announced their split with a sad-face-strewn Insta post, expressing, for example, Maura-like disdain for the antics of another Tom-like doofus on an entirely different television show on an entirely different channel.

A TV meme can never really die, but how is it born? Actually, the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, using the term to describe a unit of cultural information analogous to a gene. Just as a successful gene is one that transmits biological information from human to human and passes down through generations, so the most successful memes are the ones that resonate widely across the population.

While memes tend to evolve organically, it’s also possible to create them intentionally – this is the work of digital teams and social media managers – but memetic engineering, like genetic engineering, is beset with potential pitfalls. Even the @LoveIsland account, with its 1.04 million followers, couldn’t convince us to take up Lucie’s Cornish slang, for instance. Although “Stop trying to make bev happen”, overlaid on an image of Regina George from Mean Girls, did trend for a while.

Shushy… Killing Eve.

Accordingly, Navi Lamba, head of social at BBC Three, has built her hugely successful meme dream team by closely mimicking the reproductive habits of memes in the wild. “Our Slack channel feels very much like a bants channel,” she says. “Our chat on there is not even about shows; we make memes about each other, about things we see on the internet.” The result is a work environment that mirrors that of a US sitcom writers’ room, and their creative process involves regular “meme-storms” where the team share ideas and suss out reactions.

“We can kind of go ham. I just want to make my team laugh. That’s my ambition … Obviously, I care about BBC Three getting good engagements and likes and increasing our range and stuff, but, ultimately, when I think about it, my main motivation is to make my team laugh with a meme.”

Some of Lamba’s personal favourites include a take on “What Americans think British guys are like … ” involving This Country’s Kurtan at his most seductive, a stress-relieving Summer Heights High classic for exam season and a Game of Thrones/Drag Race mashup (“What do we say to the god of death?” “Sashay away.”) BBC Three is also the source of one of the most successful TV memes of all time, although most fans of “Guy Tapping His Head” would be unable to name the character (Reece Simpson, AKA Roll Safe), his creator (British actor Kayode Ewumi) or the show it came from (#HoodDocumentary), much less give BBC Three credit. A more traditional marketing manager might find that frustrating, but when you’re as immersed in the social media landscape as Lamba, you appreciate the ecological balance: “It caused a bit of a spike in views for the show and the other thing was that it had a BBC logo on it, so I couldn’t be mad at them. But the main thing is, it came from such a pure place, from this kid who was just like: ‘I have a funny joke to make and the perfect gif to go with it.’”

Weepy… Dawson’s Creek.

When memes are so crucial to TV’s cultural impact, but so tricky to reproduce in laboratory conditions, perhaps the next logical step is to set out to make TV with memes in mind? To an extent this already happens on Love Island, which has audience engagement written into its DNA. Every episode is crammed with the meme-maker’s raw materials of character confrontation and closeups on expressive faces, while the numerous ad breaks offer an opportunity for viewers to turn their attention to their timelines, and fast-turnaround edits allow producers to double down on whatever’s trending. Smith insists, however, that the process is more instinctive: “I don’t think it’s a science and you can say exactly what will fly when it’s published … If an Islander started to deliberately try and talk in soundbites for the purposes of trying to become a meme, I think it would be completely obvious to the digital team and would be unlikely to make the cut.”

It is harder still to deliberately imbue scripted television with meme-ability, if indeed that’s even desirable. It seems one of Killing Eve’s second season missteps may have been trying too hard to construct a plot around visually impressive, potential memes, such as the shot of Villanelle in kids’ pyjamas putting her finger to her lips.

In fact, unwitting creation is a feature in many of the best meme origin stories. “Dawson Crying”, that image of James Van Der Beek contorting his face into a mask of utter anguish, comes from the season three finale of teen show Dawson’s Creek, which first aired on 24 May 2000. It resurfaced in 2006, when a clip was posted on YouTube, and from there made steady progress, via blogs and aggregator sites, to the TV Meme Hall of Fame. In a 2012 Huffington Post interview, Van Der Beek expressed his own feelings about Crying Dawson’s internet afterlife: “It wasn’t scripted, I don’t think. I mean, it was appropriate for the scene. You know, it was just high drama … So I remember being completely surprised by it because it was completely sincere. [Laughs.] The fact that it’s being used to mock me now, I think it’s so funny.”

Not only does meme-able TV often pre-date social media altogether but, in the opinion of both Everett at Comedy Central and Lamba at BBC Three, old shows make the best new memes, and they have theories as to why.

“You have loads of fans that have watched not once, but like 7,000 times,” says Lamba. “Like, in Gavin & Stacey, there’s that line when Doris says: ‘To tell you the truth Gwen, I’m absolutely twatted.’ The amount of times we’ve taken that one iconic line and applied it to a variety of situations is insane. You just rinse those lines and you get this huge bang for your buck.”

Streepy… Big Little Lies.

Everett says something similar about Comedy Central’s big hitters, Friends and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (she reveals the latter has produced the channel’s most-viewed clip, Will and Carlton dancing, now at 64m views on Facebook): “We’re just reminding people of why they loved the shows in the first place … They know what we’re talking about without having to watch the whole video and wait for the gag to be explained.”

Is it simply that audiences are so familiar with their favourite shows that they’re instantly in on the joke? Or does this tell us something more fundamental about the relationship between television and memes? Maybe “meme-able” is just another word for “good”. As Everett says of Friends: “Not a day passes where a news story or conversation happening on social media isn’t somehow mirrored in the show and it never fails to drive engagement … Love, friendship, money struggles, work problems and finding your feet in the world – those themes are just as relevant in 2019 as they were in 1994.”

In other words, the best way to make a show that’s meme-able is to do exactly what conscientious TV producers have always tried to do: connect with the audience at home. It’s possible that the Big Little Lies team of writer David E Kelley, director Andrea Arnold and actor Meryl Streep set out to make the ultimate meme-scream and succeeded. More likely, though, they were just trying to make great television.

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