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Is Tony Soprano alive? Will Greg ‘win’ Succession? How fan theories took over TV


Few TV series have been more eagerly awaited than series three of Succession. Jesse Armstrong’s drama about the odious Roy dynasty and its savage power grab returned last month after a two-year absence – partly owing to pandemic-related delays – with the show’s fanbase only growing during its hiatus.

Some devotees started “no context Succession” accounts. Others made like Logan Roy and got entrepreneurial by selling unofficial Waystar merch. And 50,000 superfans found themselves down the rabbit hole of Reddit’s TV forums, joining their fellow Succession heads for some forensic speculation.

Over the years, TV series have begun to attract increasingly detailed – and sometimes far-fetched – theories from viewers. Among them: Tony Soprano is not dead; Malcolm in the Middle grew up to be Walter White in Breaking Bad; and Friends was all a figment of a homeless Phoebe’s imagination. No split-second look or throwaway line goes unnoticed, as fans analyse episodes to back up their outlandish ideas. However, with more time on our hands during the pandemic, fan theories seem to be more popular and compelling than ever, as viewers catch up on cult programmes and play fantasy scriptwriter online.

Friends
Courteney act … Phoebe and her ‘imaginary friend’ Monica. Photograph: Getty Images

Twenty six-year-old Kevin Jones from London started watching Succession nine months ago and was quickly hooked. “I have a few friends who watch it,” he says, “but they have a limit with how much they want to talk about it. In the Reddit group, I can geek out endlessly.”

Indeed, the show’s Reddit forum is packed full of crumbs of info and illicit photos from filming (in a recent Guardian interview, the show’s writers noted that someone had even posted their lunch menu to the site). “All the rumours and theories about the new series allowed the show to continue while it wasn’t on air,” Jones says. “As well as Twitter, there’s an Instagram account called Deuxmoi – which is basically a real-life New York Gossip Girl – and there were lots of scoops on the show on there.” Jones believes that such platforms are “definitely changing how we watch TV. Part of the excitement now is the discussion during and after a show airs.”

As well as trying to piece together the plot from online gossip, Jones and other fans use the forum to speculate about the twists and turns that could lie ahead. Along with many other viewers, Jones believes that Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) could somehow rise to the top, usurping his power-hungry relatives to become CEO of Waystar. “There’s loads of love for Greg and his potential plots at the moment,” he says. “He’s killing it.” Titbits of information posted by Braun (including an Instagram photo captioned “I am an employee of this company and that’s all I can say about that!”) are like catnip to the fans, giving them even more “evidence” to support their guesswork.

How will Jones feel if his months of conjecture prove to be correct – or fail to materialise? “It’s difficult,” he says. “I think there’s a possibility I might see my predictions come true. But equally, I also don’t want this to be a TV show that I can predict. That’ll be no fun, and it would be sad if it didn’t live up to our hype.

“I have hope, though. Jesse Armstrong is a great writer. If it can sustain [its quality], then it will deserve its place in the pantheon of great TV.”

Earlier this year, we saw the fallout caused when the script of one series failed to live up to viewers’ fan-fic fantasies. Oliver Richards, 23, from Sydney, Australia, is a member of the Line of Duty Reddit group. “I enjoy seeing what other people are saying about the show and whether people reach similar conclusions to me,” he says. “It’s really nice to have that shared excitement and passion for something with people all around the world.” That said, “none of my own theories came true”, he laughs.

The elaborate musings on how series six of Line of Duty might have played out never came to fruition. There was no bombastic “urgent exit required” finale, rather more of a damp squib leading to some fans feeling short-changed. “There was a massive movement with everyone analysing everything and playing armchair detective, building to the trailer for the finale that said: ‘Every investigation has led to this,’” says Richards. “It seemed to advertise a blockbuster, only for the finale to be a reasonably sedate affair. It felt a bit odd.

“Now that I think about it, the theories might actually be why the ‘realistic ending’ didn’t go over so well with a lot of the fans. We had been using it as an escape from reality, only for it to swing around and hit us in the face in the finale.”

Line of Duty
Battle of Hastings … Line of Duty’s finale divided viewers, who were expecting bigger reveals. Photograph: Steffan Hill/BBC/PA

As with the much-maligned climax of Game of Thrones, perhaps all of this over-analysing has started to impact on our enjoyment of popular shows. However, Richards doesn’t regret the many hours spent poring over the plot online. “Everything is so crap right now, so it was nice to step back from reality and invest yourself in a series.”

Elsewhere on Reddit, long-running shows such as Killing Eve, The Walking Dead and Peaky Blinders have also attracted much speculation. Jamie Glazebrook, executive producer of Peaky Blinders at Caryn Mandabach Productions says it’s “interesting to see what people are responding to – good and bad. The wildest theory I’ve read online has been that a certain character who was shot in series three is still alive and will make a surprise re-appearance. I think that’s down to the fact she didn’t actually die on screen and we never showed her funeral.

“But I never feed back to Laura Martin Steven Knight, or let it directly influence the series, be it a compliment or a criticism,” says Glazebrook. “The danger is that a creative endeavour starts to feel like it’s run by a focus group. Plus, because Peaky Blinders is driven by character rather than plot, there’s not so much pressure to pull a rabbit out of that hat at the end. It’s less ‘whodunnit’ and more: ‘What’s going to happen to Tommy Shelby?’”

Executive producer for Death in Paradise and Sanditon and joint MD of Red Planet Pictures, Belinda Campbell, says jokingly that she “lives in fear’” of seeing fan storylines online that are better than the real ones. “For that reason, I don’t tend to read fan fiction, although I love to know that it’s going on.”

That fan theories often fail to materialise on screen, Campbell points out, is because they “don’t have any of the problems of budget, artist availabilities or schedules that can sometimes limit our ambitions”. But for screenwriters, the online theories are proof that their fictional worlds and characters have connected with the audience. “My approach is always that we have to create 3D characters who resonate with audiences and who, regardless of the period, could be real people living their lives,” she says. “That emotional verisimilitude is really important. I feel enormously heartened that people love our shows and the characters enough to create new narratives for them.”

We will know in a few episodes’ time whether Succession season three has lived up to fans’ expectations. But even if the “wrong” Roy ends up on top, these viewer-led spaces give a voice to the fandom – and the chance to come up with an ending that may even be more entertaining than the real thing.

Succession airs on Sky Atlantic/Now in the UK and HBO in the US.





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