According to records, BBC’s The Bodyguard swept in 17.1 million viewers for the series finale in August, making it the most watched episode of any television drama since records began in 2002. It is also BBC iPlayer’s most successful boxset ever with approximately 38 million requests and according to Digital Spy has ‘the largest recorded audience for a programme that isn’t a sporting or national event since 2010’. It goes to show that we as a country revel in the vice-like grip of a thriller.
So before the many follow-up thrillers trying to emulate the same success are shoved down our throats and plastered on the sides of buses by the BBC, why did audiences flock to The Bodyguard? Why did we rush home five minutes early from work to avoid missing the action?
The explanation, like many others, saps away the beautiful mystery behind thrillers until the science stands naked and bland in front of us. We mainly love thrillers because of a mix of neurochemicals, specifically oxytocin and dopamine.
“The Bodyguard essentially offers audiences a lighter to their cigarette with a consistent flow of thrilling scenes, keeping them in front of the TV with the promise of another one”
Dopamine is produced primarily as the reward hormone. It is what is released when we complete and fulfil tasks or participate in pleasurable activates. It is what people experience when they consume foods with high levels of sugar, drink alcohol, or smoke cigarettes. In other words, it is highly addictive. When we experience aspects of TV shows that thrill us particularly, such as a really invigorating action or romance sequences, dopamine is released.
A thriller that brims within these scenes, like David Budd (Richard Madden) from The Bodyguard pelting after a sniper stationed in a high building firing on him, naturally has the audience engaged the entire time. We want to see whether Budd finds the sniper and arrests him. To not know would be an incomplete task in our minds and a sober palette without the hit of dopamine. The Bodyguard essentially offers audiences a lighter to their cigarette with a consistent flow of thrilling scenes, keeping them in front of the TV with the promise of another one.
Oxytocin has been known to reduce stress and anxiety in the body. To me, being sat restfully on the sofa with some distracting drama would immediately ease my stress and anxiety after a day in the office. We appreciate this feeling and enjoy experiencing it because it makes us feel safe and content. Furthermore, oxytocin is also released around people that we feel a significant emotional connection with as we feel naturally comfortable around them.
This works similarly to when we engage with characters that we grow to know and love in our favourite TV series, like David Budd and the way the audience know exclusively the extent to which his post traumatic depression affects him. It explains why we are aggrieved when a character dies after growing to know them so well via their progression onscreen.
The success of The Bodyguard wasn’t solely due to this chemical cooking pot. People may simply have enjoyed a particular character, buzzed from the escape it gave them from the stresses of everyday life or simply had nothing better to do than watch the show. But if TV writers are able to successfully elicit these two neurochemicals and drip-feed them to audiences effectively throughout a season, then they are onto a prize winning formula.