The streaming wars have taken over television to such a degree that it’s hard to imagine the place where it started. Netflix is now an equal player alongside cable mainstays and premium juggernauts like HBO, but in 2014, the Netflix home page was a very different place. The “originals” branding was a rare sight because it was so few and far between. And it may almost be lost to history that one of the earliest shows with that logo was in fact Peaky Blinders.
The stylish gangster drama emerged from nowhere, premiering on Netflix in two parts in September and October of 2014. It came about in Netflix’s early stage of “original” programming which consisted of licensing overseas (mostly British) TV for North American audiences. The international rights for Peaky Blinders were bought from the Weinstein Company, who produced the show during much of its run.
Netflix’s buy for Peaky Blinders was risky. The show was popular enough in the UK but aired on BBC Two, a step below the more popular BBC One. The show had some actors recognizable to an American audience, but Jurassic Park star Sam Neill as Chester Campbell and recent Christopher Nolan recruit Cillian Murphy as Thomas Shelby aren’t huge stars on their own. Netflix’s all-mighty algorithm was still in its early stages as well, so the show didn’t receive the aggressive push their originals do now.
The end result was Peaky Blinders making a quiet first impression. It was recommended to people who watched other British series or historical crime dramas but received little fanfare. Any search for conversations about the show after the 2014 Netflix release produced few results beyond the odd fan page or underdeveloped wiki.
It wasn’t until after the release of Season 3 that the conversation around the show changed. Peaky Blinders is a series that’s hard to forget; its stylish production and outside-the-box creative choices make it stand out amongst contemporaries. But when Season 3 premiered on Netflix in 2016, it was a different streaming landscape, one where the amount of true originals had dramatically increased. Despite being labeled as a Netflix original, Peaky Blinders is not produced by Netflix, unlike most of its well known series such as Stranger Things and The Crown. So even with a stronger algorithm and strategy for pushing originals, Season 3 of Peaky Blinders was not a priority for Netflix.
And yet, something unexpected happened: people started watching. Those who saw the first two seasons aggressively recommended the show to friends. Peaky Blinders lends itself well to word of mouth—any show that can be described as a 1920s gangster drama set to the music of Nick Cave and the White Stripes is sure to pique someone’s interest. The release of Season 3 in 2016 brought along one of the biggest word-of-mouth campaigns seen in the Peak TV era. Peaky Blinders picked up a list of celebrity recommenders, including the likes of Brad Pitt, Snoop Dogg, and David Bowie, who bestowed glowing praise. Bowie was such a fan that he even gave the show permission to use his music shortly before his death. On the Twitter side, both Stephen King and Ron Howard tweeted recommendations for the show in 2016.
The shift between the release of Season 3 and Season 4 cannot be understated. While Netflix does not release viewership numbers, the increasing social capital of Peaky Blinders could be seen all over the internet. “Peaky fooking Blinders” jokes increased exponentially. The best evidence of the impact comes from the increase in viewership for the show in the UK. The cumulative viewing audience almost doubled between Season 3 and 4.
Season 4 of the show only increased its impact. The explosion of attention after Season 3 brought more prominent actors to the cast, most notably Adrian Brody in Season 4 as mafia boss Luca Changretta. Even more people started to watch, fueled by even higher praise by those already hooked. Again, Season 5 had almost double the viewers of the previous season in the UK. Even further, Arthur and Ada, the names of two of the main characters, jumped into the most popular baby names in the UK for the first time in a century in 2018.
Netflix itself, however, was not behind any of the success. Their algorithm was not directing people’s attention but instead at the mercy of it. It was only after the natural success of the show that Netflix responded and increased press ahead of Season 5. A third-party study of international search volumes in 2021 found Peaky Blinders to be the most popular series globally for Netflix this year.
That’s what makes Peaky Blinders’ triumph so remarkable. In an age where Netflix and streamers are spending billions of dollars to make and market hit shows and grab people’s attention, one show purchased in 2014 became a global phenomenon. Peaky Blinders feels like one of the only purely natural hit shows of the streaming era. It created its own buzz through its own merits, and by being unique through its own creativity.
Earlier this year, creator Steven Knight announced that the upcoming Season 6 will be the show’s last. He is leaving open the possibility of a movie or spinoffs in the future but nothing has been greenlit yet. This is coupled by the tragic death of star and scene-stealer Helen McCroy, who played Polly Shelby, in April of 2021. After such an impressive rise in notability, Peaky Blinders is now in the difficult place of having to end a cultural juggernaut in a very different position than it started.
The story of Peaky Blinders is the story of the strengths and weaknesses of the streaming era. The show aired through the beginning of a new age of media production and consumption, and has weathered a meteoric rise alongside streaming expansions. Whether the show can stick the landing is almost irrelevant, the question is really if its cultural legacy can survive in such a crowded field. In five years will we still be making “Peaky fooking Blinders” jokes? In two years even?
I truly hope so. In an age when even great shows feel artificial, it’s been wonderful to have a show be loved because people love it. No matter how the series ends, Peaky Blinders will forever feel unique for its grassroots path to success. And even if its pop cultural impact wanes, there will be hundreds of kids named Arthur, Thomas, and Ada to keep the Shelby legacy alive.
Leila Jordan is the TV intern for Paste Magazine. To talk about all things movies, TV, and useless trivia you can find her @galaxyleila.
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