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Top Boy deserved to be savoured, not speed-watched – what were Netflix thinking?

Top Boy deserved to be savoured, not speed-watched – what were Netflix thinking?
The return of the hit gang drama provided viewers a choice: watch fast, or get spoiled. But Netflix’s increasingly nonsensical release model also meant some fans missed out on the rich nuances of one of TV’s best shows, writes Nicole Vassell

Three years is a long time to wait for a new season of television. For Top Boy fans, the wait was excruciating. Fresh from an earlier six-year hiatus, the edgy Channel 4 drama about drugs and gangs in Hackney returned in 2019 on a new platform (Netflix), with new celebrity backing (hello, executive producer Drake!) and a newly global viewership. Still, it remained distinctly itself; its core audience was thrilled to have it back, while people fresh to the show got engrossed in its rich authenticity. As soon as it was over, people wanted more.

Last Friday morning, the wait was over: season two (or four, depending on how you classify the original run) finally dropped. By Sunday morning, major spoilers from its final episode had been splashed across social media. For some viewers, early public discussion was expected, so they squeezed the entire eight-episode season into a weekend. And even if the threat of spoilers wasn’t a concern, many people binged the show simply because they could.

The way we consume television has changed since the original Top Boy debuted on Channel 4 in 2011. It’s now the norm for programmes to be made available in their entirety all at once, rather than a staggered weekly release of each episode. And while some streaming-exclusive programmes have adapted to this pattern, shows with roots in pre-streaming TV still seem better suited to a slower rollout. Those who’ve waited feverishly for Top Boy now have what they wanted. Yet in Netflix dropping all eight episodes at once, the show has been robbed of the thoughtful unpacking and consideration that it deserved.

In the rush to get to the end of the series before having storylines spoiled online, many viewers didn’t have time to engage with the nuances that occurred throughout. The journey of troubled drug lord Sully (Kane “Kano” Robinson) is something particularly deserving of attention. At the start of season two, he’s racked with regret over some of his past actions and trying to atone for them: he tries to financially take care of the family of an old friend he killed, and shuns attempts to draw him back to the gang lifestyle. He’s even living on a canal boat, spending his free time flirting with a neighbour and feeding an urban fox from a tin. But one favour for a niece puts Sully right back on the road to darkness, and at business partner Dushane’s (Ashley Walters) side, with more of a fearsome streak than ever. Kano’s ability to shift between personas is truly something to behold, and it’s a performance that shouldn’t be missed. But it easily could, if a viewer’s sole goal is to make it to the show’s finale before anyone else.

A major event in the season’s closing moments has fuelled most conversations around the show as a whole. But having it spoiled doesn’t only ruin the shock of it for those who haven’t yet watched, it overshadowed many scenes worthy of equal note. A large part of the joy of watching TV is the social element; you want to be able to compare and contrast notes with friends, as well as pore over the opinions of strangers through reviews and online commentary. With the whole season out at once, there are fewer defined checkpoints for viewers to stop and appreciate what they’ve seen, or to speculate over what comes next. It’s difficult to engage in feverish discussion about choices made in a scene in episode two if many others have already reached the end.

Recently. we’ve even had proof of the benefits of a show being released gradually. Netflix dropped 11 episodes of the dating series Love is Blind over the course of four weeks, which allowed its worldwide audience to enjoy it in stages. Fans were able to discuss twists and romantic developments over weeks at a time, rather than feeling compelled to speed ahead to the end, and leaving smaller moments from earlier on in the season forgotten about. Granted, a reality show about falling in love before seeing your partner is very different from a fictional drama about drug gangs in east London. But the effect is similar: taking time creates a moment of community.

Of course, social media reception isn’t the main marker for the success of a TV series. But after so long a wait, and such meticulous work put into it, surely Top Boy’s reward should be more than a few days’ worth of conversation? Some of Top Boy’s cast have even reacted to the speed of fans’ consumption. Little Simz, who plays Dushane’s girlfriend Shelley, tweeted her wish for people to “chill on the spoilers”, while Kano apparently told a fan: “We put all that work in for months for man to just finish it in a day?”

So many people have worked hard to create an impressive series, full of careful character development and layered storylines. If Netflix allows it to run for many more seasons – as it should – they would be smart to allow the audience more time to savour it. Top Boy is the result of years of toil – it deserves more than a speed-watch.

You can read The Independent’s review of Top Boy season two here.