Inside The Big Battle To Save One Small TV Show
When TV shows aren’t popular, they get canceled — at least that’s the precedent set by years of broadcast and cable programming. But in the current era of streaming services, a surplus of shows, and an evaporating pile of cash, has created an overwhelming wave of cancellations completely at odds with shows’ viewership, popularity, or quality. For the average viewer, this might just mean pressing play on something new. But online, small but tight-knit fandoms have taken it upon themselves to face down streaming giants over their beloved shows. And how do you win an unfair matchup? You fight dirty.
Welcome to the Shadow and Bone fandom. The group is made up of enthusiasts of the Grishaverse novels, a series of books by Leigh Bardugo, all set in the same universe. In Bardugo’s world, some of the biggest historical cities at their most famous, like plague-era Amsterdam, dynasty-ruled Beijing, Tsarist Moscow, and Viking Stockholm, all co-exist around each other. There are political machinations, war, and famine, all while countries try to rule around (or in spite of) magic users called Grisha. Like the books, the Shadow and Bone series follows Alina Starkov, a rare Grisha with the ability to summon heat and light from the sun. Viewers are also introduced to a band of unlikely but scrappy thieves called The Crows — a team of six outcasts and orphans who come together to take out a nefarious mob kingpin.
Shadow and Bone premiered on Netflix in April 2021 and became the second most-watched show in the U.S. on its debut weekend. But when its second season came out last March to much less fanfare, writers and showrunners of the series told media outlets that the show’s future (and a much-anticipated spin-off with the Crows) would only be possible if viewership went up. Science fiction and fantasy series are notoriously expensive to make and are often canceled by streamers before their third season. And Netflix has a trail of canceled series with massive fandoms to back that up: First Kill, Half Bad: The Bastard Son & The Devil Himself, and Fate: The Winx Saga. But facing an uncertain future, the Shadow and Bone fandom isn’t going quietly. Instead, fan accounts have started an online movement to game the show’s statistics in their favor. Those behind several of the biggest accounts tell Rolling Stone that they’re willing to put in the manpower to make sure it survives.
“We had to come up with something to keep the fandom and the energy alive,” the Turkish fan behind popular account @flawlqes tells Rolling Stone. “Netflix is such an unstable streaming service. You never know if your favorite show is gonna get renewed or it’s gonna get canceled, and we always had that doubt. So from day one, we just did our best.”
There’s nothing new about a fan campaign. As streaming services have become havens for long-canceled shows, renewal fights have become commonplace online. Some, like the campaign to renew sci-fi telepathy thriller Sense 8 and space-odyssey Firefly, were given pyrrhic victories in the form of final movies to wrap up storylines. Others, like mystery sci-fi The OA or quirky comedy Pushing Daisies, have had major fan campaigns that ended in failure. Shadow and Bone fans don’t just want a renewal — they’re also desperate for a spinoff. But asking Netflix to spend more money means convincing the media conglomerate that the fandom is good for it.
Gaming the system is all about the numbers. Following the show’s premiere, the most dedicated of the #Grishaverse fans watched it in its entirety, at least five times a week — trying to maintain Shadow and Bone’s spot as the No. 2 series on Netflix. On the r/ShadowandBone subreddit, accounts promoted nightly virtual watch parties, where hundreds of people tuned in to re-watch together. Admins of popular accounts also encouraged casual viewers to keep episodes on, first as re-watches, and then just muted in the background to increase its views. Holly, an 18-year-old from the U.K. who runs multiple Shadow and Bone fan accounts, tells Rolling Stone she’s seen the series at least 60 times. But while Netflix monitors a series’ engagement for roughly the first three weeks after its premiere, the streaming service doesn’t regularly share any specific data on shows, which means fans have also had to keep engagement up on social media.
Since Season 2 of Shadow and Bone premiered, series-related hashtags (#SOCspinoff, #SixOfCrowsSpinoff) have trended globally on Twitter every week, with upwards of 5,000 tweets per hashtag. And when weeks of constant rewatches weren’t enough to keep the fantasy series in Netflix’s Top 5, @flawlqes also started the #grishaverseeditingweek — seven days of encouraging Shadow and Bone fans to post video edits of their favorite scenes and characters. On TikTok, the hashtag received 1 million views in its first day. As of Monday, the hashtag had 6.3 million views and thousands of submissions. Following the popularity of #grishaverseeditingweek, Holly started #grishaverseAUweek—seven days dedicated to alternate universe fan fiction. And the support isn’t just from fans. After the push for a Season 3 renewal, Holly tells Rolling Stone that Shadow and Bone creators, actors, and fandoms of other shows facing cancellation, like Netflix’s Lockwood and Co., have started boosting the hashtags and content in solidarity.
“I’ve not been in any fandoms of ongoing shows before. I’ve always joined things after they finish. But this time, it’s new for me and it’s scary since Netflix in particular is quite keen on canceling things before they really have a chance to shine,” Holly says. “But the writers and showrunners and everyone wants this as much as we do. And it really makes you feel more connected to the show. Like they’re not giving up on it, we shouldn’t give up on it.”
On Twitter, the @reallifewylan fan account has 13,500 followers and posts Shadow and Bone content every day. But the man behind the scenes is a 22-year-old trans fan from Germany named Arthur. His favorites are by far the “Six of Crows” characters, a ragged group of thieves running a fictional Amsterdam. The books inspired Arthur so much that he wrote his bachelor’s thesis at Germany’s Goethe University Frankfurt on Shadow and Bone and “the depiction of trauma and addiction in popular young adult literature.” He believes the power of the series’ source material, and its reliance on acceptance and found family, is one of the reasons the online community is working so hard to keep the show alive.
“For me specifically, as a trans person, my Twitter account is a place where I could really explore my identity for the very first time and have people still like me for it,” he says. “I don’t know why my account grew that much because I’m really just screaming into the void. But I found my own family here. And I think that’s a very big part of why this community is so close-knit, because you can really just be yourself no matter who you are, and you’re accepted for it.”
Hope, a 21-year-old BookTok creator, adds that the popularity of Shadow and Bone and the desire for a “Six of Crows” spinoff comes from Bardugo’s positive portrayal of heroes that don’t have it all together. The Crows are outcasts, disabled, and recovering from trauma, and find love and healing through each other. They aren’t chosen ones, but they become main characters anyway— a message that can stand out to many YA readers.
“Immediately the first time I read it, I felt like I could see myself reflected in all of the different characters and some of what they’ve been through,” Hope says. “That got me hooked. I fell in love with them immediately and it’s clearly still going strong.”
While a lack of data makes it unclear whether fans will succeed in earning Shadow and Bone a third season, what is apparent is that online fandoms are no longer content to sit by and watch their shows end. Netflix has not made any announcement about the series’ renewal or cancellation and did not respond to Rolling Stone‘s request for comment. But each of the fans who spoke to Rolling Stone say that even if they fail in their mission, they’ll take comfort in, literally, the friends they made along the way.
“I’ve met some of my best friends in this fandom,” Holly says. “They’re from all over the world, and we send gifts to each other, we message every day. They’re there for me and they’ll be my friends for life. It’s just amazing. It’s definitely a community. “
“I’ve been [in this fandom] for two years. And it’s just been like a roller coaster,” Arthur says. “But if we don’t get that spin-off, or the renewal, we’re still going to be there.”