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How Gen Z TV is Using Instagram to Help Drive Story

From Elite to Euphoria and beyond, social media is adding to the TV narrative.
  • Instagram plays a key role in both the on- and off- screen story telling of the Netflix teen series Élite (Photo: Netflix)
    Instagram plays a key role in both the on- and off- screen story telling of the Netflix teen series Élite (Photo: Netflix)

    "She has 39,000 followers." In the second season of the Spanish teen drama Élite, new character Cayetana (Georgina Amorós) is introduced via her Instagram Stories by a skeptical sounding Lu (Danna Paola). As the resident Queen Bee, Lu is quick to judge her new classmates; at the exclusive Las Encinas, status means everything. By Lu’s standards, Cayetana appears desperate, having posted seven selfies the morning of her first day, but her number of followers immediately puts her in Lu’s orbit. Will she be a rival or a friend?

    How much a TV show incorporates current technology and social media platforms into the narrative is driven by a variety of factors. Procedurals typically create their own versions of sites we use on a daily basis — Chumhum on The Good Fight and FaceUnion on Law & Order: SVU — which gives them more freedom to stretch and mold those sites to their narrative whims. For shows that aren't steeped in youth culture, employing current technology sometimes comes across as clunky, yet not using it can appear out of touch. More than 500 million people use Instagram on a daily basis, but that doesn’t mean it's compelling to see characters scrolling through Stories and photos. There's fine line between organic integration and looking like the Steve Buscemi high school scene from 30 Rock. No one wants to be the person sliding up asking, "How do you do, fellow kids?"

    While teen shows have utilized Instagram in a number of ways, Élite uses it as an extension of who its characters are. Cayetana isn’t the rich girl who lives by herself, she's a scholarship student whose mother is the school janitor. Instagram has allowed her to create a fairy tale image, and she is taking the "Instagram versus Reality" meme to an extreme. It's a path to creating status in a school of the rich and pampered, but it's also a method for seduction, spying, and investigating. Samuel (Itzan Escamilla) is convinced his brother is sitting in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, so he uses the platform to get closer to the woman he thinks is involved. Not only does his plan work, but he also uses Instagram photos from the night of Marina’s (María Pedraza) murder to prove Polo (Álvaro Rico) killed her. Photos reveal Polo changed his shirt halfway through the night (because it was covered in blood). As evidence, it's not exactly ironclad, but it's a start.

    Social media as a form of investigation is central to Netflix's mockumentary series, American Vandal. In the Season 2 finale, teen documentarian Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) explains, "We’re the first generation that gets to live twice. Our existences are simultaneously experienced and curated — presented, packaged, and polished for our own protection." The final message of what turned out to be the show's very last episode is perhaps more serious than a show investigating "Who drew the dicks?" and the identity of the "Turd Burglar" suggests it will be. But beneath the crude drawings and cafeteria pranks, American Vandal is an exploration of high school —which can feel like hell for any generation —  but Instagram magnifies every flaw and insecurity via the number of faves and identities crafted.

    Audience engagement is hopefully one way to generate more interest, and while American Vandal apparently didn't have the viewer numbers to justify a renewal, the show did have a real Instagram account corresponding to the Season 2 storyline, and the mysterious Turd Burglar had over 100,000 followers.

    In 2015, the Norwegian teen series SKAM took Instagram activity to an unprecedented level. Not only did the main characters have their own active accounts, but photos would be uploaded in real-time as an episode aired. Characters also reacted to real events including the Manchester terror bombing and political Tweets. The lines between fiction and reality were blurred by giving an air of authenticity to the posts, particularly when they look genuine, rather than crafted for television. It's a gimmick that requires a lot of forward planning by the writers and those creating the posts. This kind of specificity is impossible with a streaming series. SKAM: Austin (which aired in 2018 on Facebook Watch) opted for a similar strategy. In this era of Peak TV and YouTube stars, it is hardly surprising that there have been attempts to marry a play for more viewers with an Influencer strategy.

    A show like Élite is ideal for setting up accounts to coincide with posts that feature in episodes, but since it's on Netlfix, there's no way to know when audiences will be watching, and Instagram Stories only have a shelf-life of 24 hours. Instead, Netflix generates interest via the actors' posts. This level of behind-the-scenes intimacy is also relatively new. Now there are constant updates featuring on-set shenanigans and onscreen relationships turned-real. It's still just as controlled as any other era of Hollywood (give or take a few candid moments), but it gives the impression of TV stars being not only in your living room, but in your pocket, as well.

    Euphoria plays out like it's edited for a generation raised on social media, with quick cuts and collages of images. It is beautifully made, and everything from the makeup to the clothes is ideal for online tutorials and shopping sprees. The show itself uses dating apps, Pornhub and Snapchat to portray different sexualized aspects, but Instagram is also utilized to warn viewers about graphic and triggering content.

    Generation Z isn't the only demographic getting in on the Instagram action in a narrative form. Millennials also get to play in this particular sandbox. When Instagram Stories launched in 2016, it seemed like they were just copying Snapchat, but as someone who had downloaded the latter and found it impossible to use (seriously, I have never felt more like the aforementioned Steve Buscemi gif), the introduction of this "new" Instagram feature was met with an eye roll. And then Busy Philipps perfected the platform, creating a mini reality TV show every day. TV shows have folded this in as a narrative device, whether it's jealousy causing Boomerangs on Élite or an exploration of the business of Influencers in the digital magazine landscape of The Bold Type. Broad City has played with the format on a number of occasions, most notably in the magic-mushroom-enhanced animated episode in Season 4. The final season premiere delivered another twist, celebrating Abbi’s (Abbi Jacobson) 30th birthday with a party covering the length of Manhattan and told via Instagram Stories.

    Other than the dash detail and the 15 second time limit, the majority of this episode plays out as if it has been filmed on Ilana’s (Ilana Glazer) iPhone — later switching to Abbi’s before they both end up phoneless. Stickers, gifs, and filters are all employed to give the Instagram authenticity stamp. If you use or watch Stories, it will be familiar. It isn’t too intrusive if you haven’t, although there is a certain expectation that a majority of the audience will be Stories fluent. As with American Vandal, it's about more than just flexing this particular digital language. There are all-too-real jokes about the aspirational social media versions of our lives, as well as a gag about not being able to appreciate a triple rainbow without a device to capture it on. The final season of Broad City was a return to form and this premiere showcased a very specific insight into modern living.

    Also serving up a pointed exploration of social media and narcissism is Cary (Drew Tarver) on Comedy Central's The Other Two. In order to score an audition for a new Ryan Murphy series (American Crime Story: Hot Coffee), he needs 15,000 Instagram followers. Despite his younger brother’s fame and his recent appearance on Watch What Happens Live, Cary is still 10,000 or so short. To boost his numbers further, he starts hanging out with gay influencers because they have millions of  followers. He views the "Instagays" as his ticket to his audition total. Despite their pre-planned costumes and calculated posting schedule, Cary is the one who comes out of this looking like a fraud and a villain. His desire to hit 15,000 is way more desperate than their superficial group hangouts. The Other Two is one of the most effective (and hilarious) commentaries on influencers and Instagram, delving beneath the glossy veneer of these public-facing figures.

    Building a brand is part of the allure of Instagram, where we all get to shape our own image. Of course this isn’t its only function, and Élite doesn’t simply use it as a device to showcase status. By weaving different aspects of the platform into the narrative, it helps push the story forward in a number of other ways, including romantic motivation or as a tool for the amateur sleuths trying to solve a murder. Élite expertly threads these various functions in a way that never comes across as forced, and as social media evolves, so does the manner in which TV incorporates it into a storyline. At the moment, Élite's horny teens are the best at illustrating why you should smash that "follow" button.

    People are talking about Élite in our forums. Join the conversation.

    Emma Fraser has wanted to write about TV since she first watched My So-Called Life in the mid-90s, finally getting her wish over a decade later. Follow her on Twitter at @frazbelina

    TOPICS: Elite, Netflix, American Vandal, Broad City, Euphoria, The Other Two, Skam, Instagram