Doom-scrolling and deceit: Chloe is a thriller for the Instagram age


young woman lies in the dark, her face illuminated by the smartphone held inches from her face. The glow of her LED alarm clock tells us it’s two am – the perfect time to embark on a journey through other people’s digital highlights reels. She keeps returning to one girl’s profile in particular, scrolling back through smiling photos of parties, picnics, drinks and dates.

If you have an Instagram account, the chances are that you’ve been guilty of insomnia scrolling just like Becky, the character played by Erin Doherty (aka The Crown’s formidable Princess Anne) in BBC One’s new drama, Chloe. The sequence, exposing those moments “when it’s just you and your phone and no one’s there to tell you to get off your bloody phone,” as the actress puts it, hits “much closer to home than a lot of people would like to think.” It’s strangely unsettling to be confronted on screen with a behaviour that is surreptitious and self-destructive, but in an everyday way. Engaging with the infinite scroll can, as the show’s creator Alice Seabright puts it, feel “like picking a scab”, and for her character it has become “a way of beating herself up.”

The girl that Becky keeps scrolling back to is not an influencer but a former school friend named Chloe (Poppy Gilbert), who seems to have everything she does not: isolated and adrift, Becky juggles temp work around caring for her mum, who has early onset dementia. When she learns that Chloe has died suddenly, she takes this online obsession offline, adopting a sophisticated alter ego, Sasha, and infiltrating the dead woman’s friendship group with Instagram-assisted ease. It’s simple enough to engineer a chance encounter with Chloe’s friend Livia, played by Pippa Bennett-Warner, if she will insist on tagging herself at the same boujie yoga class every week.

Seabright, who has previously written and directed episodes of Netflix’s Sex Education, notes that her show isn’t necessarily intended to present “an analysis of what social media is today” — instead “the social media aspect… serves the story around friendship and identity and grief.” Still, Chloe’s twisty, almost Highsmith-esque concept is proof that, after a decade or so of dodgy on-screen speech bubbles, archaic text speak and an over-reliance on the word ‘blog’ as a byword for all things internet, the TV world is starting to engage with our online lives in thoughtful ways.

Becky (Doherty) takes on a sophisticated alter ego, Sasha

/ BBC/Mam Tor Productions/Luke Varley

This month, Netflix’s scammer story Inventing Anna sees super-producer Shonda Rhimes explore how ‘Soho grifter’ Anna Delvey used Instagram to bolster her confidence tricks, projecting an image of herself as a wealthy, connected heiress. Later, BBC series Mood, adapted from Nicôle Lecky’s Royal Court show Superhoe, looks at the darker underbelly of influencer culture, while another upcoming BBC offering, Red Rose, uses social media to craft a horror concept, focusing on an app that incites a group of young people to undertake a series of increasingly dangerous challenges. The online world, Seabright says, provides compelling story material because it’s the locus of “self-loathing and comparison, it’s such an obvious place that you can go to explore those unhealthy feelings in yourself and almost wallow in them.” The “performative aspect”, the gap between what you “present” online and “what’s really going on”, can be inherently dramatic too.

The rise of compelling social media stories on screen certainly coincides with the emergence of a new generation of writers and creators who have grown up with some form of digital presence — albeit with limits that now seem quite quaint. Seabright “got social media towards the end of [her] teens, [so] at least I was a formed person before that existed,” while Doherty recalls how she “grew with MSN and Bebo… it was a nice amount and you would leave it at your giant computer”.

But Seabright also reckons it’s taken a while for screenwriters to adapt to the market shift in the way that our lives now unfurl, precipitated by the internet. “To be honest, it’s a huge challenge,” she says. “From a storytelling point of view, it’s actually a massive thing to grapple with, so I think it’s understandable that it’s taken some time… It’s such a massive shift in the way we live our lives – if you’re genuinely setting something in the contemporary world, stories play out differently, people’s emotional experience of the world is very different to the way it was 20 years ago. It’s such a huge shift.”

Becky at home, out of ‘character’

/ BBC/Mam Tor Prodcutions/York Tillyer

There are creative challenges when it comes to visualising these stories too. “I definitely never want to shoot another shot of a phone ever again,” Seabright laughs. From its opening moments, her show uses disorienting sequences of stylised, Instagram-friendly images (flat lays, yoga poses and spas naturally feature heavily) that rush in and out of focus; when Becky stares at one of Chloe’s posts, she and her friends hold their photographed poses for slightly too long before their smiles drop and their messier real life continues.

“It’s trying to express what it feels like to see and consume those images rather than literally what it looks like,” Seabright says. “The whole show’s sort of doing that with Becky, trying to get in her head and trying to understand her subjective experience… One thing that we were really interested in was exploring this idea of what’s behind an image? […] You can bring those images to life again and again, in different ways that start to subvert that.” The show’s production team had the task of “building out every Instagram page, designing and [writing] copy for everything. It’s almost like a world within the world of the show.”

An Insta-ready snapshot of Chloe and her friend Livia

/ BBC/Mam Tor Productions/David King

Doherty admits she’s “terrified” of social media, and maintains a presence on Instagram largely to share details of her acting projects. “I was like, I’m going to do it my way and post about the work but take a step back in terms of the personal connection… they don’t need to know about my dog walks,” she says. Preparing to play Becky, though, she “would change my morning routine and I would go online, just behave that way to try and get into that frame of mind. Even now, I’ve still got that weird instinctive thing of grabbing my phone. How crazy is that – that we can’t just sit down and have a conversation or watch something without being like, ‘right, where’s my phone…’ It’s really scary.”

In the show, Becky “goes on to do things that are highly unrelatable,” Seabright notes, but because her digital behaviours – doom scrolling in the dead of night, obsessing over other people’s apparently perfect lives, picking at that scab of self-loathing – are so grimly familiar, “at the core of her, I think, there is something that we can relate to, basically.”

Doherty agrees. “You start the journey like ‘what the hell is this girl doing?’ But the more that she uncovers, the more you [think] it’s all just a bit gross and messy. Everyone has an alter ego on social media, Becky’s just doing it in person.” Her story felt “necessary” because “it’s really palpable at the minute how much people are comparing themselves and consumed by this app on your phone – I think it takes for it to get to an extreme [in the show] for us to clock out and go ‘what am I doing?’ […] In the show, it’s these little incremental jolts – saying, look at this girl on her phone at two am in the morning. Do you want to be doing that with your life?”

Chloe begins on BBC One on February 6 at 9pm

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