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When TV Fans React

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I like to know things I have no real need to know. I can’t just wonder if an egg actually will stand on end during a vernal equinox, I need to Google it and find out (answer: you can do it at any time if you’re coordinated enough, which I’m not, and therefore have no use for this information). Quantum physics has no useful place in my life, but I was on a quest to understand it, until a medical physicist friend of mine told me she thinks there are pieces of the theory missing to make it fully comprehensible, and another person said her renowned physics professor says if you think you understand, you don’t.

My current quest is to understand the behind-the-scenes world of television, because it’s a mysterious world of people doing something I view as interesting and valuable, and understanding is my expression of appreciation. As part of that quest, I’ve been following the blogs of a few television screenwriters. A couple of weeks ago, one of my favourites wrote something that both bothered and enlightened me, and hearing a few writers talk about their work habits recently has kept me coming back to what he said.

Dead Things on Sticks guy (aka Denis McGrath, a television writer living in Canada) mentioned the recent public exchange between two writers on Lost, basically an argument about their work process. His post, Why the Room is Like Vegas, actually illuminates some of how that process works, at the same time as it says fans should not be made aware of how the process works:

“Fans will never get it, and the further they try to get it, the more poison is introduced into the process.”

I understand what he’s saying, and don’t quite disagree with it. Fans don’t have the knowledge to fully understand one piece of information out of context, and their reaction to that one piece of information can be unfair. But I want to get it, I don’t think it’s an impossible task, and I think the poison is not in the fans’ actions, it’s in the writers’ potential reactions.

As a kid, I loved Anne of Green Gables to pieces – literally. I had a series of several copies since they would inevitably fall apart from frequent rereading. I wanted more. The second book, Anne of Avonlea, was great. I wanted more. Anne of the Island was pretty good. I still wanted more. Well, by the time Anne and Gilbert got together, married, had kids and grandkids, the characters and stories had been so diluted that it was no longer the Anne I knew and loved. I not only didn’t want more, I kind of wanted to erase the thought of the last books from my mind.

Author Lucy Maud Montgomery died long before I was born, so she wasn’t catering to my online demands, and I have no idea if it was money, or public demand, or her own desire to see what came next, or a combination that inspired her to keep writing about Anne.

But it still demonstrates an important point: sometimes fans shouldn’t get what they want. Sometimes the writer needs to know what works best dramatically, whether that’s keeping the lovers apart, stringing out the central mystery, or ending the story at a satisfying point.

And that’s Dead Things guy’s point, too, except I can’t agree on the isolationist view he proposes. I think writers should know how their fans are reacting to their show, both for the gratification of knowing people care, and the understanding of how their work is being interpreted, even if they have no intention of catering to specific demands. And fans should be aware that it’s not practical or even desirable to have an entire series mapped out in detail from beginning to end, and that dramatic decisions don’t necessarily have to be popular to be best for the show and keep people watching.

I recently asked a writer about the behind-the-scenes process (for an article I’ll be posting in just over a week), and I don’t want to feel guilty for my curiosity. I want to know because I’m interested, and I know many other people who are interested, too. I have no practical reason for needing or wanting to know. I have nothing to do with the information but think “Cool. Now I know.”

I recently saw writers Margaret Atwood and Salman Rushdie give talks in Vancouver about their writing processes (more on the Rushdie talk is here). Atwood made the same comparison Dead Things on Sticks guy does, with magicians revealing their secrets. Except Atwood took it a step further – I suppose she had to, since her lecture was on revealing the secrets behind the writing of five of her novels. She said that even knowing how magicians perform their tricks, she will never be Penn or Teller. She doesn’t have the hands. She doesn’t have the passion. The audiences of those two talks I attended are not now equipped to be the next Margaret Atwood or Salman Rushdie. As Atwood said, you need innate talent, hard work, and luck. But we went away satisfied with a glimpse behind the scenes of work we admire.

To take it back to television writers and the Lost kerfuffle, you do get into the tricky area of the rabid online fandom. One-to-one engagement with random Internet strangers has its pitfalls for anyone, not just writers of beloved series. If they wade into the midst of that fandom, it can be like entering shark infested waters wearing bacon pants. There are fans who aren’t curious in the simple pursuit of information. They are curious to fuel their passion for second-guessing, speculation, and, often, superiority.

I don’t think it matters how much or how little that person knows about the process. Part of their fun is derived from playing back seat writer. They are not just curious about what comes next, they want to drive what comes next. They don’t want to sit back and enjoy the ride the writers take us on, until we realize at the beginning of season six that what people have been telling us for over a year is true – The West Wing is just not what it used to be, it never will be again, and how the hell can C.J. be Chief of Staff after everything that came before?! Um, to use a random example.

But those fans have a legitimate right to pursue their fun just as much as I have a right to pretend I can understand a little about the process. Both are forms of appreciation. But while second-guessing can be done in a vacuum, understanding can’t.

(Check out my blog, Unified Theory of Nothing Much for more random thoughts on life and entertainment.)

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About Diane Kristine Wild

  • Baronius

    I read a great piece recently by one of the brains behind Arrested Development. I hate the show, but it was a very interesting article. The writer was talking about how focus groups ruin the creative process. He compared it to a test group analysing a meal: the dessert was good, that should come first… we could skip the salad… you know what else would be good is heroin….

    You also touched on a point that I think of as a show’s expiration date. It sounds like West Wing (and the Anne of Green Gables books) passed theirs. It’s a different idea than jumping the shark: some shows just can’t extend past a certain number of years.

    The will-they-won’t-they romantic show can last three years, no more. Ed had a fourth season in which he got the girl, and ended while the ratings were still pretty good. As a fan of Everwood (entering its fourth year), I’m becoming even more confident that three years is the limit.

  • http://unifiedtheorynothingmuch.blogspot.com deekay

    Sounds like an interesting article (and I love Arrested Development) … if you can find a link, you should post it! That’s really the point – listening too carefully to fans, like a focus group, can lead to creative disaster. If the Lost writers answered all the questions the fans want them to, there’d be no reason to watch the show anymore.

    I think you’re right, most shows just have a shelf life that tends to be shorter than their actual lives. It’s hard to quit at the top of your game. I’ve heard The West Wing has rejuvenated itself, but I can’t get back into it, since I don’t know what’s going on and don’t recognize the characters anymore.

  • http://bonamassablog.us Joanie

    All the merchandise about the behind-the-scenes events for Lost, and just about every other popular show or movie, leave me cold. I want to be awed by what I see on the screen. I don’t need to know everything that’s going on with the creation of an enjoyable enterprise. That said, I do think it’s nice when writers take fans’ opinions into consideration – to a point. If it undermines the integrity of the vision, why bother?

    By the way, Anne of Green Gables – right on!