Does Fan Service Ruin Television?

by Anita Felicelli

17 June 2014

Promo for Veronica Mars (the movie) (2014) 

The Nature of Fans' Expectations

The series finalé of How I Met Your Mother adopted the opposite strategy, even though it, too, hopes to secure fans for a subsequent project. The show’s creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas had planned the final moments of the series from the beginning. While the rest of Season 9 elongated time, taking place over the period of Barney and Robin’s wedding weekend, the series finalé sped up and told the story of the next decades of Ted and the gang’s lives in under an hour. That was a risky move.

While Fan service has its place, brilliance is not the result of catering to fans.

On Twitter, actress Alyson Hannigan, who played Lily, noted that the original finalé  ran one hour and 18 minutes. As a result, we miss moments that fans both wanted and needed to feel satisfied. This includes the moment where Lily (who is always right), finally has to pay Marshall for winning a bet about whether Robin and Ted would end up together. Josh Radnor intimated in an interview another cut scene would have eased us into Robin and Ted becoming friends again after Robin is estranged from the group.

While not executed as well as a fan would hope, the finalé hewed closely to the story that Bays and Thomas were telling from season 1 through season 9. You can tell a lot about a show’s artistic intentions from the first episode. In How I Met Your Mother , we learned right away that Bays and Thomas employ red herrings and enormous misdirection with respect to key elements in the story.

If that wasn’t enough of a tip-off about their love of sleights of hand, the writers made Barney a magician. After describing how he fell in love at first sight with a gorgeous young woman, at the first episode’s closing, older Ted says, “And that kids, is how I met your aunt Robin.” When I first heard those words, I was floored. I also knew I was a fan of that sort of magic trick.

We also saw from that Ted and Robin had incredible chemistry, but over the course of the show, were never in the right place at the right time. Most adults have a story like that from their own lives, of an on-again, off-again relationship that was full of sparks that failed to ignite due to bad timing. The structure of that first episode played out over and over again, confounding those who just wanted to know who the mother was, but pleasing those who were watching the show because it offered the pleasure of interesting storytelling and real truths about dating and falling in love.

How I Met Your Mother

How I Met Your Mother

An important image that Lily introduced earlier in the show was that of she and Marshall and Ted and his true love sitting on the porch, growing old together. The same idea played out in Noah Baumbach’s 1995 film Kicking and Screaming about a group of friends. In the film, Grover tells Jane he wishes they were old so he could reach over and kiss her.

The writers of How I Met Your Mother used this vision of romance to make it clear that Ted and Tracy had a true love and got to grow old together symbolically if not literally in the late season 9 episode, “Vesuvius.” Tracy specifically tells Ted she doesn’t want him to live in the past—she would have wanted him to move on after her death.

Fans did not. What surprised me about the response to the finalé  was the fan rage, not the so-called “twist”. Any fan that wanted to know the ending in advance could have predicted it as far back as episode entitled “Time Travelers”, where Ted says he wished he could have extra time with the mother, no matter how brief. And the ending, far from being shocking, was carefully and cleverly seeded through all seasons of the show.

As I watched Season 9 with a certain amount of horror for the creative choices made, it became plain to me that the show would conclude with Ted and Robin together in spite of the mother. The most pointed clue was in an episode where Ted and Robin are sitting on the beach and he compares her to a red balloon he had once lost and still mourns. As he lets go of her, we listen to The Bangles “Eternal Flame”, the lyrics of which include “I believe it’s meant to be, darlin’/ I watch you when you are sleeping/ You belong with me I don’t want to lose this feeling, oh.” That’s not the soundtrack of someone who is letting go once and for all.

The other big clue was the bracelet Robin had buried as a child on a trip to New York with her father, a bracelet she planned to use as her “something old” if she got married. Season 9 was studded with references and flashbacks to Ted’s epic efforts to find that bracelet: he traces it to a pencil box, calls an ex-girlfriend who he thinks he might have it, flies out to retrieve it from another ex-girlfriend—the one who told him she hoped he would get Robin one day—only to lose it in a lake when a delusional ex-girlfriend throws it off a bridge.

In the penultimate episode, we find out Ted had dived into the lake in order to retrieve it. Although he gives it to Barney to give to Robin, and though he says he’s over Robin, it’s once again clear that Ted not being with Robin is merely a question of timing.

Yet another clue was in a late season 9 episode entitled “Vesuvius”, when it became clear to most fans that the beloved mother, brilliantly played by Cristin Milioti and perfect for Ted, was going to grow sick and die. At the end of that episode, the Bob Dylan song “If You See Her, Say Hello” plays. And as with “Eternal Flame”, its lyrics are a reference to Robin—“Say for me that I’m all right though things get kind of slow/ She might think that I’ve forgotten her, don’t tell her it isn’t so” and ” If she’s passin’ back this way, I’m not that hard to find/ Tell her she can look me up if she’s got the time.”

Right after “Vesuvius” aired, I told my husband my theory about what would happen—which is what actually did happen on the finalé —and concluded, “Wouldn’t that be cool? They’re probably not really going to go there.” Bays and Thomas’ choice to see their vision all the way through in spite of the potential fan response was brave in light of their hopes to make How I Met Your Father.

Perhaps the difficulty with the finalé lay not with the material, but with the nature of fans’ expectations. Most fans watch something labeled “romantic comedy” on CBS in order to consume platitudes. They don’t watch network television to be challenged or provoked. The outraged response to the How I Met Your Mother series finalé suggests that American culture has gone too far towards the concept of fan service.

I suspect the disappointed fans, like Ted Mosby in Season 1, believe you have one true love in your life. These fans expected a conventional moral to the show, even though they probably would have been on guard had the show aired on AMC or Showtime or another network known for more artistic television. As fans, they had done the creative mental work of imagining other scenes and other endings and interpreted the show as it played according to what they wanted from it, rather than what the creators were offering.

If How I Met Your Mother had any sort of message, it was more along the lines of: you can’t see the whole story as it’s unfolding, all the sad things in life are necessary to get you to the joy, love is everywhere, friends become a family you choose, and friendship in the end counts for more than the idea of a one true love. In the final episode, however imperfectly executed, the best take-away is not that Ted didn’t truly love the mother, or that Robin was his one true love, as a number of journalists reported the following morning. Rather, it was: you can have more than one true love in a lifetime, and whether that love is consummated has everything to do with timing.

These ideas violate the expectations of the former version of Ted whom we met in Season 1, but they’re true to life and true to the spirit of a show that was all about playing with storytelling and the passage of time. Moreover, they are the right kinds of ideas for exploration on a medium that gains its power through the passage of time, as television does. For the fast-forwards, flashbacks and other storytelling innovations that made How I Met Your Mother so wonderful to have any sort of genuine resonance or be more than cerebral play, the story had to be about more than an extended version of: Ted meets Tracey, and all couples pair off to live happily ever after.

Innovation is not always comfortable for an audience, but it’s the only way an artistic form advances. Fan service has its place—particularly when fans underwrite a production that would otherwise not get made, as is the case with Veronica Mars. But brilliance is not the result of catering to fans. We would never achieve the jolt of pleasure that comes from innovation if television writers (or novelists or artists) strictly followed fan desires.

We all know that television shows can be more intimate than many art forms because viewers invite the characters into their homes and come to depend on their stories for provocation, entertainment comfort, escape and release. But that doesn’t mean our desires should be of paramount concern to the creators. If we’re going to give so much of our lives to a television show, shouldn’t it aspire to artistic truth?

Topics: fan service
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