If you make a television show, and nobody watches it, does it exist? Any work of art is a relationship between the artist and the viewer, but this relationship is particularly important with regard to television shows. Viewers tune in to them week after week, making a substantial investment of time and attention. Some of the most beloved television shows spark a fire in their fans. For some, the obsession simply results in rearranging their schedules to watch the show before friends or Twitter spoil it.
Other fans, however, are inspired to start writing and storytelling, and some become serious writers themselves. Large communities of fans play with an author’s characters by creating derivative work for their own amusement. Novelist Rainbow Rowell writes about this phenomenon in connection with a fictional series in her interesting coming-of-age novel Fangirl.
Arguably, the social value of television and other art forms lies in their ability to provoke a creative response in their audiences. The cultivation of creativity, not the author’s feelings of ownership in his or her creation, is why it proves important in America to offer incentives to authors to innovate through copyright legislation, but also to offer a “fair use” provision.
In Europe, where moral rights originated and are culturally accepted, an artist’s or an author’s feelings about his work are given paramount importance. An artist’s work in France, for example, is treated as having some sort of magical connection to him, whereby mutilating the work is almost akin to mutilating him.
Not so in America. Except in the visual arts where moral rights have taken hold, the concept of free speech carries more weight than protecting an author or artist’s work. Although American audience members often consider the author’s intentions relevant to interpretation when it comes to film, literary fiction or the visual arts, when it comes to television, all bets are off.
Historically, critics have had much greater expectations of film than television, even though television always offered greater opportunities to get to know characters over a long passage of time. It’s only since HBO aired The Sopranos in 1999, that a cultural shift occurred whereby people started to perceive television as an art form, instead of dismissing it as a waste of time or “the boob tube”.
In 2002, investigative journalist David Simon put The Wire on the air, further showing that the medium could handle material that challenged the status quo rather than offering comfort. More recently, television shows like Community and True Detective demonstrate the flexibility of television shows to accommodate meta and cross-genre approaches.
We may be in the second Golden Age of television, but network television writers remain particularly vulnerable to commercial forces. In contrast to the vision of the lonely artist or writer toiling away in a garret, we understand that television is the result of collaboration in a writers’ room. More importantly, scripts are written in a kind of collaboration with what the fans want.
We know that television writers read fan responses on Twitter, that some of them read blogs and speculation. They know what fans want because fans are driven to respond and tell them through these media, and in turn , they may feel the need to pander to the audience. If the writers don’t fulfill fans’ desires, particularly in a season finalé, there’s a good chance these days that the audience won’t follow them to their next project.
Too often in America, fan service, not an inspiring piece of art, becomes the end goal of creative work. Fan service can produce gratifying work, sure, but catering to fans too much squelches innovation. And it may not inspire fans to create or even continue consuming a particular show at the same pace. Even though creating fan response is a major social value of creative works, fan service is a different beast. Veronica Mars (the movie) and the How I Met Your Mother series finalé offer prime examples of why focusing too literally on the satisfaction of fans’ expectations can produce fewer rewards than fans (and writers) might imagine.
Back in 2005, I was a huge Veronica Mars fan, regularly reading recaps, spoilers and speculation on the website Television Without Pity , and watching episodes multiple times. The first season was one of the best seasons of television I had seen—a perfect mash-up of noir, Nancy Drew, high school drama, witty snark and social critique.
It was the right time for me to watch the show because although I wasn’t in high school any more, as a young litigator in an often-dirty business, I needed something that fueled and affirmed my cynicism about how the world actually worked. Veronica Mars’ investigation into her best friend’s death and her own rape did that in spades.
I was thrilled when the show’s creator, Rob Thomas ,and his team of writers played off the incredible chemistry between Kristen Bell and Jason Dohring in the first few episodes by bringing Veronica and Logan together and tearing them apart more than once. I was dismayed to watch the final episode of the series in 2007. College freshman Veronica walks alone down the street to the tune of “It Never Rains in Southern California” after casting a vote for her father as sheriff. Her actions had cost him the election.
Between 2007 and 2013, I occasionally watched an episode online and cursed the network for canceling the show. Like all of the show’s fans, I wished better for Veronica and hoped for a movie that wrapped things up on a less melancholy note.
I didn’t contribute to the Veronica Mars Kickstarter in 2013 because it was already fully funded by the time I realized a movie was in the works. I was, however, over the moon about going to see the movie. Although the movie takes place many years later, it basically picks up where we left off in season 3.
When the movie begins, Veronica is a recent law school graduate who leaves her boyfriend Piz behind in New York City so that she can vet criminal defense attorneys for Logan (Jason Dohring). Neptune’s resident bad boy has joined the Navy and reformed, only to be accused of the murder of his pop singer girlfriend Carrie Bishop (now known as Bonnie DeVille). In the years since season 3, the town of Neptune has become even more corrupt, even more stratified by race and class.
Thomas’s original vision for a continuation of the show included Veronica as part of the FBI. It would have required him to jettison the fascinating sordid world of Neptune in favor of another location, and it’s not clear how he would have worked in Keith Mars or Wallace or Logan or Mac or Weevil or Dick or Gia—each one beloved by fans. There was no way that having Veronica in the FBI without the other cast members would have satisfied fans: they cared not only about Kristen Bell’s character, but also the cast that revolved around her in the television show. The movie wound up playing entirely to fans that wanted to see that reunion.
Although in my heart of hearts I was deeply gratified that the movie let see the world of Neptune one more time, there was something a little strained about it, too. Carrie Bishop had been a main character in one prior television episode I could recall. Played by Leighton Meester who did not return for the movie, Carrie had pretended that a high school teacher beloved by his students (including Veronica), had seduced her. Her friend Susan was the real victim, but didn’t want to bring charges herself.
Like Veronica, Carrie was intent on securing justice for a victim and for a change, Veronica spent most of the episode on the wrong side of the story. But it didn’t make all that much sense that Logan would date Carrie ten years later and drug-addled “Bonnie Deville” bore no resemblance to the original Carrie.
Similarly, the timing of Veronica’s law firm interview was confusing. Typically the most sought-after law school candidates, which we know Veronica would be, interview for major corporate jobs in their second year of law school and spend the following summer working at that job before receiving an offer. The blue chip firms would have hired their first year associates by the time Veronica starts interviewing in the movie.
Perhaps this is nitpicking., but when a writer spends so much time setting up a tricky premise and then another huge chunk playing out a class reunion devised solely to please fans who have paid to see all their favorites again, it’s extremely difficult to make an artistically true product. It was an incredibly satisfying two hour-long season finalé or springboard for another series.
It did not, however, achieve the sharp brilliance of the first season, not by a long shot. Thomas is trying to make a second movie and has written a novel to continue the franchise. If he failed to meet fans’ expectations fully with the movie, those enterprises are unlikely to be successful, either.