[17 June 2014]
Too often fan service, not an inspiration, becomes the end goal of creative work.
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.
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.
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
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?