Wednesday, September 18, 2019

What’s Wrong With “Fan-Friendly” Television?

One of my favorite post-Comfort TV era shows is Veronica Mars. So I was elated when I heard fresh episodes were coming this year. Then I read a spoiler about how the new story arc ended, and it diminished my desire to watch. I still haven’t gotten around to it.

It appears I wasn’t alone. Most fans (at least according to those places where they congregate online) hated the “shock” ending. But critics praised the decision by series creator Rob Thomas, because it wasn’t “fan-friendly.”

Thomas himself echoed these sentiments, and remained defiant in the midst of the backlash. “I understand that there will be big a section of the Veronica Mars fan base that will not forgive me for this,” he told the Collider website.

This is another example of how the Comfort TV era differs from today’s television landscape. Think about any popular show from the 1950s through the 1970s; can you imagine a writer or producer saying “I’ve got an idea for a story that will really devastate the audience. It will make a lot of them angry and they may stop watching, but I still think it’s the right thing to do.”

That was not an option. And with very few exceptions I don’t think it should be. The idea back then was to create a series with characters the audience would embrace, and return each week to find out what’s happening in their lives. With cop shows or detective shows there was an element of danger, but deep down viewers knew that nothing was going to happen to Amos Burke or Joe Mannix, no matter how dire the situation seemed.

Now if any of these characters fell in love, viewers knew the woman might not survive the closing credits. But sidekicks and secretaries – those were off-limits.

These were the unspoken rules of Comfort TV shows. In a family sitcom a kid might struggle with a bad grade in math but never with a life-threatening illness. An occasionally unethical boss might fire a breadwinner dad like Darrin Stephens, but he’d have his job back by the final scene. No one’s mortgage payment was ever in jeopardy. 

Is this lazy writing, or boring to watch? To a modern audience it might be. I recall a Friends episode when Chandler mockingly asked “Is this the episode of Three’s Company where there’s a misunderstanding? Yes, Chandler, it probably is. Misunderstandings were surprisingly plentiful in that beachfront apartment. And the fans didn’t mind at all. 

Even the most loyal viewers of classic television would not dispute that these shows are formulaic – they just don’t view that as a fault. “Fan-friendly” was a phrase that may not have even existed back then, but the question of whether a series should please its audience would have seemed absurd.

If you asked Ozzie Nelson or Sherwood Schwartz or Quinn Martin, they’d tell you that escapism was what they tried to offer.  The philosophy was that viewers had their own problems. When they settled in for a night of TV, the last thing they wanted was to watch characters going through the same stressful realities that they had to endure. 

Yes, there are exceptions. The biggest shock to viewers in that era that I can recall was the death of Col. Henry Blake on MASH. But there were two factors to consider – first, McLean Stevenson wanted to leave the show, so one way or another his character was not going to be there anymore. Second, this was a series set against the backdrop of a war where people died every day. So from a practical standpoint and a storyline standpoint, it was a decision that seemed fitting. 

That was not the case on the Veronica Mars revival. The last-minute, out of left field killing of a major character was a cheap stunt that removed a popular character from the landscape for…what, exactly? Because Veronica is more interesting when she’s miserable?

There are those who say killing a major character is brave – I think it’s lazy. If you want to engage viewers, an event that dramatic makes it easy. But telling stories week after week, season after season, without resorting to such tactics, and still keep fans coming back for more – that’s an achievement.

When did “fan-friendly” become something to avoid? Probably around the same time that a lot of things we used to rely on began disappearing. Times change – so let them. We’re 50 years past the debut of The Brady Bunch, a series that never introduced a crisis more serious than a football to the schnoz. And judging by the ratings of A Very Brady Renovation, people still care about it. 

If you have to shock your audience to get attention, maybe you didn’t have that much to say in the first place.

1 comment:

  1. Mr. Hofstede, remember when Rhoda and Joe broke up on "Rhoda"? The decision to divorce them really hurt the show's ratings.