The Double-Edged Sword Of Devotion: 'Chuck' Vs. The Entitled Fan Base
Television plot lines are not supposed to be determined by majority vote.
That shouldn't be a controversial statement, but an interesting little mini-controversy that has broken out over last night's episode of NBC's Chuck -- a show with a small but madly devoted audience -- suggests that at least some fans are viewing themselves more and more as shareholders who get to vote on the outcome, Choose Your Own Adventure-style.
In short, last night, spy-nerd Chuck and his on-again, off-again love interest Sarah, who are currently not together for a combination of professional and personal reasons, decided to let each other go and embarked on new relationships with other people. This, predictably, has set off the show's "shippers." (As we've discussed before, these are the people whose enjoyment of a show hinges entirely on the progress of a romantic couple.)
Message boards have gone bazoo. Comments at the blog of critic Alan Sepinwall, where Chuck tends to be very popular, accused the show of all the usual sins: betrayal, stupidity, and -- of course -- jumping the shark, an expression that is now so preposterously overused that its very appearance indicates that the discussion in question has already ... well, you know.
Most interestingly, those who argued that the episode was perfectly okay were answered with an instruction: If you want to know how bad it was, all you have to do is read the NBC message boards. More about that in a moment.
Why you can't all drive the bus, after the jump.
Far be it from me to deny fans the right to say what's working for them and not working for them, in terms of what the creators of a show are doing with the story. I do it all the time. If the story's not working for you, it's not. You should say so.
But here's the thing: When a storyline isn't going in the direction you prefer, it is not a betrayal. It is not a personal slight made by a show's writers against its fans. If fans of any show wrote the show as a group, by voting on where the story would go next, the show would be unwatchably terrible and boring. It's counterintuitive but true: The most satisfying stories almost always involve one development that, when it happened, was not what fans would have voted for.
Consider The Office for a moment. Shippers would have flooded any conceivable voting apparatus, as soon as early in the second season, to insist that Jim and Pam should OH MY GOSH KISS RIGHT NOW. But it was the three seasons of slow burn -- including an extremely unpopular relationship Jim had with someone else -- that made the payoff work so well and seem so thoroughly earned.
I've watched enough television and talked about enough of it with other people to have learned this much about good shows: You're supposed to talk about what you want, but you're not necessarily supposed to get what you want, especially not right away.
Back to Chuck: One viewer even suggested at Sepinwall's blog that viewers boycott the show -- the show they worked so hard to save last spring, and will soon be put in the position of trying to save again -- to try to force showrunners Josh Schwartz and Chris Fedak to write the story they want told. It was proposed that if viewership could be suppressed enough, it would "send a message" because the advertisers would panic.
How, I wonder, is this supposed to work? The show tanks, the advertisers complain, and the network calls in the creators of your favorite show to answer to the guys who buy ad time to sell you minivans, and the minivan guy gives the showrunners what-for about how they'd better shape up? This is how you will get great television? When the writers are being manhandled by the minivan guy?
When you like a show, you're effectively on a bus with everyone else who likes it, and you've got to let the driver do the driving. You can comment on the view, you can point out the pothole he's about to hit, you can ask him to turn up the air conditioning, and if you want, you can always get off at the next stop and hope you can get a better ride. But if you get up there with everybody else on the bus and start trying to grab the wheel, you will find yourself tumbling down the side of a ravine, and at the bottom of that ravine, there will be nothing to watch except Deal Or No Deal.
Let us now beat our little bus metaphor to death: You don't know the route. You haven't seen the map. You don't even know where you're supposed to be going, let alone where you're actually going. You could, at any moment, go around a corner and see entirely different scenery. Certainly, obviously, when you think it's not worth it, you can hop off.
But if your reason for hopping off is that you find it an affront that they won't let you drive -- this is the "of course it's a bad episode; the NBC boards are irate!" argument, which amounts to a demand for majority rule -- then you don't understand that drivers drive and riders ride. And if you can't relax and enjoy the relative powerlessness of your position from time to time, you will deprive yourself of the best possible outcome -- which is that somebody is going to take you somewhere you didn't even know you wanted to go.
Here's the thing: If you, the viewer, are going to get everything you want at the moment you request it, then you might as well write the show yourself. If every line is going to be what you want to hear, if every step is the same next step you would have chosen, then there's absolutely no need to watch the show. You might as well just take a shower and imagine the episode in your head while you're washing your hair.
By all means, have an opinion. Show not working? Say so. Don't want to watch it? Good thing it's not mandatory. But it's not your show, even if you bought a Subway footlong to save it. It's the creation of its creators, and they're never going to give you what you want just because it's what you want. Which is why they haven't started inviting you to story meetings.