The Writers Hear Your Concerns

I was rightly dinged in comments to a previous post for putting in snarky asides about Community and its fandom into other posts. (Criticizing a show is fine. Randomly snarking on people who like and analyze it is just a cheap shot, on the same low level as hacky jokes about people who watch reality shows.) I’ll stop that.

You can see why that kind of snark is wrong when you read reports of the Community PaleyFest panel, and the genuine pleasure the show brings to its fans as well as its great relationship with the people who love it. Some shows either ignore their fans or openly bait them, like Joss Whedon does. The producers of Community don’t give the fans everything they want, but they do signal, not only through online media but more importantly on the show itself, that they’re aware of concerns the fans have. Essentially, anything that fans worry about — is there too much relationship stuff, is Pierce becoming too much of a creep — will soon be addressed on the show; it might not be resolved in the way that each individual fan wants, but each individual fan will get the impression that the writers are not ignoring these issues:

“We talk about it a lot… we get some feedback from the fans, and a theme out there after some of the recent episodes is that Pierce is getting too mean”, he [writer Garrett Donovan] admitted. “But we definitely, down the road this season, we address that.”

That, I think, helps explain why Community connects with fans in a way that few shows do. Most television shows are insular. The episodes have to be made so fast that there was rarely time to address fan concerns even if they wanted to. Producers would read letters from fans, maybe get a sense of what people were saying on the internet, but they couldn’t be sure that these people represented the collective thoughts of the fandom, and anyway, they had bigger things to worry about: ratings, network notes, sponsor notes. As an article headline put it years ago, “Your Letters Don’t Seem To Make Much Difference.” Or as the producer of Peyton Place put it (and fandom sure hasn’t changed much in over 40 years):

“We get an average of 1000 letters a week, about 20 of them with story suggestions and ideas about characters: ‘If anything happens to so-and-so I’ll never watch the show again.’ ‘Let Rodney and Betty get married.’ They give us an idea of what some people in the audience are thinking, but basically I have to rely on my own instincts.”

So even on shows we love, we frequently get the sense that the writers don’t notice the problems we’re noticing, or don’t think they make a difference. Sometimes, maybe even most times, this is the right thing for writers to do; they have to rely on “their own instincts” and make the show they want to make rather than the show we want them to make. Hence Joss Whedon’s famous, provocative proclamation to the effect that his job was to give fans the opposite of what they think they want.

But it can be extremely frustrating to watch a show where flaws are developing and the writers don’t seem to think they’re flaws, or push onward as if these things are the greatest ideas in the history of the show. We all can think of examples were we sit and watch a show and see it over-emphasize a character, push two characters with no chemistry together, or add a new character who is an obvious Scrappy-Doo — and the show doesn’t see anything wrong with itself, as it were. This is why fans of Chuck or Big Bang Theory or many other shows frequently beat their heads against the walls: it would be one thing if Big Bang seemed aware that Leonard and Penny have no chemistry, but instead it continues to insist that they do. When a show has a plot twist we don’t like, it can sometimes take the curse off it if just one character seems to express our views, acknowledge that this could be seen as a bad idea. Must most times, this does not happen, because the writers either don’t see that this could be viewed as a bad idea, or they don’t want to seem less than completely committed to the story they’ve chosen.

Community is not doing exactly what every fan wants, because, well, it’s got several million viewers and every single one wants something a little different. But it does convey the impression that it’s on the same wavelength as its fans, that the writers either deal with fan complaints or, in many cases, anticipate them. The character of Chang is a good example. Most shows would simply note that Ken Jeong was popular, beef up his role, and let him be Scrappy-Doo, annoying all the other characters. The difference between Chang and a Scrappy-Doo is that the show acknowledges Chang is annoying. It constantly signals that it’s aware of the issues with the character and that it’s dealing with them, just like it signals that Pierce may have gone too far or that there’s something icky about Jeff having several women fighting over him. And having acknowledged these things, it gives an “out” to fans who don’t like them, while still pleasing the people who do like them (and, more importantly, reserving the writers’ right to take these characters wherever they want). As a self-analytical show, it’s frequently stepping back a little, looking at itself from a fan’s perspective, and hinting that it sees things the way we do, even if it won’t always make the choice we would prefer.

That, I think, could point the way for how shows can use online interactivity to their advantage, even though the TV series is a very non-interactive form. A show can’t, or shouldn’t, retool itself based on the small cross-section of online opinions. What the writers can do is look at online opinion for clues on how outsiders might see the show and characters, and what might be a red flag for certain viewers. Then they can take those concerns into account, not by changing what they do, but by letting us know (in the show itself, I mean, not online) that they are aware of the issue and won’t let it get out of hand. That builds a relationship with fans; it also builds trust, making viewers willing to sit through a risky choice (horrible Pierce; Chang with a larger role) because they know the writers aren’t just totally blind to the potential problems.

So think how much less hated Scrappy would be if he did the same things, but the characters admitted that those things were not cute and lovable. Think how much of the (deserved) hatred for a character like Kennedy from Buffy came from the producers’ almost total unawareness that anybody might not like her. Think how the problems with the finale of Seinfeld stemmed from Larry David’s apparent unawareness of how we’d respond to seeing beloved characters treated so shabbily. Community may be a harbinger of a more plugged-in future, where TV creators really are aware of the way their decisions will be perceived by fans. No wonder the show has such a great relationship with its fandom.

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