Here’s a story for you. Last summer, CBS cancelled Moonlight, by all accounts a lacklustre attempt to remake Angel as a crime drama. This show, in short, was bad. Its going left the world of TV a cleaner, better place. And yet, the news of its demise made one fan so distressed that she decided, while in an apparently rational state of mind, to give $11,000 to someone she had only met over the internet to fund a bus ad campaign championing the show.
The woman she gave the money to stole it, of course, which should be no surprise to anyone who has even the remotest understanding of human nature on the internet. The point of this story though, as far as I’m concerned, is this: the fan in question was a fully functioning adult, someone who presumably had at least theoretical knowledge of the dangers of giving away large portions of your income to people who are not either you or your banker. And yet the torrent of emotion which the cancellation of one of the world’s most mediocre shows released in her was so great that every sensible cell in her brain temporarily shut down and she began hurling fistfuls of cash into the void.
This incident is by no means an isolated event. Upon hearing that Everwood had been cancelled in 2006, fans hired a full-sized Ferris wheel and put it up outside the offices of the offending network. In the same year, Veronica Mars fans, fearing that their show might go the same way, hired an airplane and flew it, towing a banner that read RENEW VERONICA MARS, over the CW’s headquarters in California. I promise you I am not making any of this up. If I were, it wouldn’t be nearly as funny. Over the years, fans have sent networks nuts, steel rods, Mars bars and fake vomit, presumably under the assumption that the executives will be too busy clearing a path to the door to remember to cancel the show. Of course, the fact that these campaigns rarely work does nothing to dampen fan enthusiasm. They care in defiance of bad ratings, bad reviews and even bad writing, in a way that is almost exclusively confined to TV shows.
When you begin to watch a show, you give an almost unique level of commitment to it. Devoting one hour of your week, every week, to the same characters makes you identify with them in a way that blurs the line between real and make believe. Content, at the end of the day, really doesn’t matter. The show, in some slightly creepy way, is yours, and if you have to send buckets of fake vomit to some unsuspecting television executive to keep it going, it’s a small price to pay.
There are, of course, some exceptions to this rule. Harry Potter, in both book and film format, attracted fan insanity at every stage of its existence. When the sixth Potter film, Half Blood Prince, had its release moved back to next summer, there was group hysteria on internet message boards. Outraged by this clearly unreasonable decision, the fans cunningly decided that, to spite Warner Bros., they were not going to go see the film when it finally came out. Hah! What brilliance! In one fell swoop they would deprive Warner of approximately $100 in revenue and prevent their eyes from being sullied by the bloated, corporate depravity of the new film!
However, while this reaction is approximately similar to that of a hardcore TV fan in its levels of wanton self-deception, it differs in one crucial respect: no TV fan worth their salt would dream of not watching their favourite show. That Moonlight fan would have kept watching even if her show became 45 minutes of a dude standing in the middle of a room and flexing his fangs.
Of course, many TV watchers do have at least some taste, and most of us do know the difference between good and bad shows. But there’s an almost magnetic draw to any kind TV series. Unlike a film, watching a single series of television means you spend an average of twenty hours of time with the characters. The dialogue may be clunky, the acting may be wooden, but in some indefinable way, those people become your friends. You are willing to forgive them even their most embarrassing faults in exactly the same way as you forgive your friend for the time they got drunk and threw up on your leg.
These feelings are, of course, completely divorced from reason. I know that CSI is about as has-been as a show still on the air could possibly be. Now limping through its tenth season, it has very little new material to recommend it. It’s rehashing old plot ideas and formats, and it’s visually almost identical to its first episode almost eleven years ago. And yet, seven years after I began watching, I can’t possibly give up until I know whether or not Grissom and Sara end up together. This plot line has become of approximately the same importance to me as, say, the economy, and no rational intervention can possibly persuade me otherwise.
As the recession starts to bite, more and more struggling TV shows are being cancelled as part of vast budget cuts. This, of course, spells disaster for whole legions of distressed, borderline insane fans. What they’ll get up to in the effort to save their beloved shows can only be guessed at this stage in the proceedings, but previous exertions will take a lot of beating. I’m sure they’ll be pleased to know, though, that they’re working from a fine tradition of utter idiocy.