As you may have noticed, I stopped writing about Wilfred a couple of weeks ago, not because I stopped watching, but because I couldn’t bring myself to care enough about it to put my fingers to the keyboard and type 400+ words about it. The show has thus far been a mixed bag. I like the concept, and Jason Gann and Elijah Wood have great comic chemistry, but the execution usually falls flat. For that reason, I’ve voiced my disappointment about the show in various fora, both on- and offline. But to my dismay, in those fora, I’ve been met with the question: “So why are you still watching?”
My knee-jerk reaction, if I’d chosen to express it, would have been, “Why the hell do you care? It’s none of your business why I do what I do.” In many cases, being asked why one is still watching is a way to dismiss legitimate complaints as mindless kvetching from the peanut gallery, and it detracts from valuable discussions of a critical nature.
However, I still think it’s a valid question. Though TV viewers are far from the hyperrational model of Homo Economicus espoused by the mathematically-inclined, they don’t subject themselves to torture for no good reason. It’s therefore odd that so many people watch TV shows and perpetually complain about how awful they are (the cathartic benefit of complaining aside, of course). In the case of Wilfred, I can provide reasons for why I’m still watching: I like the ideas, I like the cast, and I think the show has the potential to improve. I stuck with Traffic Light for its entire run for similar reasons, despite the fact that the show almost never made me laugh:1 I loved its low-key vibe, and I sensed the possibility of improvement in its future (which never came because the show was cancelled. Oh well.)
But what about shows that have been running for a long time, or shows that used to entertain me, but no longer do? In those cases, the “I think it’ll get better argument” doesn’t work as well. I watch a surprising number of series like that. I recently realized that fact when I noticed that three of the series that I wrote about in my “Five Shows That Should Have Been Cancelled” post (henceforth referred to as “RR1”) a few weeks ago were also mentioned in my “Epic Fail” post (henceforth referred to as “RR2”) from last summer. In other words, this past season, I watched three series that I had vowed to abandon. After some self-reflection, I’ve been able to put some explanations for my TV watching habits to words. I can speak only for my personal experience, but I hope that the readers of this blog will be able to relate. After the jump, I’ll take a look at some TV shows that I’ve given up on or tried to give up on, as well as how fandom, critics, and other external factors may have affected my perceptions of those programmes.
It Used To Be Good
A long time ago, How I Met Your Mother was my favourite comedy, and Bones was my favourite drama.2 Then both shows had their respective fifth seasons, and we all know how those turned out. (In case you don’t, they sucked copious amounts of ass.) I became frustrated enough with both shows to want to give them up, as I wrote about in RR2. But a few weeks after their sixth season premieres, I went back and watched the episodes I’d missed, and I began watching both shows again on a regular basis. How I Met Your Mother had a pretty decent season up until its final quarter or so, when the season’s main storylines – Barney’s biological father, Marshall’s dad’s death, and Ted’s relationship with Zoey – all collapsed under the weight of their ambition. Bones, by contrast, had a bad season, with only about a quarter of its episodes being any good. Yet, if I have the time, I still plan to tune into both shows next season. In fact, I’m more likely to watch Bones than How I Met Your Mother. How could that be?
To answer that question, we’re going to take a look at another show that I wrote about in RR2, Modern Family. Out of the four shows examined in that article, it’s the only one that I quit watching for good. (I’ll be taking about 30 Rock later in this post.) I never really loved Modern Family. It was entertaining enough to hold my interest at least 75% of the time, but it wasn’t anything great. At the end of the day, it was just a standard family sitcom in mockumentary format and without a laugh track, and I never had any investment in it. In RR2, I wrote:
Honestly, I just got tired of it. With no ongoing storylines, I had no investment in the show. The characters stopped being interesting because they never actually developed or grew; they learned “life lessons” at the end of every episode that were promptly forgotten by the next.
No, Modern Family didn’t commit some grave sin. Its biggest crime was that I just didn’t find it all that interesting. After the first season was up, I realized that I’d gotten everything I possibly could out of the show, and I never tuned in again. (Well, I did watch a couple of season 2 reruns over the summer, and they were alright, nothing special.) Modern Family was easy to abandon because I didn’t have any investment in its characters, there were no ongoing storylines to care about, and I didn’t have a special appreciation for its format or vibe.
Contrast that with How I Met Your Mother, which has taken the time to let the audience get to know its characters, which has a mythology that seeks to answer the show’s central question (albeit in the most roundabout way possible), and which uses its unique “unreliable narrator” format to tell stories in innovative ways.3 In short, I actually care about the show because it has taken the time to draw me into its world. For that reason, even while the show has irritated me with awful storylines about doppelgangers and romantic interests like Zoey,4 I’m always curious to see what happens next.
I feel similarly about Bones, which has crafted two compelling characters in Booth and Brennan, and whose mixture of crime-solving, drama, and gallows/gross-out humour gives the show its own unique flavour. In fact, despite the fact that Bones had a worse season than HIMYM, I’d rather tune into Bones. Funnily enough, HIMYM is in danger of succumbing to some of the same traps as Modern Family: it’s becoming repetitive. For instance, as I pointed out in RR1, the Zoey storyline was essentially a replica of the Don one from season 5. Season 6 ended with no indication that the show is going to do anything different next season, other than stuffing a fake baby bump under Alyson Hannigan’s shirt. On the other hand, Bones is showing signs of significant changes. With all the main characters in romantic relationships now, the show is no longer about who’s dating whom. Brennan, Angela, and Hodgins are all heading into parenthood for the first time, which should provide plenty of meaty comedic and dramatic material. Of course, all of this is moot if the cases continue to be underwhelming, but I’m willing to give the show another shot. (Or two. Or five. Or…you get the picture.)
To sum up, I tend to stick around if I have an investment in a show or if I think it’s heading in an interesting direction, even if that show is no longer enjoyable. Conversely, shows that I never really cared about and that don’t entertain me much are a lot easier to give up.
But Everyone Else Thinks It’s Good
The foregoing analysis would be sufficient if I watched TV in a vacuum. But I don’t, which should be self-evident by the fact that you’re reading a blog post that I wrote about television. In what follows, I’ll be making reference to two articles by TV critic Ryan McGee about Community. The first (henceforth referred to as “RM1”) is about his feelings towards the show. The second (henceforth referred to as “RM2”) places those feelings in the wider context of TV criticism. They’re both excellently written, and I recommend that you take the time to read them because I’ll be expanding on some of the ideas they present, though reading them is not required to follow what I’m saying here.
But let’s begin by talking about 30 Rock, a show that has been nominated for countless Emmys, but whose support from the critical community has declined since its first two seasons. As I made clear in RR1 and RR2, I was disappointed in the past two seasons of 30 Rock. The show became too cartoonish, the characters were reduced to nothing more than joke-spouting machines, and at least half the jokes didn’t land.
However, the critical press has labelled this past season, season 5, as the show’s “comeback” season, once again deeming it worthy of Emmy consideration. And I can see where they’re coming from. Season 5 was certainly funnier than season 4, and it also had better storylines, particularly the one about Kabletown (the fictional equivalent of Comcast) taking over NBC. However, being better than season 4 isn’t a tall order. It’s like saying that getting a papercut is better than getting kicked in the crotch. Well duh. 30 Rock is still way too cartoonish and still hasn’t regained a handle on its characters. And it’s not as if season 5 didn’t kick me in the crotch on more than one occasion.5 “Gentleman’s Intermission,” “Double-Edged Sword,” and “Respawn” were downright awful. Plus, as evidenced by how Carol and Avery were dismissed from the show, 30 Rock has completely forgotten how to write romantic relationships.6 Anyone remember Floyd and Cece? Anyone? No? Just me? Oh well.
Nevertheless, I watched season 5 in its entirety. That’s partly because it had a few really good episodes – “When It Rains, It Pours,” “Operation Righteous Cowboy Lightning”, “Plan B” – that kept me watching even as I considered dropping the show. But perhaps more importantly, I continued to watch because others continued to watch, and they enjoyed what they saw. I wanted to like what I was seeing. I had no desire to be a contrarian. I wanted to see this supposed “comeback” that everyone else seemed to be experiencing. And so I watched, only half-enjoying the show, in an attempt to fit in with my friends who were loving it and fans who praised it on the Internet.
What’s most striking about the notion that season 5 was 30 Rock’s comeback season is that the opposite opinion – that 30 Rock really didn’t recover much from its nadir – has rarely been expressed on the Internet. In a way, that makes sense; many of those who were irritated with season 4 and would have been irritated with season 5 likely abandoned the show. (They’re better at giving things up than I am!) Still, it seems as if any minority opinion has been quashed by the prevailing zeitgeist, which is that 30 Rock has made a comeback.
That’s the opposite of what one would expect on the Internet, which should in theory, because of the anonymity it can afford, be a place where opinions of all different kinds are entertained. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. Perhaps for fear of being labelled cultural pariahs, those who hold unpopular opinions are afraid to speak out. McGee touches on this idea in RM2:
[T]here’s this increasing sense that credibility in talking about television is determined by liking a certain set of shows that prove de facto that you are worthy of being read.
Of course, McGee is talking about TV criticism here. The situation is slightly different for TV fans, maybe even slightly worse. McGee is a critic, and he therefore has some sway in determining the direction of the cultural conversations surrounding television. An individual fan, however, doesn’t have that kind of sway. True, unlike a critic, a TV fan can dismiss a widely-acclaimed show that he or she doesn’t love with an “It’s just not for me” without significant backlash. Very few people think I’m crazy for being unable to get into Scrubs or The Office, for instance. But on the other hand, if a TV fan continues to watch a series and holds a minority opinion about it, then that fan runs the risk of having his or her opinion not only dismissed, but also disregarded, by the majority, because unlike critics, fans have no clout.
Even worse, those who hold minority opinions are often ridiculed. People who hold positive opinions while the general response to a show is negative are labelled as shills or Polyannas, while people who hold negative opinions while the general response to a show is positive are mocked for not understanding the show or are suspected of having an ulterior agenda to bring it down. Moreover, those who hold a less than favourable opinion of a fan favourite character are dismissed as not being “true fans” of the show, and similarly for those who like widely-hated characters. Any opinion not held by the majority cannot be accepted.
The same goes for any piece of pop culture, whether it be movies, books, games, or music. That I think Children of Men is one of the most boring action films ever made, that I think The Kite Runner is mawkish and insincere, that I think Halo has a frustratingly repetitive single-player campaign, that I think The National’s High Violet is dull and underwhelming are opinions which cannot be tolerated on the Internet.7 Any deviation from the norm is seen as something that should be corrected or even eliminated.
None of this should come as a surprise to anyone, or at least not to anyone who has spent more than five minutes on the Internet. But the consequences are important to note. Because minority viewpoints are frequently treated with hostility, one gets the impression that one must hold a certain set of opinions about a certain set of shows to be admitted to the cultural spaces where critics and fans interact. To gain access to the conversation about Mad Men, one can’t just like the show; one has to believe that it’s in the top 2 or 3 dramas on television. To gain access to the conversation about How I Met Your Mother, one must love Barney and Robin but hate Lily and Ted. And to gain access to the conversation about 30 Rock, one must believe that season 5 was a return to form.
Thus, in declaring myself not to be a fan of season 5, I’ve essentially disqualified myself from being able to converse about 30 Rock on what is considered a legitimate level. I’m left with two options: 1) Admit defeat, stop watching the series, and awkwardly change the subject whenever it comes up in day-to-day chitchat. 2) Continue watching the series in the hopes that I’ll once again be able to align myself with the majority opinion and rejoin the cultural conversation.
When TV Is an Exclusive Club
All of this begs the question: why even attempt to join any cultural conversation in the first place? After all, if the Internet is such a hotbed for hostility, I’d probably get more enjoyment out of some shows if I just watched them in isolation and didn’t bring them up in real life. It’s too bad that it has come to this, but I’ve largely divorced myself from Internet discussion about 30 Rock and HIMYM for that reason, which was easy to do because the cultural conversations about those shows have little, if any, effect on what happens on those shows. As a result, I’ve become less attached to 30 Rock and HIMYM, which is why I’ll have an easier time giving them up now than I did last season (if I choose to give them up, that is. I still haven’t made up my mind.)
Less simple, however, is divorcing oneself from a show that is entwined with its own cultural conversation, as is the case with Community. One of my problems with Commmunity is best summarized like this: I want to give it up because it’s hard to give up.
That sounds kind of circular, so allow me to explain. Every scripted show with some degree of serialization has both a narrative and a meta-narrative. The narrative consists of whatever story is told on screen. The meta-narrative consists of how the story is told, as well as whatever happens behind the scenes and in the cultural conversations surrounding the show, i.e. it consists of the framework or context in which the story is told. Most shows are content keep their narratives and meta-narratives largely separate, only drawing attention to or attempting to manipulate their meta-narratives on very rare occasions. By contrast, Community’s narrative and meta-narrative are inextricably intertwined. To talk about the love triangle in which Jeff finds himself is to talk about fans’ perceptions of Annie’s and Britta’s characters. To talk about Pierce turning into a villain is to talk about Chevy Chase’s behind-the-scenes conflicts at Saturday Night Live.
This situation didn’t arise by accident. Season 1’s “Debate 109” is widely regarded as the point where Community went from being a good show to a great show. After weeks of teasing the humourless Britta as a potential love interest for Jeff, he and Annie were paired up as members of the Greendale debate team. The awkward romantic tension between them and the kiss they shared at the climax of the debate sparked a flurry of “Jeffnie” shipping, with fans insisting that Annie and Jeff were a better match than Britta and Jeff, the large age difference between the former pair notwithstanding. In response to this fan reaction, as well as general fan distaste for Britta, the show began giving Jeff and Annie scenes together more often, and Britta was repositioned as a phony who is just seeking to fit in.
By doing this, Community placed itself inside what McGee refers to in RM1 as a “feedback loop.” In essence, the show became a form of wish fulfillment for a certain segment of its fans, whereby their desires were played back at them on screen. Those who liked Britta as originally presented or who hated the idea of a Jeff/Annie romance found themselves out of the loop.
This feedback loop phenomenon is not unique to Community. For better or for worse, many shows attempt to gauge fan reaction and then tweak themselves accordingly, and for most of its first season, Community was no different from those shows. But towards the end of that season, Community reached another turning point, this one defined by the episodes “Contemporary American Poultry,” “Modern Warfare,” and “Pascal’s Triangle Revisited.” The first two were reference-heavy and stylistically adventurous, adapting the show to fit the format of pop-culture homages. The third was the season finale, which dealt with the Jeff-Annie-Britta-Slater love quadrangle by making meta-references to it, using it to allude to Twilight fandom (“Team Slater!” “Team Britta!”8), and ending the episode with a much anticipated second Jeff/Annie kiss.
Fan response to those episodes was overwhelmingly positive, especially to “Modern Warfare,” with some proclaiming it to be one of the best episodes of comedy every made. Seeing this reaction, I posit that Community’s writers thought: “Fans love when we experiment with style, when we make meta-jokes and pop culture references, when we take tropes and subvert them, when we give them what they want. And so do we. So let’s give them what they want.”
And give they did. Season 2 was one gimmicky stylistic experiment after another, filled till bursting with meta-humour and pop culture jokes. The show became as much about its structure as its stories. Pierce turning into a villain became a commentary on the validity of having a clear villain in a piece of fiction, while the introduction of Andre’s character became a supporting argument for the existence of comedic straight men. All the while, the feedback loop continued, and the series continued receiving praise. After all, how could fans (and critics) speak ill of something that they had helped shape to some degree? As long as the loop existed, if the show was talked about, then it would be praised.
But the situation for those outside the loop was frustrating. If anyone questioned why Pierce had to be a villain, he or she was told that the show required a villain. If anyone opined that Andre was a poorly-developed character whose portrayal didn’t jibe with what Shirley had said about him (no fault of Malcolm Jamal-Warner, by the way), then he or she was told that Andre was supposed to be a straight man, that he wasn’t supposed to have a dark streak. Criticism of the show was sometimes met with outright hostility, as if it were an attack not only on the show itself, but also the people who supported it. In RM2, McGee explains it like this:
Millions love “Community” not because it produces something outside of what’s in the audience’s head. Rather, they love it because it stages the best possible version of what up until that point was an unformed, inferior, internal set of scattered references. The illusion is that the show is inside the head of the audience, and simply plays back a better version onscreen. The audience provides the subconscious first draft, which is then psychically filtered into the writer’s room and eventually broadcast on NBC. The title “Community” not only serves to talk about the college that Jeff, Britta, and others attend. It also speaks directly to the way in which the show invites those of similar sensibilities to be part of the show itself.
That’s not how everyone experiences the show, of course, but it’s a way to understand how me tweeting that I’m “out” on “Community” can be perceived as tantamount to saying I am “out” on the person that loves the show. To speak of one is, in the minds of some, to speak of the other.
Unfortunately, this kind of fan attitude makes it hard to join the loop or to rejoin it once one has left it. Think of the loop as an impregnable castle, with the show as king and the fans as its loyal subjects. A number of prominent TV critics count themselves among those subjects. (Ooh, getting controversial here!) Now let me be clear. I don’t begrudge critics (or anyone else, for that matter) for liking the second season of the show, nor am I insinuating that they have any vested interest in the show aside from wanting to support something that they love. But there’s no denying that they’re part of the loop, because to be a fan of Community is tantamount to being in that loop.
However, long before the feedback loop became a problem, the show received a great deal of critical support, thus establishing its cultural legitimacy as a “great” sitcom and catapulting it into the ranks of the cultural elite, where it hobnobbed with the likes of Parks and Recreation, Arrested Development, and Cougar Town. Once the loop became a problem, i.e. around the start of season 2, the show began using its privileged position as a member of the cultural elite to perpetuate itself as a member of that group. To do this, it exploited the opinions of critics who were in the loop. It mocked critically-panned shows like Shit My Dad Says and The Cape while talking up critically acclaimed ones like Who’s the Boss? and Cougar Town, as if there were some sort of cognitive dissonance in liking shows that critics love as well as shows that critics hate. Moreover, because critics appreciated its ambition and its meta-humour, the show continued to experiment with its format and to point out and satirize the very tropes that it was employing.
But what Community fails to grasp is that a show should have to earn its cultural legitimacy. Simply saying “We’re awesome” (while odiously putting other shows down in the process) doesn’t make the show awesome. Ambition is nothing if it can’t be pulled off, and self-awareness is meaningless unless it is put to good use. If the storylines aren’t working, if I don’t want to spend time with the characters, if the narrative is continually sacrificed for the sake of the meta-narrative, then in my view, the show isn’t good, period. What’s left, then, is a set of experiments in episodic form, interesting from a scholarly standpoint as a show that exists to be talked about, but with little other value for someone like me who appreciates TV as a fan, not as an academic. Thus, I don’t believe that Community is deserving of a place among the cultural elite.
But regardless of what I think, the show is a member of that cultural elite. It has created, whether by design or by dumb luck, an environment in which ambition is valued over execution, in which structure prevails over story, in which meta-jokes are rewarded simply because they’re meta-jokes. It’s not a cultural conversation that I really want to be a part of for its inherent merits, but it is one that has important cultural relevance. It’s also a frustrating conversation, because it’s not one in which negative opinions are tolerated. In essence, it’s not even a real conversation; it’s just, as I’ve stated several times in this piece, a feedback loop. But one must be in that feedback loop in order to remain culturally relevant because of Community’s position in the cultural elite. Like 30 Rock, it’s required viewing for anyone who wants to participate in the cultural conversation about “quality” comedy. And who doesn’t want to remain culturally relevant? Who wouldn’t want to be there when the show tries its hand at a musical episode or at film noir? Who doesn’t want to be part of the experience of watching a “great” sitcom with millions of other viewers and then fangasming about how amazing it is? In short, it’s hard to abandon Community because it’s the kind of show which is talked about on the level of the cultural elite and which defines the cultural space where fans and critics discuss quality comedy. But I want to give up on Community because I don’t think it’s good enough to merit the elite status that it has been granted. It’s hard to give up, but I don’t believe it’s deserving of being hard to give up, which makes me want to give it up!
As we have seen, there many possible reasons why one may not want to bail on a TV show, from an investment in its characters and storylines, to a feeling of wanting to be in the loop. But one’s decision to continue watching or to give up on a show shouldn’t be considered an endorsement or an attack. That I choose to continue watching How I Met Your Mother doesn’t mean that I’m supporting a particular viewpoint about it, and that I believe Community’s head is so far up its own ass that it could win a Guinness World Record for contortion shouldn’t be perceived as a slight against those who watch the show. When I watch How I Met Your Mother, I’m not implicitly countenancing the “Screw Ted; Give us more Barney” attitude of many of its fans. Similarly, when I criticize Community for perpetuating the feedback loop that keeps it alive, I mean no disrespect to those who choose to watch the show and love it; they shouldn’t be blamed for enjoying whatever experience the show provides.
In sum, my TV watching habits aren’t grand statements about the shows I watch (or used to watch) and their respective fandoms. My decision to tune in or not to tune in to a particular show is personal. That I choose to share those decisions with others via the Internet, whether on discussion boards, comments sections, or in this blog, should be celebrated, not attacked. The Internet should be a place for reasoned debate and discussion, not just a venue for reaffirming prevailing cultural opinions. We should be able to disagree respectfully, but we can also make an effort to find common ground. To bring this back full circle, if you’re a big fan of Wilfred, maybe you shouldn’t be angry that I believe the show is need of improvement. Maybe you should be happy that I’ve found something I like about it and am continuing to watch. After all, how many people would even consider watching a show about a pot-smoking man in a dog suit in the first place?
2 If you’re tempted to dismiss the rest of this article based solely on my former choice of favourite TV shows, then I urge you to read on, because I’ll be addressing the concept of a show’s “cultural legitimacy” later in this article. ^
3 Since I’m going to complain a lot about Community and its overreliance on messing with its format later in this article, I’m going to head off any accusations of self-contradiction preemptively. There are at least two reasons why experimenting with format is something I applaud on How I Met Your Mother and something I’ve come to abhor on Community. The first is that HIMYM’s experimentation with format is built into the show’s premise, which isn’t the case with Community. The second is that HIMYM tailors its storytelling gimmicks to the story being told, whereas Community seemingly picks gimmicks at random, with no regard for tonal consistency. ^
6 Arguably, Matt Damon’s and Elizabeth Banks’ characters were written off the show because the actors were busy with other projects. Here’s a hint, 30 Rock: don’t cast big-name actors in important recurring roles unless you know you can keep them for a while. ^
7 The “It’s just not for me” argument doesn’t work in these cases. In general, I like thought-provoking action flicks, novels about facing past demons, futuristic first-person shooters, and sonorous indie rock albums. I just don’t like these particular ones. ^