Wednesday, October 03, 2007

File Under 'Big Surprise'

Ian McShane believes the promised Deadwood films aren't going to happen:
I asked him the big question Deadwood fans have been wanting to know for a while now -- was HBO just blowing smoke with its promise to wrap up the series with a couple of made-for-TV movies? Well, the answer is yes, McShane revealed to us. "I just got a call on Friday from ... a dear friend of mine, who told me that they're packing up the ranch," McShane said. "They're dismantling the ranch and taking the stuff out. That ship is gonna sail. Bonsoir, Deadwood." He went on to say that even if the movies were happening, there would be the strike to consider, and on top of that, he's committed to a filming schedule that would prevent him from doing them anytime before late next year anyway.
(Link via)

I've been thinking for a while about the Deadwood situation as compared to the fates of shows like Veronica Mars, Jericho, Farscape, Futurama, and other series that have been brought back from the brink of death or beyond it by concentrated fan effort. Fine and well-loved as it was, Deadwood never had a fandom. Neither, I suspect, do most HBO shows. I think series like Deadwood and The Sopranos are beloved primarily by people who enjoy watching the series but don't necessarily see the appeal (and perhaps are not even aware of the existence) of fannish activities--critical analysis, episode reviews, parodies, filks, fanart, fanfic. It is these activities, however, and through them the fostering of a community and of a sense of ownership over the series, that create fandoms capable of affecting the nature and fate of their favorite series, and sometimes of forestalling their executions.

I don't know what would have happened if HBO's offices had been flooded with shipments of, say, canned peaches. For one thing, HBO has a very different business model than advertiser-supported networks. More importantly, I suspect the fannish phenomenon would have been so alien to the channel's officers that they wouldn't have known how, or even whether, to react to it. When the Sci Fi Channel cancelled the long-running Stargate: SG-1 halfway through a projected two-season storyline, they met with irate reactions from fans and promptly greenlit two TV movies with which to resolve that plot--movies which are currently in production. HBO similarly promised to resolve the Deadwood story with TV movies, but now it appears to be reneging on its promise, or at the very least delaying production indefinitely, without any awareness of the effect that such behavior might have on fan loyalty towards their other shows (I've more than once come across the argument that the failure of John From Cincinnati came about at least in part because aggravated Deadwood fans stayed away from David Milch's new show in droves).

These differing reactions are rooted, I suspect, in the two channels' respective awareness of the importance and power of fandom, and in the absence of such a fandom when it comes to HBO shows (consider, for example, the fate of Carnivale, which despite its fannish appeal was led away to the chopping block with nary a sign of a save-our-show campaign). The question now becomes, is HBO about to learn a bitter lesson about the importance of fostering viewer loyalty, or is their customer base willing, yet again, to take this kind of treatment lying down?

12 comments:

Katherine said...

It's always interested me that the incredibly high-quality shows on HBO don't garner more of a "fannish" following. I have a theory that fandoms tend to accumulate around shows (or books, or films, or what-have-you) that are in some obvious way incomplete or imperfect, so that fannish activities can comment on or augment them, or fill in the cracks. Most series television fits this description; HBO dramas, which are much more consciously designed on a season-by-season basis, not so much. I look at the first season of Deadwood, and it's so self-contained, so well-structured, that trying to add anything of my own to it would seem like an impertinence. Not to mention that the sheer quality of the original is intimidating: I don't want to remind my readers that I'm not as good as David Milch.

In an ironic way, then, the lack of major fannish activity around their shows is a compliment to HBO. That is, if I'm right.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I have a theory that fandoms tend to accumulate around shows (or books, or films, or what-have-you) that are in some obvious way incomplete or imperfect

I agree, but I think you also make an important point about Deadwood or The Sopranos being self-contained. Shows like Buffy or Firefly, which were generally quite excellent, developed a fandom because they existed in a wider universe in which those fans could play.

It's a division that overlaps somewhat with the genre/mainstream divide, though obviously there are exceptions such as Carnivale.

Broom said...

(I've more than once come across the argument that the failure of John From Cincinnati came about at least in part because aggravated Deadwood fans stayed away from David Milch's new show in droves).

I'm not sure I understand this. Why would someone stay away from the work of a writer they liked because that writer's last work got cancelled? I don't imagine writers would be over-joyed about having their work cut off... so why try to punish them further? And why cut yourself off from something that presumably you would like?

When the Sci Fi Channel cancelled the long-running Stargate: SG-1 halfway through a projected two-season storyline, they met with irate reactions from fans and promptly greenlit two TV movies with which to resolve that plot...

Surely this was more because the people in charge saw the potential of making more money off their franchise, rather than because they bowed to righteous anger?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Why would someone stay away from the work of a writer they liked because that writer's last work got cancelled?

Rightly or wrongly, there was a perception among some of Milch's fans that he had abandoned Deadwood, or failed to fight hard enough for it - that he'd gotten bored with the series or wanted to tell the John From Cincinnati story more.

Surely this was more because the people in charge saw the potential of making more money off their franchise, rather than because they bowed to righteous anger?

All successful fan campaigns succeed because of financial considerations - because they persuade network executives that the show in question has a viable audience, or because those executives are aware of the necessity of maintaining viewer loyalty and goodwill. I never suggested that Sci Fi's decision had been motivated by a desire to be liked.

ianras said...

It seems to me that the audiences for HBO programs respect and admire the shows rather than love them. I say this as someone who owns the first two seasons on DVD but if I could recall one mention of how touching a scene from Deadwood was to match every fifty mentions of its liguistic brilliance, I'd be doing well. Carnivalé may have had SFnal touches but it had none of the tawdry charm or simple narrative pleasures of a Firefly or a Veronica Mars and I think, ultimately, that's what a fandom grows around.

Alison said...

I'm a fan of Deadwood as much as I am of any show - of Firefly or Doctor Who for instance. I feel engrossed and embedded in it. I totally love it, really. I suppose I am a data point of one.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I wasn't questioning the love individual fans, Alison, but rather their desire to share it with other fans and to create fan communities. I could be wrong, but I'm not aware of the construction of such an edifice among Deadwood fans, or fans of other HBO shows.

ianras said...

I didn't mean to imply that all fans of Deadwood hold it in aloof admiration. I meant my remarks as a general impression of the general audience or at least those writing on the internet about it.

Ilana said...

I think part of the reason there's no HBO fandom is that most HBO shows tend to appeal to more mature audiences. That's not to say that young people don't watch the shows, but I'll hazard a guess that most HBO viewers are over 35 and therefore less likely to know anything about the concept of fandom. They also tend to be people with spouses and children, so with less time and inclination to obsess about TV shows.

Also, is it possible that fandom is largely a genre phenomenon? Sure, "Veronica Mars" isn't SF or fantasy, but a good part of its fandom was comprised of Joss Whedon fans who tuned in on his recommendation, or who had heard that VM was "the new Buffy." Do shows like "Friends" and "Grey's Anatomy" garner as much fanfic as "Firefly" and "Battlestar Galactica"? In my experience, at least, genre fans are MUCH more passionate about the shows they love than the average viewer.

Lastly, a lot of fanfic has to do with writers fantasizing about sexual encounters between characters. HBO shows present less opportunity for such fantasies since they leave few sexual details to the imagination. Instead of building up tantalizing sexual tension that goes on and on for seasons, HBO shows get the characters in the sack pretty quickly and explicitly.

For the record, I LOVED rather than merely admired (early) "Deadwood," "Sopranos" and "Six Feet Under" (especially the latter). But I have no desire to write fanfic about anything at all, ever.

Ilana said...

Ok, I've been thinking about this some more...I think it's true that people tend to get less emotionally invested in HBO shows. I can think of a couple of reasons for this: 1) The seasons are shorter, therefore there's less immersion 2) HBO doesn't go to great lengths to make sure that all the main characters stay likable. There seems to be a rule among network shows that the likability of main characters MUST be preserved at all costs (hence the emasculation of Malcolm Reynolds, for example). Network shows also attempt to preserve common conceptions of morality so they don't offend the audience, therefore leading to ridiculously contrived situations like the attempted rape of Buffy in season 6 of that show.

The result of this latter phenomenon is that the shows create warm comfy feelings in the viewer, which is the primary motivator to go back for more and to sink in once again. Uncomplicated positive emotions are addictive. In contrast, HBO shows often make the viewer spend time with unpleasant people, or with people who are behaving in ways that most of society considers morally unacceptable--and not getting punished for it. Some people probably get a high from watching things like Vito getting skewered, but I wince every time...and I doubt that I'm the only one. HBO purposely deals with morally complicated areas of life, and consequently these are not worlds where one can easily feel at home.

ianras said...

> Also, is it possible that fandom is largely a genre phenomenon? Sure, "Veronica Mars" isn't SF or fantasy,

I would argue that Veronica Mars is a genre piece: a detective genre piece. The sugar-rush of a detective story might be of a different kind to the sugar-rush of a fantasy but it's still a sugar-rush. HBO shows, for the most part, eschew that effect for something else. They might try for greater versimilitude or dreariness or ponderousness or introspection or whatever but not usually that pulpy pop.

> The result of this latter phenomenon is that the shows create warm comfy feelings in the viewer, which is the primary motivator to go back for more and to sink in once again. Uncomplicated positive emotions are addictive. In contrast, HBO shows often make the viewer spend time with unpleasant people, or with people who are behaving in ways that most of society considers morally unacceptable--and not getting punished for it.

Shows with strong fandoms tend to skew 'complicated' too, though. Battlestar Galactica must have a claim to the title of 'show with the most unlikeable cast of characters on television'. I think what you're saying is interesting because while it's true that HBO characters often go unpunished for their moral shortcomings, I think that's true for a lot of fandom shows too. The difference between them is that HBO shows let the emphasis fall on the horror of their characters' flaws while fandom shows obfuscate and undercut that horror: Willow murders people and never faces the direct consequences of it; Angelus returns and only attacks demons and a self-sacrificing Faith;-- and Dexter, the greatest cop-out character I've ever come across, has an entire backstory and universe invented to make him not just palatable but cuddly.

Foxessa said...

That's among the many, many reasons that I feel HBO's The Wire is the most likely successor to George Eliot's achievement in Middlemarch -- there is a moral universe embedded in the show, in fact more than one. Each character knows when s/he's stepped over line. And in the end they pay for it, in one way or another, even if one might see them all as morally ambiguous in terms of the relativist universe we all inhabit.

"Once we were a nation that made things that the world could use. Now we're a nation that's about getting your hand in the other guy's pocket."

It's the greatest television.

And, no. I wouldn't have watched it when I was younger. I wouldn't have known enough. Just like I could comprehend the universe of Louisa May Alcott when 11, but not that of George Eliot (and don't get me wrong -- I love Louisa May Alcott still, and know her works inside and out).

Love, C.

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