TV Dichotomy – Viewer vs. Creator

Two weeks ago, a friend and I were dissecting the lastest Vampire Diaries episode on Skype (because my friends are awesome like that). While we were discussing our excitement and concerns over the most recent plot developments, it led us to a fascinating conversation about the gap that sometimes exists between how creators and viewers perceive certain elements of a TV show, and how that dichotomy can hurt the show itself.

Let me make this clear: in no way do I think that TV writers and producers should write their content FOR fans. Social media has made it so easy for fans to interact with creators that they tend to feel entitled to being given the exact content they want. That’s unrealistic and unhealthy for several reasons:

  1. If creators did what fans wanted, shows would be conflict-free, characters would all be happy, couples would be together, etc, and there would be no point to storytelling, particularly on drama series.
  2. TV moves at such a breakneck pace that by the time fans question the direction of a certain storyline, the writers are probably already working on 10 episodes down the line, and very little can be done.
  3. Most importantly — TV fans often don’t realize the work, love and dedication that goes into producing the episodes they might feel unhappy about. The truth is that it takes not only a lot of hard work, but also a lot of courage to stick to a certain character arc, plot arc or relationship progression, and it takes unrelenting focus and detailed development in order for these things to be accomplished successfully. If creators started taking into account fan feedback every step of the way, nothing would ever get done. Writers take risks with story so that they can pay off down the line. (If Gossip Girl happens to be your favorite show… I’m sorry. I promise that any show you choose to invest your time in hereafter will restore your faith in TV.) To me, that’s where the true magic of TV lies: in watching those stories come to life on screen and become larger than life — larger than fiction.

All that being said… no show is perfect. And while I don’t think writers should write for fans, I do think that it’s very important for them to write AS fans.

Here’s what I mean by that: whether you’ve only watched one show in your entire life, or follow an average of forty at a time like I do, I’m sure you’ve seen this happen before: a character comes to life on the screen and steamrolls everything in its wake. What was supposed to be a guest role becomes a regular character. A relationship that didn’t have a reason to exist comes alive with chemistry and ends up changing the entire dynamic of the series.

Most of the time, creators are aware of this. They’re the first ones to see the chemistry sizzle on set, to see the character come to life in episode cuts, and they know they have to do something to make that magic a permanent part of the show. Plans go out the window because while you’ve spent hours planning a specific arc for a specific characters, what you’ve been looking for all along as a TV writer and creator is that for that something to bring life to your show.

Conversely, there are also many cases where the exact opposite happens, and a character or relationship feels so flat and uninteresting that to keep it alive becomes a disservice to the story the show is trying to tell.

So the writers course-correct. They step in as creators and change the course of things. They reveal the sister wasn’t a sister after all (Justin and Rebecca on Brothers & Sisters), they make the nice wife evil (Lauren on Alias), they get rid of a character as quickly as possible (Kalinda’s husband on The Good Wife), they make guest characters regulars (Klaus on The Vampire Diaries). The list goes on forever.

Here is where I think things get really interesting: when what the writers perceive to be working is NOT what the audience knows/feels is working.

There are cases where the writers seem to love an idea/character so much that they systematically put it on a pedestal that makes little sense to the viewers. They keep trying to push something on the audience that never works no matter how hard they try. I remember being quite unhappy with the way Veronica Mars treated Duncan like he was this almighty wonderful character we were supposed to root for. They wrote him off eventually, because he just didn’t work, and because Jason Dohring who played Logan Echolls eclipsed him in every possible way, but the episodes in between were quite painful to sit through.

This dichotomy can get a little dangerous (for the hearts of us hardcore TV fans) when the writers feel the need to step in and do something to try and make us like said character/plot/relationship. That’s course-correcting in its most controversial form. Sometimes that means using the voice of a character to push a relationship that’s not working. Sometimes that means having characters do and say things that feel downright out of character to protect said unpopular storyline or character — TV’s most dreaded pitfall.

I’m not saying there is a right or wrong. TV is such an intense medium that things will inevitably come together and fall apart on a regular basis. For every mistake a show makes, there will be a dozen more wonderful things it will bring to the screen. But it’s really fascinating to watch those things play out and see how the show chooses to handle them.

I think the bottom line is that no matter what writers try to push as the right story, there are things that feel right because they are right, and no amount course-correcting will change that. That’s the magic of storytelling, whether it comes to TV, film or books. These are the things that make our heart beat and break for our favorite characters. These are the things we crave content for.

So I guess I’ll take the mistakes and the well-intentioned course-correction if it means getting everything else too.

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