The Wonderful and Disastrous Art of Fan Pandering

Sam and Dean Winchester

I’m talking about fan service again—not so much the “oh look, boobs!” fan service but pandering to fans on a textual level. Which is an odd thing to say, since every piece of fiction is written for an audience, and showrunners of ongoing series are smart to listen and react to that audience, as it can let them know what the fans are enjoying and finding problems with. This age of communication and breakdown of barriers between creators and consumers (think Twitter interactions and mainstream access to conventions and panels etc.) is giving way to a new breed of fiction, which can much more effectively be improved and aimed to its audience. However, there comes a point where one has to ponder if waving to that pre-established audience and giving them what they ‘want’ has gotten in the way of the story you were trying to tell.

Supernatural has announced that it’s doing a “musical-ish” episode for its 200th show. Well, the creative team has announced that—Supernatural is many things and by this point a giant heaving clusterbomb of convoluted fan-creator connection, but I don’t think its gained sentience yet. Anyway, I only know of this because I’ve seen fans delighting over the announcement, and also know from watching that same circle from the periphery that a musical episode (inspired by Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s famous ‘Once More With Feeling’) is something fans have been speculating on and wishing for for a long time. It seems their words have been heard. I’m not going to peer too much at the Supernatural team for this since they’ve done plenty of ridiculous stuff and at 200 episodes something like this is a reward for sticking around through all of it. But I do have an issue with the practice of gift-wrapping tossed-around fan ideas and publishing them.

In case anyone’s wondering, I’m still mad about Sherlock season three. I have no shame in admitting I adored the show at its beginning, but I have even less in declaring I now find it a self-congratulatory swamp of silliness. The entire third season, though this is an oxymoron, felt like fanfiction of itself. The focus shifted from the compelling mysteries (the point of the show, its plot spine) to more domestic and character-central plots, including a whole episode devoted to Sherlock’s Best Man speech (and also John’s wedding, I guess, but Sherlock’s orating seemed to take up the entire thing) and so, so much glimmering emphasis on the unbreakable bond between the detective duo despite John quite rightly being furious with Sherlock at the start. Because JohnLock is alive and real, and their interactions are what the fans want to see, right?

Sherlock season 3 wedding

The Sherlock Holmes fan club in the first episode was, as fandom shout-outs go, about as subtle as a brick to the face, and I believe some actual fan theories about Sherlock’s method of surviving the fall were pulled off the internet and straight into the script. Which is a copyright issue for one thing, but that’s another story—the writers were giving the fans what they thought they wanted, and managing to not-so-quietly mock them at the same time. Maybe they thought the fan club scene was in good spirits, but I remain sceptical and bitter about it… and, of course, if you’re a casual viewer who has no idea of the internet fan community, that entire part is going to go right over your head.

Some works work so damn hard to appeal to their niche market of pre-established fans that they alienate everyone who isn’t their intended audience. Is this an intelligent marketing strategy, or a dumb one? The fact that Fate/Kaleid Liner Prisma Ilya exists is proof enough that pre-existing fandoms can be big and thirsty enough to create a market for an adapted (semi-professional) fan comic. Prisma Ilya is fan service from head to toe, taking the characters from the Fate verse and putting them into an alternate universe and the magical girl genre, aiming to please both by being spectacularly cute (and full of cute girl bust and booty, too) and starring characters, AU fanfiction style, that are very much screwed over or dead otherwise. If you’re not the type to drool over the bath scenes, at least rest assured you’ll be crying happily over the domestic happiness of a very much together and alive Einzbern-Emiya family.

The fact that the main character not being a magically abused, emotionally tormented orphan in this universe is considered fan service should tell you something about Fate, but that’s another discussion. Any casual viewer won’t get the emotional significance of certain characters being around at all, and most of the in-jokes and inherent self-referential coolness of the battles will be entirely lost on anyone who’s not well-versed in the original work. That seems like the creators have immediately axed a good portion of their potential audience, but they evidently don’t care, since the fans they’re pandering to are lapping it eagerly up. Does it mean they’re also making a quality show? Well. That’s the question (and the answer is probably a resounding no, but despite all the inherent trashiness of this thing Kiritsugu’s not dead and I have to be happy with that. Damn you, Type-Moon and associates.)

Fate Kaleid Liner Prisma Ilya

Things like this happen here and there of course, especially in animated mediums where it’s easy to fling out a comedy sketch or amusing official art here and there, but making a whole fully-budgeted animated series (two, now!) is on a whole other level. Things like Prisma Ilya are fan pandering incarnate, though, so it feels, in a strange way, less awkward than fan pandering being inserted into an existing story. However big or small that may be—reportedly Doctor Who is going to be doing some fan referencing, as if it hasn’t been dancing around trying to self-reference and nod to its audience for the last two seasons, but that will be a throwaway line. What about impacting whole stories and characterisation to give fans what they supposedly want? Like teasing popular ships or switching focus to popular characters, leading to equally important ones being sidelined, or changing the inherent personality of a character to fit what the fans want to see in them…

Or just the good old case of giving fans more where there really shouldn’t be, like The Hobbit being turned into an epic trilogy when it was originally a singular book with a good deal less badassery. It gives Tolkien enthusiasts more product to enjoy (and makes the creators more money, obviously) but I can’t help but feel it’s also stretched out the story into something barely recognisable, introducing lots of new elements to beef it up and drawing out the book into a long game which it originally wasn’t, changing the pacing and tone entirely. And of course its movie brethren, any unnecessary but highly-anticipated sequels or continuations where the story really should have ended (which, again, makes me glance back up through the paragraphs at the originally-planned-for-five-seasons Supernatural).

Generally, as things go on for longer they get more entangled with their fans rather than their casual viewers because the stick-with-it audience is the one that’s mostly watching it by that point… which leads to more fandom nods and fan pandering, because hey, we’ve made the sweeping first impression already, and now it’s time to please the ones who jumped on our wagon. This is a natural process for a long-running series to go through and it doesn’t always result in silliness or toxicity, in fact, most of the time fan pandering is harmless fun. It’s when it trips up the plot, tone or mission statement of the show that you run into a problem. Trying to make everyone happy can lead to a right old mess.

The Hobbit

And some series are very aware of this, and make it known—Rebellion Story, which continues the completed but very popular Madoka Magica series (and will probably get its own post at some point), is made to please fans in a very real sense. The fact that it exists is one thing, and within that existence is a glorious, saturated, colourful, indulgent craft that spins out the happy magical girl story and interactions the characters were denied in the series. The main ships are practically canonised, despite there being only hints of it previously, and there’s more physical fan service as well (what is it about magical girl transformations?), and generally everyone’s having a lovely time… until it’s revealed that the whole thing is a psychological farce the characters are all trapped in because somebody, who then becomes the Devil, couldn’t let them go.

Are we seeing a metaphor for the fandom here? That clamouring for, and running around to please those clamouring, ultimately leads to disrespect for the work and general disaster? Can pandering to fans lead to quality creations or does it ultimately send everything it touches on a downward spiral? Does it make writers lazy? Does it make fans think they can boss writers around? Does it make consumers and creators co-dependent? And if you made those fans fall in love with the show in the first place, do you really need to bend to their will or act out to get their attention?

Food for thought, no?

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “The Wonderful and Disastrous Art of Fan Pandering

  1. Anonymous

    I think you make some very good points here, but at the same time, I fail to understand anyone who says ‘the compelling mysteries… are the point of the show, its plot spine’. It’s one thing to say you would have preferred more focus on cases in season 3, but it’s clear right from the pilot episode that the two main characters are the show’s priority.

    • That’s true. Any crime show wouldn’t hold ANY interest if it wasn’t for the detectives. Seasons 1 and 2 seemed to have episodes that were mystery-based first, though, using the crimes to solve as a jumping-off point and the main focus of the episode, with character actions occurring because of that. In season 3, it simply seemed more like the characters were driving the plot more, which would have been fine except the first two mysteries were very weak in comparison to previous ones in terms of structure and suspense, and really only seemed to be there in the background to the character-based drama going on. That being said, I wouldn’t have minded MORE focus on some characters–Sebastian Moran, for instance!–but it felt as if everything orbited far too much around the intricacies of Sherlock and John’s relationship, and knowing that was most likely a trick to entice the fans, I have a few problems with it.

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