A challenge recently posed to us was to tackle the question of what it means to be a fan. That’s an interesting question just now, when its obvious the four of us here have very different feelings on the state of the show. So in the post that follows we’ll each offer some thoughts on what it means to be a fan
I’m sure its no secret I’m probably the most disgruntled of the four of us right now. I do understand being a fan of something does mean not always being happy with it. I’ve mentioned in other posts being a big Chicago Bears fan. I grew up in the west suburbs, and even though I’ve been gone for 20 years now (dang, that amazes me!); I still have strong opinions about pizza, Italian beef, and Bear’s football. Sadly, the Bears have been a pretty bad team since their super bowl season of 2006. But I still get NFL Sunday ticket, so I will never miss a Bears game (um, except living in the Detroit market there is one game a year I have no control over!); and I yell and scream, and have a great time or terrible time based on the score. Why do I subject myself to this ritual? Because I’m a fan. I love the Bears with a deep emotional attachment. No matter how badly they do I will always watch, and yell, and offer my obviously brilliant advise. I have never threatened to quit watching, although sometimes, my attention does wander during an ugly game.
Chuck is different in several ways. There is no friendly opposition who is trying to ruin the show every week (OK, maybe a rival network). Basically, if the show gets better, everyone wins. I’ve previously offered my views on the importance of feedback (you all know I mean complaining, right?) so I’ll leave that alone here. The first thing being a fan means is just that I really like the show and look forward to it every week. The first two seasons that wasn’t tested so much; I was mostly very happy with the show. This year has been an ordeal; as I’ve mostly not been happy. But as a fan, I continue to expect, and hope for the best every week. The biggest challenge to that has been, not liking most of what TPTB have had to say about the show since Comic-Con in July of 2009. I guess it would be like the Bears hiring a coach or player I really don’t like. But with the Bears, I know there’s always next season. With Chuck, I’ve felt a sort of panic a few times I never have with a game. Will this new direction kill the show? Will it ever get back to the things I like best? I’m willing to assume the happy ending, but I want more; I want to see the good stuff on screen. I want to see Chuck and Sarah kicking butt and saving the world and each other. I want to laugh with the characters I came to love in the first two seasons, and not yell “idiot” quite so often. I guess, as a committed fan, I do intend to stick it out; at least for a while. At some point, if the show doesn’t offer more of what I like I will move on. But for now it has me hooked enough I’m willing to give them some time to work things through. I guess that’s the real measure of me being a fan.
What is a fan? The somewhat snarky answer is that a fan is someone who cares way more than they should. But come to think of it, that’s not a bad answer. First of all a fan cares. This doesn’t mean blindly endorses anything that the object of their fandom does. I’m a big Pittsburgh Steelers fan, but I’ve spent many a Sunday in a local Steelers bar screaming “What are you THINKING!!?!?” along with dozens of other rabid fans when Bill Cowher decided to sit on that 6 point lead early in the third quarter. For those of you not versed in American Football that is a move about as stupid as not giving Zach and Yvonne any screen time together for half a season. A fan cares, and that can come out in a lot of different ways, that is the way too much part. Because the thing that makes a fan a fan is that they invest. Time, energy, emotions, whatever, a fan puts a lot of themselves into the object of their fandom. Whether its re-watching episodes a dozen times or memorizing box scores or getting a $200 satellite TV package just so you can follow your team, a fan makes an investment, and becomes invested in the outcome. Which brings us to the final point. Because of that investment a fan interacts, either with other fans, or the object of their fandom. That can take a lot of different forms, both good and bad. We’ll be generous and call some of it, which I am clearly often guilty of, constructive criticism. It’s less so when it takes the form of hurling beer cans at a stadium, but you get the point. If a fan thinks the object of their fandom takes them for granted, things can get ugly. Even that comes out of the sense of investment. But the investment also takes the form of buying footlong subs for the family every Monday night or season tickets to a franchise that’s been losing since Jimmy Carter was president. That interaction serves to deepen the investment and the sense of connection the fan feels which leads to higher highs and, unfortunately, lower lows, but hey, a fan cares, it comes with the territory.
One of the most obnoxious things I can think of is the person who’ll walk up to a celebrity and shout something like “Mr. X, Ms. X, I’m such a big fan!!!” with audible exclamation marks. What does that mean? Too often the person saying that doesn’t know the first thing about their target’s body of work. What they’re responding to is celebrity. I feel sorry for Lindsey Vonn and Joannie Rochette these next few weeks, and for Shawn White and Apolo Ohno too. They’ve been there before, but fans will be just as obnoxious this time. Still, they are dealing with people who call themselves fans.
Yeah, I understand being star struck. Guaranteed, if Ms. Yvonne Strahovski walks into my house today, I’m reduced to being a stammering idiot too. But a fan is not always someone who is interested merely in celebrity. Some are willing to delve a little deeper than that, deep enough so that they’ve gained a working knowledge of the subject (if we’re speaking of a show), or a decent respect for the person (if we’re speaking of a person). You don’t have to go so far as to study up. That sounds like work! But there are people interested enough to look beyond the surface, though. That’s a better kind of fan, isn’t it? We enjoy – or to put it euphemistically, we are in love with – the subject.
Once a person crosses that threshold, interesting things start to happen. You can get to the point where you can ask some interesting questions, like, “Is this better than that, and if so, can I say exactly why?” and “If I liked this, does it mean someone else will? Does it mean someone else should?” You can see that fan-dom, if it’s to be more than extremely superficial, gets away from the idea that a fan is someone who “likes” something. Perhaps the word “appreciates” is more accurate. What’s undeniably true is that even if you call yourself a fan, it’s not necessary to like every little thing about the subject. You’re permitted to critique, and that’s a different animal.
Critiquing carries with it a pretty large responsibility. You gotta play fair, you better believe in what you say and you better be prepared to be challenged on your opinion, even to the point of changing it. But hey, fans are not critics; they are generally people who just want to say that they like what they saw, and may not feel the need to justify that opinion. They’re still entitled to it. Not everyone’s gonna buy it, however. It can become a contest at times, but this is where some fans are.
Maybe you’ve seen the line I just drew. I tried to draw it from the ground up, the way my mother taught it to me as a child. “Some people talk about other people. Better people talk about things. The best people talk about ideas.” We are fans who may even have starting watching Chuck because of this blonde we saw. I’m guessing that lasted less than five minutes. Pretty quickly, we became fans who knew we liked what we saw, knew that we were laughing at the jokes, getting thrilled by the chases, even heartwarmed by the smiles and hand holding. We got informed, got the inside jokes, and started to worry about what was coming next. Would the next joke be as funny? Would the next chase be as thrilling? And would hand holding be enough? OF COURSE NOT! And what about those inconsistencies I keep seeing? Can I live with that and still like the show? Many of us started asking those questions.
And we started to think. This is personal. “They” are telling a story that, so far, has been true and good. But am I being manipulated? Where is the story going, and is it still true for me? We’re deep into the realm of ideas, my friends, and not everyone is interested in going this far down the path of fan-dom. Some who have come this far may even have answered “No, this is not the way I see things. There is nothing for me here except what is superficial.” And that’s hard. Fans who have come this far have made an investment and it’s a sad thing to see them willing to leave it behind. But just like the fan who merely wants to say “Hey, I liked it. That is all!”, they’re entitled. Moreso, because they see the price they are paying.
It gets worse. There comes a point where, if the story is good and true enough, and if you are honest enough, you have to ask yourself, “Self? Am I wrong here? Am I not up to the task of understanding the truth being told in this story, or can I learn something? Do I have to grow into this?”
Okay, that was pretentious. That’s not usually the realm of television and entertainment for the masses; it’s the realm of great art. It’s art partly because it changes you. As much as I enjoy Chuck I’m not going to make the claim that it’s at that level. In fact, even if it was, it’s way too early to make that claim, and far to soon to have that effect. But I want you to know that questions like those, stimulated by what you are seeing, are not about self-doubt. They are a good sign. They indicate you want to dialog with the artist.
I know what prompted the original question; “What does it mean to be a fan?” All last summer many of us participated in a conversation about Chuck, starting with talking about what we liked and disliked. It quickly got into discussions about the show’s direction, and what was happening next, and “What exactly did Josh Schwartz say about trapezoids?” and PLIs and spoilers and “YOU’RE BANNED!” and “HEY! You have to listen to me!” and “No I don’t!!!” and… What a summer. Much fun. Lots of talking, a little less listening, I thought.
But um, last week, I heard actors on television use the very words we were relying on to communicate. They, TPTB, were listening in, and, story or no story, they were talking back. In English, that’s a dialog. Maybe I’m just new to the 21st century with this newfangled internet and everything, but I’ve never seen that before, that I remember. The fans, all of them, starting from the uninformed accoster of stars to the most thoughtful of readers were just told by the creators of a television show that their words were read and their voices heard.
Okay, maybe the message was “… and ignored.” Or not. It doesn’t matter, because a message received is a message considered, and the impact is already measurable directly in seconds of air-time. How that translates into the direction the story takes from now on, I don’t know. But I do know that it cannot have zero effect and those fans who spoke up just became a tiny little bit responsible for the results. We got a tiny little bit of ownership. Beyond even helping the financial and ratings success of the show, the fans of Chuck have somehow been granted some tiny say, and therefore some responsibilities, over the direction that the show takes.
No, Ms. Adler. I’m not saying we want to write lines for you to incorporate into the next script. I’m saying that I understand you hear us, and are considering what we have to say, and we’re actually appreciative. For our part, we try to be honest and say what is truly heartfelt, and we sometimes even try to be intelligent about it. We will always be grateful and thank you for treating us fans like adults with legitimate feelings. When all is said and done, that’s who we are.