Over-Flow — Responses to Flow Conference 2010 panels: I can’t quit you, terrible TV

If you follow me on Twitter or caught up with a few of my delayed posts on last week’s television, you know that I spent the first few days of October at my first academic conference. The 2010 Flow Conference took place in Austin, Texasand it was generally awesome, particularly for a super-young television scholar (I believe that I was the youngest and least experienced person there, or at least participating on a panel). Anyway, I went to various roundtables covering a wide variety of television-centric topics, all of which stimulated my mind.

Thus, I figured that I could discuss some of the ones that really stuck with me as a way to not only keep those conversations going, but also figure out where I really stand on some of these subjects that were really being debated in ways I had perhaps never really thought of. So the plan is to write-up a few posts in the next few days and just see where the conversation goes.

I wanted to get to this post last week right after my discussion of the happy ending in the television sitcom, but hey, life. Anyway, the panel I was apart of at Flow discussed the relationship between fans and long-running television series, whether they be broadcast powers like The Office, House or Grey’s Anatomy, soap operas, or syndicated stalwarts like Law & Order. The purpose of the panel was to figure out why in the heck viewers stick with series for an extended period of time and what the industry does to keep those people involved. You can see the position papers of those on the panel by scrolling down on the Flow schedule for the “Series Finale Til Do Us Part” group.

The panel was a lively one, as the topic lends itself to a number of different responses or rationales for why fans stick with programs, perhaps even past the programs’ date of high-quality. There was, of course, lots of discussion about Lost and how it handled (or in the eyes of many, mishandled) its fans expectations over the last few years and discussions about the distinctions between a general audience member and a “fan,” all of which was supremely interesting to someone with my interests in fans and audiences.

But the most interesting point of the panel was made by Max Dawson, a former professor of mine from IU now at Northwestern, and an individual whose tweets are really a joy to read. Max brought up the question of hate in fandom and the relationship that so many of us have with programs we actually don’t even like at all. This seems like a topic very personal to Max, because if you follow his tweets, most of them are full of rage with what he’s seeing on the screen in front of him.

And as someone who finds themselves watching a lot of television that I don’t care about or even like as well, I’m totally compelled by this idea. Max mentioned his general hatred for True Blood, and oftentimes, I feel the same way about that series. I’ve watched two episodes of Outsourced, stuck with FlashForward almost to the end, watched the first six seasons of One Tree Hill and tend to watch almost every new premiere, no matter how awful the reviews are. And for the most part, every single one of these experiences has been frustrating, annoying and suffocating in ways that I cannot even explain.

So why, oh why, do we do this to ourselves?

There are a few ways to look at this situation. Most obviously, I think a lot of people watch television series, even ones that they hate, because they want to keep up on what’s hot in popular culture, be involved in the proverbial (and now mostly digital) watercooler. That’s probably a broad, general assumption, but I think it’s a fair one to make in this space. I know from personal experience browsing the message boards and comments sections or even just talking to friends that during the final few years of Lost, some were watching simply to keep up with the events so they’d understand the ending. A number of my friends less interested in television in general kept coming to me asking what the point of it all it was and even after my explanations, they’d mumble on about how the series sucked, was made up as they went along, etc., but they never, ever kept watching. And again, these were general TV viewers, not academics or critics.

The distinction between critics/scholars and “normal” viewers is something I’ll return to in a moment, but let’s stay close to the assumptions that keep so-called normal viewers watching. If we go back to the watercooler desires, there is also the assumption of cultural capital that comes with watching certain programs. In particular circles, it might be crucial to be someone who watches Breaking Bad, in others, it might be pertinent to watch Jersey Shore. It all depends on the context and where/how individuals live, but it definitely feels disappointing to be the person on the outside looking in to conversations about Jesse Pinkman or Snooki. It’s not an overwhelming feeling, but I think it’s there.

Moreover, what are we to make of being proven right? I know that when I see a trailer for a series that looks horrible, I have to watch the first few episodes to make sure my first assumption is correct. I don’t want to be the guy who rants on Twitter about the terribleness of Chase if I haven’t even watched the pilot, you know? That’s an element also in play.*

*However, on a side note: What do we make of this kind of reaction? What are the chances that I hate Chase because I went in to the viewing process assuming that I would, in fact, hate it? Is the reinforcement of our original beliefs a dangerous game to play?

Third, we have to reference the long-standing (and mostly tasteless) joke that TV viewers are like battered wives: We keep remembering the good times as various series beat us down with their crappy plotting and terrible characterizations, just hoping, praying that they’ll finally turn it around and love us once more. There is also something of an inverse of that idea where series debut and suck, but we keep holding on hoping that somehow the writers will maximize that potential and you’ll be rewarded. Perhaps that’s the stock market theory of television viewing: Buy low, hoping for there to be some major dividends in the end.

Fourth, if you refer back to Jonathan Gray’s work on anti-fans, which I discuss in detail throughout my paper on Smallville fandom, something has to be said for embracing the hate. There are, for good or for bad, people out there who just like to hate on stuff. Gray calls them anti-fans, people who are very knowledgeable about a certain text, enough so that they can use that information as firepower in their hatred. This position is something of a combination of my first points: We want to be aware of what’s “in,” but if we don’t like it, we need enough firepower to be proven right in our assumptions.

However, Gray emphasizes that the anti-fans aren’t always consumers of the text itself and instead gain a lot of their information and firepower through the paratexts (news reports, interviews, comments, etc.). Again, these kinds of people like to have just enough information that they can’t be totally called out for erroneous hatred.

In the context of this discussion, however, the people experiencing so-called crap and then expressing their hatred are actually watching various texts, so the idea of the anti-fan is perhaps complicated just a bit. In my Smallville paper, I coined the term “anti-fan fans” because there are people who truly adore Smallville as a whole and watch a majority of the episodes, but due to their undying affection for certain characters, they have been very willing to hate or even flat-out boycott individual episodes because they disagree with which characters are being highlighted and which characters are not.

But here, there’s a difference. From his comments, I’m guessing that there aren’t any characters on True Blood that Max loves so much that they’re the reason he keeps coming back to the series. From what I know, he’s not secretly wearing Team Eric shirts and getting angry when Alexander Skarsgard is less featured in specific episodes. I didn’t like any of the characters from FlashForward, not one bit, but I still watched more than 18 episodes of that awful, awful series.

To close, I wanted to cycle back to the distinction between critics and scholars and the general television viewer. Though I mentioned my friends’ frustrations with the final few seasons of Lost, that series was such a phenomenon in ways that are almost indescribable, so it made general viewers act more like rabid, stereotypical fans.

But detached from the epic tale that is Lost, there certainly has to be a difference in viewing practices between critics/scholars and the general viewer. Again, I can’t confirm this, but I’d be willing to make the argument that if a general viewer doesn’t like a series, they oftentimes just give up. If the ads for the series look awful, they probably don’t even tune in initially. They don’t wait around for things to improve and they don’t keep up with the paratexts so they can spread the hate all over the internet. Therein lines a specific distinction between “fans,” (of the anti- or pro- variety) and the general viewer. A random 30-year old female in Iowa might have tuned in to the first episode of Boardwalk Empire and realized it wasn’t for her, despite what all her co-workers or Facebook friends were saying. Maybe she watched episode two just in case things improved, but if she didn’t like that one either, I’m not sure the desire for cultural capital is that strong.

Thus, I think the infatuation with watching things we hate is a purely scholarly and critical idea. Max and I feel like we have to watch True Blood because it’s a series that’s discussed in the critical arenas and we want to be part of that arena. Because we care so much about television, it’s even harder for a critic, scholar or wannabe of both like me to be on the outside. There’s an assumption that there is a value to experiencing these texts because perhaps we can find something to write (or blog) about. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s a driving factor in the decision-making — or at least it is for me. Watching as many things as I can absolutely instills me with some confidence about my ability to compare, contrast and generally criticize television, both on an individual series level and for the industry as a whole. I have to imagine critics and other scholars feel similarly, even if they haven’t really thought about it.

Nevertheless, this is an idea that has really hooked me and something that I want to pursue further in the future. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section or even on Twitter, where you can find me at @corybarker.

2 thoughts on “Over-Flow — Responses to Flow Conference 2010 panels: I can’t quit you, terrible TV

  1. It brings me great pleasure to know that my displeasure has inspired such a thoughtful post. Some of the most provocative work in television studies was inspired by displeasurable viewing experiences – see, for instance, some of the early work of British feminist critics on soap operas, or cultural studies work on the global Dallas phenomenon. Note that by displeasure here I’m not speaking of the sort blanket disdain harbored by scholars and critics who do not watch television, and yet have no qualms about dismissing certain programs or genres or formats outright, but rather the cognitive dissonance we experience when we can’t stop watching something that we recognize that we do not (or should not) enjoy. Critics inspired by these latter experiences often sought to reconcile the pleasures they took in these programas’ narratives with the discomfort they felt as they confronted the ideologies they expressed. Personally I regret that this form of television studies has become less common in the age of the aca-fan, for as much as I appreciate scholarship that is reflexive about television’s pleasures, I continue to find myself most inspired by work that grows out of a sense of discomfort or unease.

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