And the next thing I know, we’re in bed for forty-eight hours straight, pausing only for bathroom breaks and pizza runs and a few calls to let my friends know I’ll never have a life again.
So, to reiterate: Committing to a TV show is not so different from committing to a human being. In this case, you might have to share it with a few million other people, but falling for a show and its fandom is the best kind of polyamory. Good television opens dialogues that can’t be replicated in any other medium: Its serial nature allows a sustained intimacy that movies can never achieve, and despite the realities of appealing to mass demographics and advertising interests, it’s hard to shake the certainty that, to some extent, television belongs to us.
There is, of course, the tiny detail that these shows are not actually owned by their viewers. People of color tend to be the first to die; women get raped more often than they get promotions; entire networks lack recurring characters with BMIs over 25. There is queer-baiting and ableism and, God, how could Mulder and Scully never get a sex scene? Television creates and is created by the dominant discourse, and it’s difficult for any fanbase, let alone individuals, to make their demands heard over the whims of skittish executives. The greater the distance between producers and the communities they reach, the more problematic media becomes. The past few seasons, however, have seen creative teams taking steps to revolutionize the relationship between viewers and the shows they love.
We’ll start with NBC’s Hannibal, one of the most gruesome and psychologically disturbing shows on television (has anyone on Game of Thrones gotten their vocal cords sliced open and played like cello strings? The Lannisters have a lot to learn about inventive homicide). Hannibal tells the story of the eponymous Dr. Lecter before the FBI decided to pick up a rhyming dictionary (Hannibal’s outrageous cannibalism puns are the hightlights of many episodes). Likely due to its graphic content, viewership was initially low, and Hannibal was on the cusp of cancellation for weeks.
Enter the Fannibals, a frankly terrifying group who proved it’s not a good idea to endanger a show whose fans will threaten to eat the producers. It’s rare for fan support to disrupt an executive reaping, but it’s not unheard of: In 2008, supporters of Friday Night Lights donated footballs to charity and succeeded in garnering three more seasons. Following this example, the Fannibals mailed NBC business cards reading “Eat the Rude” and bombed Twitter in hopes of trending worldwide. Suffice it to say, the show was renewed. There’s no way to know exactly how cancellation decisions are made, but considering the outcome, it’s not a stretch to suppose that a passionate (and ravenous) fanbase can swing the decision in its favor.
There are many possible explanations for the Fannibals’ devotion to their show, but in my opinion, the deciding factor was how well they were treated by the creators of the show. Hannibal writer and executive producer Bryan Fuller makes his appreciation for the show’s fans widely known and warmly welcomes varied interpretations of his material. At this year’s San Diego Comic Con, he even led the cast and crew in donning flower crowns in honor of the internet meme of photoshopping floral headwear onto popular characters. The creators of FOX’s Sleepy Hollow are cultivating a similar dynamic, especially actor Orlando Jones, who revels in breaking the fourth wall and engaging with fans in meaningful ways. Responding to an article on social media failures, Jones solicited Tumblr users directly, asking for their opinions on how to best maintain a dialogue. These artists are not afraid to engage with the fans on their level. They field concerns with respect, accept criticism with grace, and feel no shame in enjoying their own work as much as we do. In short, they treat us like family.
No individual is perfect, and there are undeniable dangers in involving fans too deeply with a program’s production. Some feel that fan pressure to emphasize Buffy and Spike’s relationship spoiled the last few seasons of Joss Whedon’s show, and many fans were alienated by Teen Wolf’s recent queer-baiting. Besides, judging from Hannibal-inspired fan-fiction, I doubt any world is ready for what the Fannibals would create.
I am not advocating for creators to completely capitulate to fans, but I am hoping for more who understand them. Just several years ago, dialogues like these would have been unimaginable; the most contact most fans could get with creators required $50 tickets and a Con within driving distance. Now, for better or worse, communication lines have been opened, and, as Orlando Jones posted on Tumblr, “4th Wall We Hardly Knew Ya.” Representation matters, pop culture matters, and it’s refreshing to find artists who not only understand this, but revel in it.
After all, I don’t trust my heart to just anyone.