Monday, July 24, 2006

Check This Out

Well, okay, it's kinda long. And if you don't know what I mean when I say, "Damn You, Berlanti!" then you probably shouldn't read it. But the upshot is this. The fine folks at Television Without Pity (the best website ever, go to it now) have finally gotten an actual interview with Greg Berlanti, the creator and executive producer of a show called "Everwood." "Everwood" was one of the best recaps on TWOP until the show's cancelation (the last episode aired earlier this year). The interview as a whole is probably only interesting to fans of "Everwood," TWOP, and AB Chao (one of TWOP's star recappers).

But what's fascinating about TWOP in general and about this interview in particular is that it shows that what sports fans have always believed is ACTUALLY TRUE for TV fans. You know how that adorable lunk on your sofa thinks his favorite team knows whether or not he's watching their games, and how he fantasizes that they actually yearn for and attend to the advice he dispenses in the privacy of his own home? Well, this interview and other recent incidents show TV writers, producers, and stars DO care. No, really. It's not an imaginary relationship. Berlanti admits that writers and producers watch the boards, that they admire the staff at TWOP, and that they interact with their audience partly by writing with this particular audience in mind (a shout-out here, a considered plot-line there).

This is a proud era of entertainment. Dickens wrote serials that were, make no mistake, the equivalent of "Lost" in their day. But I don't think anyone's ever proved that he listened in on readers' reactions in an effort to decide whether or not to kill little Nell. Dickens and his contemporary, Wilkie Collins, were the masters of serial entertainment. (Collins' mantra, "Make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, make 'em wait" should be on a lucite cube in the office of EVERY television producer.) And I bet if you'd given them the internet and a message board, they would have been all over this kind of audience interaction like white on rice.

My interest in the interaction between viewers and the trade has been building steadily in recent years. Perhaps one extreme is a series like "Lost," which is actively courting the online attention of its audience with websites not only for the program, but for its fictional companies (Oceanic Air, the Hanso Foundation) and people (Charlie's band, Driveshaft). For the really motivated fan, "Lost" has supplied an alternate reality game called "The Lost Experience." Followers of the game get a sort of off-season minidrama played out in websites and blogs--it doesn't further the action being told in the main storyline, so viewers who just stick with the ABC broadcasts aren't being left out. But it fosters speculation about the island, the Hanso Foundation, the Dharma Initiative, and other peripheral aspects of the main drama. Although there is a communal element to the "Lost" multimedia effort (fans trade clues in internet forums and create their own websites devoted to the program) and there's no shortage of creativity, I'd argue that this is really just a marketing campaign aimed at creating and rewarding die-hard "Lost" fans. (As Berlanti points out in the interview with AB Chao, die-hard fans are good for business--they give you a little muscle with the network.)

The "Rescue Me" dynamic is more authentic. The interaction between the creative talent behind the show and the fans is immediate, raw, and genuine. And it's definitely two-way communication. Earlier this summer, "Rescue Me" aired one of its "very special" episodes featuring a scene that looked, to a lot of people, like a rape. As soon as the thing was broadcast, message boards were furiously debating whether or not Tommy had raped his soon-to-be-ex-wife, Janet. After a while "Rescue Me" co-creator Peter Tolan spoke out on the TWOP message board to clarify the show's intention (essentially, he said they didn't mean to depict a rape, just one incidentally-sexual dimension of a relationship that is dysfunctional across all its dimensions--summaries of the interaction are here and here). Whether Denis Leary is finding out that yes, fans actually did notice when he sported a World Series ring in one episode or Peter Tolan is striking glancing blows for authorial intention, fans and the show's creators are definitely communicating.

"Lost" is just controlling its fans--sure, it's giving them more of what they want, but it tells them where to go next and what to do when they get there. Maybe there's some other interaction I'm not privy to, but the creative folks at "Lost" seem pretty firmly in the driver's seat--which is very much in keeping with the program, which I firmly believe will not give up its secrets one second before the series finale. "Rescue Me" has a candid and spontaneous relationship with its fans that likewise mirrors its program's creative spirit, which values raw, chaotic drama over orderly arcs and acts.

While both of those types of audience engagement interest me, TWOP's Berlanti interview showed me a level of audience interaction that I fantasized about but never really expected to see in action. Berlanti says his writers combed through the TWOP forums and courted the satisfaction (narrative satisfaction, which involves a lot of frustration) of these fans with a zeal that he sometimes had to hold in check. He admits to being baffled when viewers rejected a character who embodied their age-inappropriate crush on the handsome-but-far-too-young Everwood character, Ephram. He admits that characters use "lingo" popularized on TWOP's boards, and even that AB Chao's husband is immortalized by having an offscreen character named after him. It's not a choose-your-own-adventure novel (thank goodness) but it is a genuine and (apparently) a mutually respectful interaction.

And I hope it lasts. It pays to give fans what they want. (Go ahead. Google "Snakes on a Plane." I dare you.)

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