I recently got a t-shirt the other day emblazoned with the key phrase from one of Louis CK’s more memorable routines: “Everything is amazing and nobody is happy.” He was referring to technology, specifically the amazing pieces of machinery we carry around with us in our pockets and take for granted until they dare to take an extra second or two connecting to a satellite orbiting the Earth. But I’m becoming more and more of the opinion that the same attitude applies to our entertainment. Not so much in the sense that we’re ungrateful for the amazing amount of quality film and TV programming we’ve been treated to over the last few years, but more in our sense of entitlement with regards to our participation with it. We want everything on our terms, and what’s more, we feel we’re owed it.
It was a spoiler discussion on a message board recently that got me into this head space. Now I’ve already harped on the rabid anti-spoiler crowd at length, so I’ll spare them a little here. But what I read in that discussion is symptomatic of what I’m going to be getting at. One person was upset because someone mentioned an actress from a film who had been cast in some episodes of an upcoming TV show set in the same universe as … dammit, Jaimie Alexander had been cast to reprise her Thor role of Lady Sif on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Geez, that’s so much easier. Now this is something normally treated as a simple piece of news, but this person freaked out. They now knew certain storylines could be in play! This character appearing implies other characters might! They now no longer had a pristine, unsullied viewing experience! This same person went on to complain about having Angel — a TV series that ended nearly ten years ago — ruined for them by learning someone joined the cast in one of the later seasons. The whole thing was absolutely dripping with, “Me me me!”
More than ever, fans have a proprietary sense of ownership over the things of which they are fans. But you can trace it back to the letter writing campaigns that twice saved the original Star Trek. Would Trekkies be nearly as fervent in their devotion if they hadn’t felt like they were responsible for the show’s continued existence? Like they were part of the whole thing simply by being a fan of it? And that was without the benefit of the instant communication provided by the internet. If you wanted to obsess over Star Trek or Star Wars, you had to write a letter to a magazine, or attend a convention in person. I don’t want to start shouting at the kids to get off my lawn, but being a fan back then required some actual effort. You had to go hunt down those back issues of your favorite comic, scour through issues of Starlog and Famous Monsters for pictures of your favorite movies, scan TV Guide cover to cover to find a classic movie on the schedule. Nothing like the instant gratification of the internet.
And it’s that same immediacy that has made us so presumptive when it comes to our role in the entertainment we like. In part, the studios and creators are to blame. They invite us into the process. They tease us with viral marketing, embrace us with Reddit chats and Twitter posts, entice us with production blogs and behind the scenes videos. They want that connection. Is it any wonder some fans feel their whims should be catered to? That they’re not watching someone else’s artistic expression, but an experience crafted specifically for them? To be consumed as they wish?
Even worse, it seems sometimes that these fans can’t even simply enjoy these shows and movies. They’re not entertainment, they’re puzzles to be solved. Every line of dialogue is a clue, every knowing look a mystery to unwrap. Plenty of shows welcome this — Lost practically turned it into a cottage industry — because it creates buzz, gets people talking, but the buzz becomes all about trying to solve it rather than just watching it. People will concoct elaborate scenarios for what they think certain things mean, or how certain plots should play out, and woe be unto the show that decides to go in a different direction. Anyone with half a brain could have predicted that Breaking Bad would end with Walt dead. And when that exact thing happened — in as poetic and satisfying a way as possible — there were some who complained they were denied a twist, a surprise, that their personally constructed ending wasn’t the one that happened. Never mind that there can be just as much pleasure in the expected being done in a masterful way as there is in having the rug pulled out from under you, we want The Usual Suspects, or The Sopranos.
The first episode of the most recent season of Sherlock thumbed its nose as the fervent speculation over how Sherlock survived his apparent death by presenting multiple explanations, and ultimately casting doubt on the one presented as true. There was even a character who was basically a stand-in for the internet theorists, presented with a perfectly plausible account and promptly ripping holes in it. It was a nifty microcosm of how people love things today. We put them under microscopes, obsess over minutiae, and completely lose the forest in the trees. We become fans of aspects rather than the whole, aligning with Team Edward or Team Tyrion. We want it the way we want, when we want it, and precisely as we envisioned it, or else they creators have failed. The entertainment is amazing, and nobody is happy.