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Why TV Needs "Bad Fans"

Television
by Sam Adams
March 31, 2014 12:52 PM
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In the New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum delves into the history of "All in the Family," the 1970s sitcom whose bigoted patriarch, Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor) became an icon in ways his creator, Norman Lear, never intended. As Nussbaum pointed out on Twitter this morning, her timing is inadvertently perfect, coming hot on the heels of the "Colbert Report" controversy sparks by a racist tweet that Colbert's steady viewers were meant to know was ironic.

"All in the Family," Nussbaum points out, prefaced episodes with a "nervous disclaimer" warning that the show "seeks to throw a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices and concerns," but Colbert works without that safety net, or even the distancing effect of a character name. "Colbert Report" fans know that Stephen Colbert and "Stephen Colbert" are not one and the same, but you can see how people might get them confused.

In his Salon column, Andrew O'Hehir argues that we fight about cultural politics now because it's the only place where we can have an effect: If we can keep #CancelColbert trending long enough, we might get an apology. The effects of such social (-media) wrangling can be tangible, but they're limited. Good luck mustering sufficient outrage to get the Republican-controlled Congress to stop reflexively blocking every one of President Obama's nominees.

The counter-argument to the #CancelColbert flap was that his critics missed the joke, ignoring the context of both the bit that spawned it and the history of the show. But humor like Colbert's only works if there's at least the potential for someone not to get it. Inhabitants of Colbert Nation know he doesn't mean the things he says, and that their ire is more properly directed at those who say very similar things without a hint of self-awareness. Colbert's -- or "Colbert's" -- tongue-in-cheek offer to found "the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever" is only mildly more ridiculous than the owner of the Washington Redskins countering criticism of his team's racist nickname by establishing a charitable foundation whose name incorporates the same racist slur.

Satire needs what Nussbaum calls "bad fans," the people who watched "The Sopranos" and rooted for Tony until the last Journey song, or pulled for Walter White even after he'd crossed the line from cancer-riddled chem teacher to murderous drug kingpin. If it weren't possible for the audience of "All in the Family" to embrace Archie Bunker, racist, homophobic, red-baiting taunts and all, the show wouldn't have worked, either as a drama or as a commercial proposition. Of course, people who let Archie's bigotry slide the way they might that of a parent or a co-worker were "watching it wrong," but then:

There is no way -- and maybe no reason -- to unite TV's divided audience. If television creators began by trying desperately not to offend, they clearly learned that the opposite approach can work just as well: a show that speaks to multiple audiences can get ratings by offering many ways to be a fan... The best series rattle us and wake us up; the worst are numbing agents. Sometimes, a divided audience is a result of mixed messages, an incoherent text; sometimes, it's a sign of a bold experiment that we are still learning how to watch.

Especially in a show with an unambiguous protagonist, it's fiendishly difficult to break the bonds between hero and viewer. If everyone sees Walter White as he sees himself, the show has failed; if no one does, it's off the air. There's a case to be made that "Mad Men" has escaped this devilish trap -- no doubt Matthew Weiner learned a few things about how much punishment an audience can take from his time on "The Sopranos" -- but if so, it's done it by offering us up a replacement in Peggy Olson. There's a debate we can look forward to having -- again -- when the new "Mad Men" season starts.

Television
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