I’m going to talk about this week’s Chuck, Chuck Versus the Mask, and the discussion will include spoilers, but they’re the sort of spoilers that ought not to matter to anyone. You know what comes after ‘boy meets girl’, right? Then these aren’t really spoilers. You understand narrative momentum, don’t you? Of course you do. But you’ve been warned. Also, Torchwood spoilers, but if you’re not up-to-date on that by now, heaven help you.
So, this season on Chuck, they introduced a new contrivance to keep Girl and Boy apart, and they introduced the characters of Other Girl (played by a former Lana Lang), and Other Boy (played by a former Superman, above). And do you know what happens when Boy and Girl break up, and Boy meets Other Girl and Girl meets Other Boy? It’s called ‘a complication’. These are what they put in stories to keep the story interesting. These are what the put in stories to keep Boy and Girl apart so that the story can keep on going, because when Boy and Girl get together, the story is over.
You know all this. You don’t have a housekeeper who comes in and waters you twice a week. You know how this works.
And Other Boy is a guest star. And Other Girl is a guest star. And it’s a spy show, so chances are one or both of them will turn out to be a traitor, and one or both of them will end up dead, and Boy and Girl will get back together only for another complication to get in their way (or the show will get cancelled). And everyone waiting for Boy and Girl to finally get together once and for all can enjoy the long ache of deferred gratification, which is what a story is. Love stories, horror stories, adventure stories, war stories, comedies; they all rely on tension. Stories happen in the gap between expectation and fulfilment.
You know all this, because no-one sews your gloves to a long piece of string and feeds the string through the arms of your coat.
But certain fans of Chuck don’t seem to know this. TV reviewer Alan Sepinwall blogged about the latest episode, in which Chuck attempted to steal a mask of Alexander that blatantly looked like a mask of Agamemnon (travesty), and fans of the show revolted. But not about the historically inaccurate mask, which would have been understandable; about the Other Boy and Other Girl thing.
Talk on Sepinwall’s blog is of how these plot developments have destroyed the show or torn out its heart; “that was the worst episode ever they killed the characters” (sic). One commentor (or possibly the same one - a lot of the negative comments are anonymous) even suggested a boycott, employing what must be history’s worst invocation of Howard Beale’s, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more”. (Beale’s cry is against the complacency of comfort represented by the pablum on TV; this anonymous fan is crying out to be pandered to by his or her television set. “Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won’t say anything.”)
The coy nickname for these people is ’shippers’, meaning cheerleaders for a specific fictional relationship. Sometimes they cheer for relationships that are unlikely to ever happen - Wilson and House in House - and sometimes for relationships that are guaranteed to happen - Boy and Girl in Chuck. Either way, they’re usually nutty fundamentalists, with the former category sometimes insisting that their imagined relationship must happen, and the latter so protective of their promised happy ending that they would rather kill the show they love - as a successful boycott would do - than let the story play out.
Take, for example, Ugly Betty. With Ugly Betty officially cancelled, some of that’s show’s fans are adamant that Betty and her boss, Daniel, absolutely have to get together. One even suggested that the characters are contractually obliged to fall in love, because it’s what happened in other versions of the show (adapted from a Colombian telenovela). It’s not impossible that the hook-up could happen in the show’s last remaining episodes, but Ugly Betty long ago abandoned any attempt to play with that relationship as a will-they-won’t-they, because the two actors clicked better as friends than as potential lovers. They are not Boy and Girl.
Then there’s Torchwood, which never quite seemed sure how it wanted to handle its Boy-Meets-Boy romance until the time came to kill off one of the characters, at which point we found out it was a tragic love story. This lead a lot of rabid fans to promise a boycott, or to campaign for the character’s ressurection, and those bruises don’t seem to have faded yet. Boy has since flirted with Some Other Boy, and fans are furious about that as well, as if the character must forever remain chaste in memory of his one lost love, who was really only ever presented as a notch on his bedpost.
Now, I grant you that the death was written in a cheap, pointless way that robbed it of any dramatic weight, but that doesn’t justify the fans’ sense of entitlement in demanding that the death be undone and the writers responsible be flogged in the streets.
I don’t know if the internet invented the feeling among fans that they ‘own’ a show and that its creators should be indebted to them, or if the internet just allowed them to converge in frightening numbers, as it has for so many other fringe fetishes. The show Chuck might actually be grateful for rabid fans, as they may have helped it get renewed when it was on the brink of cancellation - but that in turn may have increased the feeling among some fans that the show should do what they want.
Fans are entitled to have an opinion, and they’re entitled to share it, and they’re entitled to stop watching a show that they don’t like. Where they cross a line is in thinking that their opinions represent a consensus, and that this false consensus should be used as a cudgel to batter the writers. If it were up to fans, shows would all skip past all the obstacles and go straight to the happy ending. That’s not how stories work. Being a good heckler doesn’t make you a good writer. Or, to put it another way; shut up, fans.