Making a Must-See TV Show

Cross posted from PepperWords as "Fandom in the Time of Cholera Gluttony"

It has occurred to me as I watch Broadchurch each week, eagerly supping up the splendid writing and acting, that what's really missing from the television landscape—at least from my own, personal picture window of it—are more shows that leave me happily anticipating what might be coming next. Shows that drive me to want to think and talk about them, that encourage that kind of fandom.

Netflix has this habit of releasing shows like House of Cards all in one rush so that people can binge view. But . . . Just as with a meal, it's difficult to savor a show when you're scarfing it down so fast you can hardly taste it. How much really registers? Can a sleep-deprived viewer who has been awake for a whole weekend watching an entire series walk away with any actual insight into what they've seen? Can they truly appreciate the work and effort that went into the show? Or can they only say, "That was great!" and then move on to the next thing? (Should we call it NextFlix?)

And maybe the people who make the shows don't care so long as somebody watches it. As long as they say, "It's great!" and tweet, "It's great!" and blog, "It's great!" . . . But I don't know. As a writer, I'd like to think all that time I put into my work gets fair consideration. Of course I want people to think and say it's great, but I'd like them to think and say more things, too.

It's also difficult to sustain fandom when everything is so consumable and disposable. Everything becomes a flash in the proverbial pan. The conversation is singular: You talk about the show once, in that short period wherein you've finished watching all of it and haven't yet started the next thing. The watercooler weekly is no more because the show doesn't air every week; it airs whenever and wherever, and once people have seen it, they wander off and are done with it.

By contrast, something like Game of Thrones, which gets tremendous ratings each week. And why? Because it does air weekly, and no one wants to miss it. No one wants to have it spoiled for them, no one wants to be left out of that conversation on Monday morning. So people feel driven to watch it when it airs. And this is what shows really want to provide: a viewing experience that all but requires people to watch the show at the time it airs, or at the very least the same night via DVR shift. Broadchurch, too, for the people who watch it—no one wants to have missed catching any clues, no one wants it ruined, they want to be able to talk about it knowledgeably afterward.

So how does a show make themselves into a must-see? Something more than, "It's great," something about which people really talk? A compelling story line that requires the viewers' attention to keep up, for one thing. Isn't that what Game of Thrones and Broadchurch have? And characters people can rally around, can love and/or abhor, but either way discuss at length. These characters must keep people coming back even after one plot line ends; the audience must love them enough not to want to leave them once the question is answered or one goal achieved, love them enough to follow them through to the next task or situation.

I remember being a guest author at a sci-fi convention some years ago, and this woman wanted to talk to me about Highlander, the television series based on the movies. And she kept talking about Duncan MacLeod, but everything she was saying was actually about Adrian Paul, the actor who portrayed Duncan on the show. And I kept nodding and saying, "You mean Adrian Paul," but she would say, "Yeah, Duncan MacLeod." And sure, I walked away thinking she was a little crazy, but I also admired the way this character really lived in her mind. He really existed for her in some incredible (and somewhat insane) way. And so I'm not recommending encouraging people to be batshit crazy about your characters and actors, but I would say the goal is to make them into something fans really want to dig into. Something they want to talk about, and hopefully they'll find like-minded people who also want to talk about them, else they may make their family and friends who are less enthusiastic a little mental.

Anyway. Word of mouth is still the best way to sell a book, television program, or film. People still trust friends, family, co-workers over random critics. So you want people talking to their friends and family and co-workers about your show (or book, or movie), and you want them saying more than, "Yeah, it was really good." Because that doesn't say much of anything, does it? And it doesn't prompt an extended conversation. Very few people follow up being told something was good with, "Really? Why? What did you like about it? Who's your favorite character? Tell me more about it." No. Most people, when told something is good, shrug and say, "Cool."

A good show shouldn't be watched all at once, mindlessly consumed like the bag of potato chips sitting on the couch next to the viewer. It should be like a strip tease—leaving people glued to the sight of it and always anticipating the next twist or reveal. You don't remember every bag of chips you ever ate. But a good strip tease sears its image into your brain for a good long while, if not for life.

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