Last week, as you may have heard, Fox cancelled Dollhouse. Also last week, as you probably didn’t hear, whatever network aired Hank cancelled it too. Neither was a surprise: they were both solidly bottom-of-the barrel performers — Dollhouse was considered a worse bet than reruns of House to run during Sweeps Week, while Hank was frequently outperformed by its competition on Spanish-language networks. What ought to be a surprise is the reaction each received: the end of Dollhouse resulted in anguished howls that reverberated across the Internet and all the spheres of nerd-dom, while Hank‘s cancellation was received by a chorus of crickets.
The easy answer, of course, is that Dollhouse was a good show while Hank sucked. But presumably the people who were watching Hank didn’t think it sucked, and on average about twice as many people watched Hank as Dollhouse (though the two were on different nights, so the comparison isn’t entirely fair.) So our question remains: why were Dollhouse fans so much noisier about its cancellation, and about the show in general, than Hank‘s fans? The answer, I think, is in the phrasing: the people watching Hank were really just viewers, while the people watching Dollhouse were fans.
“Fan” is short for “fanatic,” of course, and the qualities that distinguish fans from viewers do have some similarities to fanaticism. Fans, in general, have a personal investment in whatever text it is they are fans of: they feel pleasure when other people recognize its quality (and pain when others criticize it), they care strongly about the narrative, they think about the text when not consuming it (sometimes to the point of wanting to be part of its creation), and they identify personally with its success or failure. All of these are similar to how one relates to, say, a political philosophy or religion.
What’s interesting is that while just about all religions or philosophies have attracted their fanatics, only certain texts have typically attracted fans: what are called (by non-fans) “genre” texts and, in general, the most marginalized and despised of those genres — science fiction, fantasy and their adjacent genres such as superheroes. That marginalization probably has something to do with the strength of fan-feeling — we define ourselves as much by what we’re not as by what we are, and shared exclusion can create a strong bond — but that’s obviously not all there is to it, or we’d be swimming in Gilligan’s Island fanfic. Another factor is probably the unreality of these genres, which provides the audience with “blank spaces” they’re invited to fill. Star Trek, for example — really the classic fan-text — provided next to no detail about its universe beyond what was absolutely necessary for the story, which led to endless speculation and discussion about just how many moons Vulcan has and what happened to Kirk’s nephew and so on. More importantly, it’s impossible to treat an SF or fantasy story as a “found object”; its unreality means someone must have written it. That may explain why I’ve never met anyone who read science fiction or fantasy fan who didn’t also want to write it, at least in passing.
For a long time mass media, and TV in particular, valued viewers over fans: a show that makes fans is, by its nature, harder for the casual viewer to get into, and therefore, all else being equal, will be watched by fewer people. But recently that trend has been reversed: with new distribution channels (particularly DVD sets) and increased competition from other media, the greater commitment that fans bring makes them worth more as consumers than simple viewers, which has led to the inclusion of fandom-generating elements such as continued stories in non-genre shows. As well, the Internet has made it much easier to connect with other fans of the same show, which has had the interesting result of creating fandoms for shows that traditionally wouldn’t have them. (The prime example of this is Mad Men, which has reached some kind of pop culture singularity where there are more people discussing it online than actually watch it.) It’s an odd and perhaps surprising phenomenon — I don’t know about you, but I threw up a little in my mouth when I learned there was such as thing as House fanfic — but it reveals just why a classic laugh-track, always-return-to-the-status-quo sitcom like Hank was such a dinosaur, and died so completely unmourned.
But, you ask, what does all this have to do with Being Erica? Okay, few of you — all right, none of you — are asking that, and probably most of you don’t even know what I’m talking about. For those among us from south of the border, Being Erica is basically My Name is Earl done as science fiction: the title character meets a mysterious “therapist,” Dr. Tom, who has her write down a list of regrets and lets her travel back in time to revisit each one, trying to make it better. Except that not only is it not called science fiction, the early promotional material insisted that it was not science fiction. I can only assume this was for the same reason that Margaret Atwood claims her books which clearly are SF aren’t: because many people, and in particular many women (the core target audience of both her books and Being Erica) simply won’t consider reading or viewing something if they think it’s SF. The result has been a tightrope walk, avoiding outright science fiction while providing fandom-inducing elements. This season has introduced a key one of those elements — a mythology, as we learn more about Dr. Tom, discover that there are other therapists like him, and that they have some sort of hierarchy — and I’m curious to see what effect this will have on the show’s already shaky ratings. In the first season Dr. Tom was really just a device, but with these added elements the show has moved clearly into the realm of the fantastic. If the conventional wisdom about women and SF is correct, it might just kill the show — but on the other hand, it could make it a show people will miss.