Criticizing Criticism: What Jeff Jarvis Doesn’t Get About Television
Part 2: Jarvis’ ‘Solution’ Would Only Create More Problems — And It’s Not Even A Real Solution
In the last paragraphs of Jarvis’ look at the state of television today, he gives what he believes may be the best path forward when it comes to TV: he lists TikTok version of fan-made shows of Disney Ratatouille and an unauthorized musical version of Bridgerton as well as suggest a prominent fanfic site. Those of you who with knowledge of either idea will have already noted that there is a hole in this logic big enough for one of the dragons from Game of Thrones to fly through, but there are so many other smaller ones that its worth listing them before we get to the major one.
First off, I have been writing fan fiction for all of my adult life. For most of my twenties it was the bulk of the writing I ended up doing, most of it gathering little notice on fanfic.net. I still write a fair amount of fanfiction, though my professional writing has forced me to spend less time on fanfic websites than I once did, but I know more than enough about the stories on these sites to think that I can qualify as a relative expert on the subject. So let’s get right to the problems.
The first is very simple. Most fanfiction is utter crap — I’d say a higher percentage of it is genuinely awful, using featuring misspelling and horrible grammar, dialogue that is barely speakable, and plots that are barely little more than fan service. To be clear, that’s to be expected. Fanfiction isn’t a career or a calling for anybody; it’s a hobby. Something we do when we have spare time and something that we may overtime eventually outgrow. That is why there are often gaps of years between chapters of certain fanfic novels, assuming that the men and woman who ended up writing don’t just stop doing after a while. Some of them may no longer have time, some may have tired of it…and some may have moved on to more profitable ventures.
Because as we all know, there’s never been any money in fanfic. That is by design. It is the covenant between the fanfic writer and the fandom they are writing for; it’s why we have to write a disclaimer before we start every single story we publish. It has less to do with the creator tracking us down and suing us (I’m actually going to get to that point later) more than to do with our complicated relationship with the creators. Some of us write stories because we want to correct plot points we disagree with; some of us are hostile to characters on the series and we want to express our frustration with, and some of us are just genuinely angry with the direction of the work of art we are pursuing has taken and we want to ‘redeem’ it. All fanfiction is more or less an alternate universe, and we want to lure fans of that version.
In a sense, fanfic may be the closest version of how so many critics view art; we are writing it for pure pleasure and not money. This is fine, because so much fanfic is unreadable. The few who manage to come across with brilliant, groundbreaking fanfic will almost inevitably try to go on to other careers with original characters or at least version that are unrecognizable from canon. Stephanie Meyer may not like what E.L. James did to Twilight, but since the names are changed, she’s never going to see a time from the Fifty Shades series.
So the idea that any form of fanfic could come up as somehow bringing television back from the brink of disaster is fundamentally ludicrous. If anything, the idea that some fan made version of a series or franchise (some of which have existed in smaller form) is far sillier. That actually brings to me a separate point. In his column Jarvis writes that Netflix is ‘unwisely’ suing the creators of the unauthorized Bridgeton musical.
This next part will not make me popular and I’m indeed not happy about having to take the point of view of supporting a huge corporation, much less Netflix. Nevertheless, I kind of feel it’s warranted. So here goes: not only is Netflix within its rights to sue the creators of the Bridgerton musical, but it would be an act of negligence for them not to do so.
I am loath to ever use the ‘slippery slope’ argument that so many politicians and pundits have used because it’s always nonsensical. In this case, however, it may actually be true. I may not be aware of all of the facts, but if the makers of the unauthorized Bridgerton Musical made this without getting express permission from the source, then yes: the creators are guilty of copyright infringement. And if Netflix just does nothing, we can see what comes next. An unauthorized version of the final season of GLOW that we never got because it was cancelled by the pandemic. An unauthorized version of House of Cards if Kevin Spacey had not been forced to leave the series. New seasons of series such as those that took place in the world of The Dark Crystal or The Get Down shows that had fanbase that were cancelled after one year. And that’s only when it comes to Netflix; can you imagine the wrath of Marvel and Disney when fans start doing new seasons of Star Wars or Star Trek? This can not be allowed to stand.
And I don’t think anyone who tried to create public support for either version I listed would get much support from the Internet. Jarvis seems to conveniently forget that so much of the controversy surrounded TV these days has to with internet trolls who can’t tolerate any alteration to their fandoms, whether they are comic books, science fiction or fantasy. Nor can I see the internet unifying around anything — most of the time we can even agree on the kinds of stories we want to see anywhere. And there’s the other side of it: if creators of similar fanfics come out of the shadows, there is absolutely no guarantee that the covenant that I spoke of will hold up if the corporate uber-bosses that Jarvis speaks of want to protect their interest. Who’s going to do that for Captain America slash-fic? (Which is a thing; trust me.)
But all of this is irrelevant when you consider the basis of Jarvis’ argument. Jarvis thinks the best way to alleviate the creative slump he sees across all of television is not through original stories and programming, but fan told stories of established franchises. When I read his argument for these, I blinked a couple of times to see if I’d read it correctly because it doesn’t compute with anything he’s said. Broadcast TV is endless derivative, we are drowning in prequels and revamping of franchises, every other series on TV is a reboot of something and Jarvis’ solution is — more of the same. Because that’s exactly what fanfic and the TikTok versions are. No matter how much he wants to dress them up as the new wave, all they are is the definition of everything he seems to loath about television today.
I don’t deny the fragile creative state of television these days. I don’t think it’s nearly as dire as Jarvis would have us believe, but there is a decent chance we’ve passed the heights of Peak TV. I think all the major services — broadcast, cable and streaming — are going to have to do a lot of work to reach the heights of even five years ago, and the argument that Jarvis makes about the problems with corporations controlling everything is warranted. But the idea that somehow the fans — the ones who have created the situation where almost every film is a comic book or some kind of franchise, the ones who will review bomb any series that they consider too ‘political’ (which is a dog whistle) the ones who don’t even have to watch a series or film to know they hate it — can somehow muster the creative energy to save television is not merely laughable, but unworthy of any one who has spent more than a few hours exploring the internet, which Jarvis claims to be an expert in.
As a TV critic, a writer and reader of fanfic for decades, a man who spends quite a bit of time on the internet dealing with trolls, and someone who knows quite well the contradictions that so many who crave nostalgia seem to want, I can say with utter certainty fans will not save Peak TV. Hell, they are at least partially responsible for how it got in the mess in the first place. The fragmenting of our political landscape was, in a way, foreshadowed by the fragmenting of the television landscape. Niche audiences may have led to some truly remarkable television but there was always going to come a time when the corporations that ran every version of it were going to start worrying about their bottom line. Argue as much as you want that monopolies are the reason things are bad now; the truth is, something like this was inevitably going to happen. All businesses — and television services are all businesses like I said in the first part of this piece — all business are about maximizing profits. They will all be about creativity until they start losing money, and given all the fragmentation that I’ve talked about it, it was inevitable that they would start losing money. And when the loudest voices start carrying — which are, to be clear, the most ‘rabid fans’ — the corporations have to start worrying about how much this will affect them. Is this fair to creativity? Of course not. But it is how all art has worked.
To be clear Jarvis doesn’t care much about this because, as I wrote in the first part of the blog, he doesn’t want to be part of the solution. Essentially he is fundamentally selfish about how he views TV — he wants all of the benefits of Peak TV but doesn’t want to have to pay a single penny more than he has to for it. He essentially seems to want a broadcast or cable package that supplies everything good on all services that are streaming, but he doesn’t want to pay for that. He spends the last couple of paragraphs speaking about the improvements in television over time, while denying any approach as to how those improvements were possible.
I agree with him in the last sentence of his story that the process of television fixing itself will be messy. Of course, the fact that the way he sees the problem ‘fixed’ is utterly impossible shows that he is in for disappointment. In short, this is the snobbish attitude of far too many critics.