Borders Line: Learning To Cope When TV Defies Our Expectations

Ooh, people are mad at THE KILLING and GAME OF THRONES lately. The smart viewers rail against trite TV, so why is it that when a popular show defies our expectations, we riot?

In the past two weeks, legions of fans have revolted over unexpected developments in Game of Thrones and The Killing. Audiences for both shows are irate over the unforeseen death of an important character in the former and an abrupt cliffhanger in the latter. Hordes of viewers have threatened to stop watching, bloggers (this one included) have written scathing criticisms, and Twitter is rife with the 140-character equivalent of shaking an indignant fist. The smart viewers rail against trite and formulaic TV plots, so why is it that when a popular show defies our expectations, we riot?

Let me quickly profess that I’m not comparing the quality of the plot twists contained within Game of Thrones and The Killing. I’m a cheapskate who won’t bit torrent, so I won’t get to see GoT until it’s available on Netflix, but I’ve read the book and I know who dies. I applaud the show for its brave adherence to an unpopular but necessary development and especially for the ability to surprise the audience with it. It seems to me that the big shocker in GoT is following a well-designed narrative that will appease even the most enraged fans in the end. If the cliffhanger in The Killing actually serves a bigger plan for next season that will ultimately satisfy all of the dropped storylines and gaping holes of logic, I will eat my hat and these words on top of it.

But what bothers many fans isn’t the quality of the writing behind the twist; they resent the show itself for having the audacity to rattle them. Every popular show that has ever embarked on a risky and unpredictable avenue has been met, at least initially, with ire from its fans. Even intelligent, open-minded fans of acclaimed genre fare like Buffy the Vampire Slayer are susceptible to this knee-jerk response. Even now, viewing it from the other side, understanding where Dawn originated and how she fit into the overall narrative for the show, I still feel anxious and angry at the thought of Joyce telling Buffy for the first time that she has to take her sister with her to the movies. “Sister? What sister?! Where did she come from? I HATE HER! I hate this show; it’s ruined!”  That’s me any time I even think about the final moments of the fifth season premiere of Buffy. Viewer response was similarly drastic for the deaths of Joyce and Tara, Willow’s coming out, Angel’s departure, and when Buffy started boning Spike (even though, as my friend @likepenguins points out, a conflicted college-age girl dating a creep who mistreats her is the most universally realistic thing ever portrayed on that show).

When Keri Russell debuted a much shorter haircut on Felicity, the show’s ratings notoriously declined. When the seniors on Friday Night Lights graduated and moved away—you know, like real seniors do? In life?—fans were aghast that their cast favorites had left the show. When it was revealed on Roseanne that Dan’s heart attack was fatal and the storyline about the Connors winning the lottery was Roseanne’s method for coping with her loss, the audience was left devastated and furious. Dallas, St. Elsewhere, Newhart and Felicity also negated large chunks of story with the “it was all a dream” conceit, to varying degrees of audience displeasure. Supernatural took its darkest turn to date in season four, hooking Sam on demon’s blood and having him shack up with the unpopular Ruby, as well as creating an insurmountable rift between the Winchester brothers. It was a great story that stayed true to the show’s roots, but I remember an unprecedented level of fan bitching about that plot. And any series finale that doesn’t take the fans precisely where they expected to go is widely berated. The surprising final episodes of Lost, The Sopranos, Battlestar Galactica and Carnivale all resulted in multitudes of pissed off viewers.

So why does the unknown make us so angry? Shouldn’t we applaud a show for the very act of taking a risk and surprising us, and then judge the results separately? How often do people use the phrase “jumped the shark” to refer to a turning point on a show that merely made them uncomfortable? I’m not saying all of these changes ended up being for the good of the show; many of them didn’t. If you were pissed at the Lost finale, it’s probably because you’re one of those thinking people with thoughts. But fans are willing to give very little latitude to a mid-series bombshell regardless of its virtue, not waiting to see if it serves the show before taking to the torches and pitchforks. Is it because we turn to television to soothe us instead of challenge us? We have messy, unpredictable lives and our couch is our safe space; TV is our comfort food. We feel cozy with certain characters, certain rules, certain story patterns, and we panic when presented with the unfamiliar. 

I sometimes fear change and balk at the unknown. I recognize that instinct in myself and I fight against it. Entertainment should be entertaining, yes, but it should also be unsettling, challenging, surprising. A good show takes risks, and sometimes the risk doesn’t pan out. But it’s better than cruising gamble-free though several seasons of unchanging dreck like so many of the most highly-rated shows out there. We all generally admit that we’re tired of the prosaic nature of most shows on television. That means we have to learn to thicken our skin and bolster our courage in the face of the unexpected—as long as the unexpected is fortified by thoughtful writing and well-laid plans, that is. So no, this doesn’t mean I’m tuning into The Killing next season.

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