It’s Not Over ‘Til it’s Over: Audience Expectation and the Trouble With an Ongoing Series

The first three drafts of this editorial began with the phrase “Samurai Flamenco is awesome” and optionally included some manner of textual bird flipping. But then I figured that kind of hostility was probably antithetical to an open and levelheaded conversation, and so we’ve ended up on the meta route instead. The point of it all is that it’s time to talk about how we watch TV, and how it affects reactions differently than other mediums. Flamenco just happens to be a useful tool to kick off that discussion before we head out into the world of serialized media at large.

For those readers that aren’t following along with this season’s crop of anime, let me give you a few key points. Samurai Flamenco starts as the story of Masayoshi a sentai/superhero nut who dedicated his whole life to becoming a hero only to find the world didn’t really have a place for the job. The first few episodes involve him befriending local cop Goto (the profession of less flashy heroics), reprimanding litterers and jaywalkers, and trying to square his grand ideals with the reality he lives in. Then the show introduced an evil super villain trying to take over the world with honest to God mutant monsters. Then a bigger villain appeared, and a Power Rangers team, and a government conspiracy. Then there were aliens. And now it’s seemingly cycled back around to focusing on Masayoshi and Goto, with a few more episodes in the run. The series is mightily concerned with meta-textual subjects like the evolving history of hero-fiction and the interplay between fiction and reality, all of it tucked inside the seemingly reality warping wishes of one well meaning nerd. But the themes of Flamenco are for another essay down the line. What’s important now is how people reacted to it.

entirely-nonsuspect
team

The more things change, the more they stay the same
…not counting the animation quality

Perhaps you’ve guessed that the reaction was somewhat less than positive. A great swath of viewers were knocked off balance by the sudden swerve from slice-of-life into hero-action, and then knocked for a ring-out by the introduction of the loopier elements on top of that. More than a few people dropped the show and never looked back, citing a downward plunge in writing quality or a step off the cliff in terms of story direction.

This is where we get into the stuff that baffles me. Let us say you are reading a book, and halfway through it introduces something you didn’t expect in the least. “Why,” you might say if reading the collected Watchmen, “are we spending so much time on this random colony of artists?” Or “why is there a stupid diatribe about an ax at the beginning of John Dies at the End?” Or even, “what the fuck does Tom Bombadill have to do with anything?” Okay, that last one’s a bad example. But it would still be comparatively unusual to see someone give up a third of the way into a book because it threw something strange and inexplicable at them. Why would you? The rest of the book’s right there – you can be sure that the explanation is coming to you fairly soon. You (hopefully) give the author the benefit of the doubt, and wait to see how things come together.

A TV series, traditionally anyway, doesn’t have the luxury of coming to the viewer as a cohesive unit (though if Netflix wants to keep pushing that distribution model I will be behind them with pom-poms extended). It might be planned that way, with scripting, casting, and even the lion’s share of shooting/animating done before the show ever comes to air, but the viewer will still receive it in little weekly chunks. Thus do we end up with a terrible kind of disconnect: the creative team knows what the show (or at least the season) is building toward, and what the overarching story might be, and they plan it from that big picture perspective (not that there aren’t shows that change direction during production – Evangelion is an infamous case of change on the fly, while Breaking Bad introduced a plot element in the beginning of season 5 with no idea how it would be important until later); fans, on the other hand, are by necessity viewing things from a microcosmic level, only able to see the immediate facts at their disposal and plucking whatever comes next from an infinite number of possibilities. If a show seems to be heading in a certain direction, that’s where their line of thinking will be drawn.

Fandoms draw art, discuss events exhaustively, and develop predictions that they can become quite attached to. If the breaks between installments of plot are long enough, people can get really set on how they think things should go. And if things don’t turn out that way, it often feels like a very personal betrayal. It’s not that you got it wrong – it’s that the creators don’t understand what was good about their show, or how to develop the story. Granted, many wouldn’t voice it like that consciously, but the sentiment is very much there. Just about everybody does it – to go back to Flamenco, if the mysterious unseen girlfriend turns out not to be some kind of plot point, I will have to find something inexpensive to break. The trick is modulating it, and not letting one’s desires influence looking at the show as a whole.

well-shit

The horror of post-episode reactions. The horror

Because unlike books, films, or even video games (ignoring the cancerous plague that is an increased reliance on post-release DLC), a series exists in a twilight horizon when it comes to audience interaction. If people don’t like a movie, there’s not a lot to be done for that movie. But the team can take the feedback and carry it over to the sequel, or the next project. The same can be said for a book, at least on the level of style, tone, approach, and so on. Nobody expects a filmmaker to fix their movie after it’s been made (George Lucas). That would be ridiculous, because it’s already done and part of the cultural framework (GEORGE LUCAS). With a series, it’s very much the same while seeming like it isn’t. Even if a show is in ongoing production while also airing, a serious change in direction will at best seem forced and jarring and at worst cripple the show’s tone or pacing (look at Glee, which relied heavily on audience reactions as time went on and often seemed disconcertingly meandering an tonally schizophrenic as a result).

Secondly, an audience usually doesn’t know what they want until they’ve got it. They have an idea, and in broad strokes it’s an excellent idea to listen to them – and if an idea doesn’t work, take that constructive criticism like a grown up (while also encouraging people to phrase things politely). But on an individual basis, it’s important to let a work of art complete itself without interference, and unleash the reactions once it’s finished.

The trouble is with what we call “the horizon of expectation.” These are the preconceived ideas that an audience has coming into works under certain categories, which can range from ideas as broad as ‘anime characters have big eyes’ all the way to ‘the femme fatale will betray the hero.’ It’s an unconscious and fairly inescapable part of being part of a society, and it affects the way we approach art. You wouldn’t judge Lord of the Rings and Lord of the Flies with the same expectations in mind. But you might compare Lord of the Rings to Game of Thrones, despite the two series having different tones and narrative goals.

With TV, the format becomes its own horizon of expectation. Here is the first episode, where they’ve introduced the premise. Here are the episodes of introducing the characters and episodic conflict. Here is the first arc of character development or major threat. Here is the conflict that will drive the narrative, leading to a climactic finale. A show that isn’t what it seems gambles with its own success – Puella Magi Madoka Magica must wager that viewers won’t turn away from the first three upbeat episodes before the first reveal, and that those who enjoyed the lighter tone won’t turn away from the show’s darker direction. The Woman Called Fujiko Mine banks on viewers accepting that the episodic adventures (of an episodic franchise) will become a tightly woven serial narrative. Shows like School Days (and games like Spec Ops: The Line) take an even bigger gamble, hoping that fans of the genre they’re satirizing/deconstructing will be provoked into thoughtfulness at the finish line rather than rage.

The key to all of them? The ending. No, that’s not entirely right. An ending, as the bit that will remain most resoundingly with a fan, is critical. But when an ending really clicks it’s because there’ve been bits of it all along – Homura’s cryptic warnings in Madoka, or the ever present owls and Fraulein Eule in Fujiko Mine, or the obscured and unreliable point of view in Spec Ops. In other words, this is not just a diatribe against the audience for expecting too much. If the end result doesn’t tie things together – and there are many of those, from the not-actually-like-the-prophecy prophetic battle in Heroes to whatever was going on in Devil Survivor 2 the Animation – then what you have is a bad project. But it’s only seeing the story in its full shape that you can begin to make those kinds of decisions.

There will always be shows that can’t hold your attention all the way through, of course, or that you find too disturbing or disgusting to invest in (and here I am personally thinking of 98% of sister complex shows ever made). But if it’s something that grabs you, that interests you or prickles the curiosity, then do it this kindness: turn away if you must, let it accumulate, read up on it before you invest, and know that it may still end up being terrible or a failure. Just let it tell its story before you make your decisions.

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17 comments on “It’s Not Over ‘Til it’s Over: Audience Expectation and the Trouble With an Ongoing Series

  1. Artemis says:

    Just a more or less random note that if you had indeed started off this editorial with “Samurai Flamenco is awesome”, I totally wouldn’t have minded. (In fact, I probably would have applauded wildly.)

    Of course, having read the entire article, I’d still like to applaud wildly anyway, so no harm done.

    • Vrai says:

      Oh, believe me. Not starting that way doesn’t make the sentiment any less felt (or true). It just seemed a better thing to save for when the series is actually over and it gets its own essay.
      Poor thing doesn’t get enough fair shakes.

  2. tamerlane says:

    I think the main reason people got fed up with sam flam was they were expecting a grounded character drama (rare in anime) but got another valvrave (relatively common in anime) instead. An issue of a drop in quality w/ Manglobe’s shite production affected it too. I haven’t see much of flamenco yet so I can’t pass judgement, but given the glut of (allegedly but not really) “meta-textual” anime out there I can empathize with people who would react that way

    I agree with what you’re saying about narrow expectations though but if madoka, fujiko mine, and spec ops the line are SF’s closest points of reference then ehhhhhhh I dunno

    • Vrai says:

      Well, I definitely can’t argue with you on the production values – putting those two screencaps side by side was a physically painful experience. The ability to clean things up for DVD has not done tv animation any favors as far as lazy shortcuts.

      I can certainly sympathize with those who were drawn to Samumenco as a character drama – I was one of them, after all. And while it’s a genre I’d love to see more of, I don’t think we can call it a super rarity. In the last few years, off the top of my head, we’ve had Natsuyuki Rendezvous, Natsume Yuujinchou, House of Leaves, Kids on the Slope, Red Data Girl, Flowers of Evil, and (I would argue quite strongly despite its fantastical setting) Tiger & Bunny. What we don’t really have, barring that last title, are many Hero stories (particularly of the dress up and fight crime variety). I’d call Valvrave a wholly unfitting comparison, but I don’t think that’s a conversation we can have without both of us being on an even playing field of show-familiarity.

      So disappointed, I totally get. I would’ve watched a whole Samumenco in that quiet and thoughtful vein (though I think it would’ve soon run out of steam had it not switched gears). We often have high hopes for shows. I hoped Pupa would be an intense and fascinating body horror/tale of human suffering instead of a shockingly subtextually blatant (and painfully hilarious) screed on the evils of burgeoning female sexuality. But ultimately, you have to consider the show you have.

      Put another way, because my life is food metaphors apparently: Let us say you have a pastry. You take a small bite of it, a fraction of the total percentage, and declare it the most magnificent pastry you’ve ever had. You can’t wait to eat more of that light and flaky dough. You bite in more substantially, and find meat, gravy, and vegetables, because your pastry is actually a pot pie. It has always been a pot pie, but you didn’t realize it because the store owner refused to label his goods in any significantly helpful manner. But rather than changing your mindset to pot pie related considerations (how’s the flavoring and balance of ingredients, and how do I keep this lava hot gravy off my hands?) you are unable to move past the lost of the pastry you had prepared to eat. It is sad for you, because you are disappointed. But it’s also sad because you have a really tasty and unique thing in your hands (how often do you see handheld pot pies), but you can’t bring yourself to think of it within the parameters of what it was made to be.

      I find myself a bit confused by the last paragraph. You…don’t find those shows apt comparisons, or don’t like them, or think they’re too dark and heavy for a superhero show to model by….?

      For the record, I could also have brought in comparisons to Baccano! (semi-comedic story about how stories are told, with a latent supernatural element), Haruhi Suzumiya (well meaning but selfish youth unwittingly warps the universe to their unrealistic/potentially dangerous goals, learns maturity), or Tiger & Bunny (ruminations on ‘true’ heroism versus what is packaged and marketed to the public, how ideals can be squared with the harsh realities of an increasingly abstract threat). The ones that ended up in the essay are just on my short list of ‘stuff that I like’ and in this case ‘things that are often maligned that I consider to have made bold and effective narratological choices.’
      Samumenco definitely isn’t perfect by any stretch, but I think it gets a good twice its share of beatings.

      • tamerlane says:

        I get what you’re saying and intend to eventually watch SF, probably when it’s finished airing. It’s interesting that you brought up Baccano, since the director of that is also directing SF (and a bunch of other semi-grounded shows like Natsume’s Book of Friends, Princess Jellyfish, Koi Kaze). That expectation could’ve affected people’s expectations as well, as it did with Durarara.

        In that last paragraph I was basically dissing those shows. I really didn’t think Madoka was good, and what I’ve seen of Fujiko Mine was not encouraging. I guess I’m tired of anime shows that are a “deconstruction” or whatever of their particular genre. Even if successful and on-point, the theme of “magical girl shows are fucked up”, etc. often seem too trivial to be concerned with. I will pretty much always take a well-made show uncritical of it’s relationship to anime norms (the idolm@ster) over a mediocre show fully invested in such norms (yamakan’s wake up girls idol thing this season). Oftentimes the former has more interesting things to say about real life than the latter anyway, although from what I’ve heard this might not be an accurate description of samuneco.

        In any case, good post, will subscribe since there are too few good anime blogs on wordpress 😦

        • Vrai says:

          I remember hearing about the baccano connection back when the season started, but had totally forgotten it. Glad to have you aboard!

          I hear what you’re saying as well – a good straight take will surely trump a mediocre deconstruction (Cardcaptor Sakura is the far superior show to, say, The Sun Penetrates the Illusion). Personally, if given two shows of otherwise unremarkable quality, I’ll always gravitate toward the deconstruction leaning one. Even if it doesn’t work, there will at least be ideas I can engage with or that yield memorable execution, whereas mediocre straight interpretations tend to be bland and forgettable at best. Bit I think that comes down to personal taste.

          Oh! And regarding Fujiko Mine particularly…that’s something that pops up a lot around here. In fact, it’s the reason I adopted the core theory of this post. Originally I stopped watching the show around episode 11, then went back out of reluctant completionist tendencies. It now sits quite neatly in my top 5, because of an ending that is so incredibly solid at making the story as a whole worthwhile. Not because it has a twist (it does, but nothing of world shattering newness) or because it engages in meta (the narrative doesn’t directly, though thematically it implicates many things about how stories are portrayed).
          Nope, it’s because I’ve never seen a show so effectively, at the last moment and with utter totality (if you’re invested, but that’s true of anything), flip the viewer on their head. The narrative wraps itself quite neatly, but what the story is the capital-A About is suddenly a seething mass of audience expectation, genre rules, preconceived conceptions, and so on. I will quite unashamedly label it brilliant. Give it a few more years, and Sayo Yamamoto will easily become an auteur on the level is Shinichiro Watanabe.

      • I enjoy many Deconstruction, but ultimately I like Escapism in my fiction so the straight versions are always better.

        Thing is you can’t truly appreciate what a Deconstruction if you’re not a fan of the genre in general. Even though a Deconstruction is in theory a criticism of a Genre, the good ones always find their way to capture what people like about them, and are usually made by people who’s done straight examples first. Even the likes of Watchman and Evangelion.

        That’s why I get kinda annoyed at Madoka being constantly recommend to and by people who don’t usually like the Magical Girl Warrior genre. Much about the show only works if your intimately familiar with other Magical Girl animes.

        In my opinion the kinds of people who look down on fans of Sailor Moon and Pretty Cure don’t deserve to enjoy the Awesomeness of Madoka.

  3. “Nobody expects a filmmaker to fix their movie after it’s been made (George Lucas). That would be ridiculous, because it’s already done and part of the cultural framework (GEORGE LUCAS).”

    I get sick of this kind of George Lucas bashing. I love the Special Edition and DVD changes over all I consider them improvements. I also prefer the Prequel to the Original Trilogy in every possible way, Episode I is why I”m a SW fan.

    Not everyone grew up with the same “Cultural framework” you did.

    • Vrai Kaiser says:

      I would be fine with George Lucas making all the special editions he wanted if he didn’t go out of his way to eradicate the original print of the film. As long as the original is available, artists can do whatever experimenting they feel moved to – you’ll never see me complaining that the recut of Apocalypse Now exists, even if I think it’s dreadful (and on the other side, I consider the Director’s Cut of Star Trek TMP a far superior version – but I’m glad you can still get the original, because it’s an interesting artifact).
      As an aside, I was 9 when Episode 1 came out. This has in no way diminished my ability to, with time and critical insight, recognize what a poorly made film it was. I saw the special editions in theaters. I still covet my video copies of the original film like the Blarney Stone itself. So…y’know, that. I presume you’re trolling, but it is your prerogative to personally prefer whatever films you like.

      • I don’t get where this notion comes from, the original versions do still exist.

        I was 13 when Episode 1 came out, and I would be a fan of Star if it hadn’t, because I’d seen the other films and wasn’t impressed with them. But loving the Prequels has now allowed me to appreciate them in ways I couldn’t.

        I do no troll, defending the Prequels is an important passion of mine, I like them for the same reasons I like Dune and Code Geass and Death Note and Madoka, I prefer complex stories to simplistic ones.

        • Vrai Kaiser says:

          They really don’t, though. The box sets that included the totally untampered with print (which was already a bit scuffed up – as the rumor goes, Lucas did corrective work on the film itself) are now out of print and quite expensive, the tapes are even rarer, and the bluray edition currently available for purchase don’t include the original even as an extra (which is what the DVD sets did). It’s quite clear that if people didn’t kick up a fuss, Lucas would’ve just tried to quietly phase the thing out. If the rumors about Disney putting the original back out are true, I’ll be a happy camper.
          The original prequels are…not well written. Lucas hasn’t much hand with a script at all, but there are positive elements to them (I do quite enjoy Ewan McGregor’s turn as Obi Wan). That’s a matter of taste, ultimately.

      • You can actually find online for free in HD the non Special Edition versions. The idea that they’ve been eradicated is simply wrong.

        • Vrai Kaiser says:

          They’re available thanks to fans preserving the original print (dedicated souls all) but there hasn’t been a version legally available for purchase since the DVD box sets of the 00s (and even that version was quite poorly preserved, nothing like the loving HD restoration currently being fanmade).

          • And JRR Tolkien never did any special release of the original version of The Hobbit, not has his estate. But no one holds a judge against him for that. Same with Mary Shelly.

            And I”m really sick of people who think they can discredit my testimony about becoming a SW fan because of Episode I by saying’ I was a kid too in 1999 and I didn’t like it”.

            There were young people who weren’t impressed with A New Hope in 77 either, my parents have actually told me how they walked out of the theater. But there was no Internet back then to allow those people to band together and form an organized hype backlash like they can now against everything, even TDK has one.

            My existence isn’t a matter of everything has some defenders. I’m someone who had an aversion to Star Wars before Episode I, but seeing Episode I ended that aversion.

            All of the films have flaws, they’re supposed to. A Star Wars films that wasn’t contrived and ridiculous I would reject as not being Star Wars.

  4. Ben says:

    > (and here I am personally thinking of 98% of sister complex shows ever made)

    If there is a single sister complex anime anywhere that is really worth watching I am honestly curious to hear what it is.

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