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.
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.
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.