Fan Service in TV Shows: the Good, the Bad and the Daring
Like it or loathe it, fan service has become a major staple in television shows in recent years. Thanks in part to the rise of engaged fandoms taking to social media such as Twitter and Reddit to discuss theories and predictions. The term, which was coined in the late 80s/early 90s, is often used as a criticism of pop culture properties, with the prevailing usage bandied around in a derogatory manner. But to what extent does the measure of someone’s enjoyment in these cultural times stray into indulgence or derision of the source material?
Yes, in some cases writers have become beholden to fan’s wants and whims, usually at the detriment of satisfying storytelling or natural development of characters, resulting in what should be crowd-pleasing moments feeling shoe-horned in or disappointingly underdeveloped or not earned. However several recent television shows have managed to successfully balance a satisfying narrative and/or character arc with audience expectations; using fan service positively in an entertaining way to engage and enhance fan excitement and overall enjoyment.
What initially began as a Karate Kid spinoff on YouTube Red, has now become one of Netflix’s most watched shows – Cobra Kai has undoubtedly struck a real chord with viewers, uniting new and old fans alike. The writers have crafted a wonderfully heartfelt show which successfully balances character development with self-referential humour and tons of 80’s nostalgia. Exploring the legacy of The Karate Kid while establishing an exciting next generation has become the show’s core narrative, particularly developing a deeper understanding and development of once antagonist Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka).
The ongoing rivalry between Lawrence and Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and their respective dojos has taken the two on a significant journey full of highs and lows, culminating in a new found respect for each other. In the recent third season, exciting cameos (and locations) from The Karate Kid franchise have helped bring the old enemies together in an emotional and hugely satisfying payoff.
Similarly, the second season of the award-winning Disney+ series The Mandalorian has garnered both critical and fan acclaim thanks to creator Jon Favreau excitingly uniting multiple facets of the Star Wars universe on-screen. As part of Din Djarin’s (Pedro Pascal) ongoing arc to reunite companion Grogu with the Jedi, the pair encountered numerous fan favourite characters from the animated ‘Filoniverse’ (Rebels and Clone Wars), along with key characters from the original film trilogy. The second instalment featured many more Easter eggs, name drops and connections to the extended universe, leading to a much richer experience for fans.
The badass introduction of iconic character Ahsoka Tano (Rosario Dawson) to live-action in “Chapter 13: The Jedi” proved a real highlight, along with the exhilarating reveal of Luke Skywalker in the closing moments of the finale. In one single episode, titled “The Tragedy”, director Robert Rodriguez also managed to hugely develop the underserved Bobba Fett (Temuera Morrison) in a truly exciting action set piece. Thankfully the incorporation of canon characters didn’t overly constrain the central narrative; at the core, the show is a heartfelt journey of connection between a once lonely bounty hunter and his adoptive ‘child’. The evolution of their relationship from annoyance to endearment has long-since tugged at the heartstrings of the nation; this was truly evident in the farewell scene as Grogu lovingly touches Din’s face as they say their emotional goodbye. In a time where the latest trilogy of films have left fans hugely divided, particularly over Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, it’s positive to see so much love for the franchise.
However incorporating fan theories can also be detrimental to storylines, take Game of Thrones as a pertinent example. Following the end of season five, creators David Benioff and D. B. Weiss found themselves at the end of George RR Martin’s source material, the A Song of Ice and Fire series of books. While the two were given clues and outlines to certain endgame plot threads, they found themselves in uncharted waters trying to end the groundbreaking high-concept fantasy series. Due to overwhelming demand and rapidly shifting timescales, the episode count of the final two seasons were shortened in an attempt to wrap up the show. With significant hype and discussion surrounding, it was always going to be a tall order to finish the show in a compelling and satisfying way.
There’s no denying that there were many thrilling reveals, particularly the long held fan theory regarding Jon Snow’s (Kit Harington) real parentage (coined R+L=J). Season eight episode two “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” also heavily leaned into fan service with Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) being knighted (and then finally connecting with Jamie Lannister), along with Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) tearfully reuniting with the Starks at Winterfell. Even the bonkers fan theory ‘Cleganebowl’, featuring brothers The Hound & The Mountain duelling, the identity of Coldhands and even a boat-rowing joke alongside Gendry’s return featured, but much to the expense of satisfying development, resulting in a disappointing anti-climax. With the emphasis on bigger battles and the disappointing ‘madness’ of Daenerys Targaryen, Jon’s parentage and the downfall of the Night King and the White Walkers felt like they were simply brushed to the side, falling victims to the unfortunate scramble to the finish line.
In contrast, fan favourite genre show Supernatural found itself overstaying its initial welcome at the expense of some fans. Following creator Eric Kripke’s departure in series five, Supernatural embraced the sillier, tongue-in-cheek elements of the show, seemingly forgetting its earlier horror roots. Evolving from a monster of the week type narrative to battling deities to save the world from apocalyptic events, (usually with some sort of sacrifice and subsequent miraculous resurrection involved) led the writers to unfortunately corner themselves. While it’s always fun to see the Winchester brothers (Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles) and Castiel (Misha Collins) taking on Lucifer (Mark Pellegrino) or Crowley (Mark Sheppard), there’s only so many times the writers can rehash this similar plotline over fifteen(!) seasons.
With the upcoming eleventh season bringing the show to a close, The Walking Dead has continued to diverge from the source material to favour certain fan favourite characters. Daryl Dixon, portrayed by the popular Norman Reedus, has pretty much become the face of the show since Rick Grime’s departure in season nine. Originally introduced as a supporting character, the crossbow wielding survivor was bumped up to a series regular in the second season, quickly gaining an air of invincibility which has continued throughout. With a spin off in the works with Carol Peletier (Melissa McBride) once the main series comes to an end, is it a coincidence that these are the only two characters from the first season who have survived through till the end?
So how do you strike a satisfying and successful balance between the two? Groundbreaking shows which have recently emerged have cleverly acknowledged their origins and fan base, while excitingly paving a new road for themselves. Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen series (which debuted on HBO in 2019), is set in the same established comic book universe, but tells a brand-new tale focusing on the timely theme of race and policing in America. Taking place 30 years after the events of the comic book, Lindelof and fellow writers cleverly incorporate new faces alongside key legacy characters such as Silk Spectre II (Jean Smart) and Hooded Justice (Louis Gossett Jr.), using the exploration of their motivations and backstories to delve into the deeper themes of the series. Due to the shift from the threat of nuclear war to police brutality and racism, this series feels like a timely and natural progression from the original story.
With over 60 books and numerous film adaptations, H.P. Lovecraft’s literary works have gained a substantial fan base over the years. Misha Green and Jordan Peele’s recent adaptation of Matt Ruff’s novel Lovecraft Country (also on HBO), cleverly twists Lovecraft’s cosmic horror through the examination of racism, challenging the author’s own bigoted views in the process. Similarly set in the Lovecraft universe filled with supernatural creatures and magical cults, (along with plenty of easter eggs and pop culture references for fans) the writers subvert expectations by boldly asking the audience to question who the monsters really are in the tale.
While crowd-pleasing moments are hugely rewarding and exciting, often sparking engaging debate amongst the nation, they shouldn’t be included at the expense of compelling storytelling, creative decisions or simply put – for the happiness of fans. There’s nothing more satisfying to see storylines pay off with a rewarding conclusion after investing a significant amount of time into a show, connecting with the main character’s journeys. At the end of the day, if including Will Riker and Deanna Troi in Star Trek: Picard or featuring Brandon Routh finally suited up as Superman again in the latest Arrowverse crossover brings joy and enjoyment to certain fans – surely we should embrace it. Similarly, creators who passionately attempt to push the boundaries of established universes by subverting expectations, challenging views or simply breaking free from certain genre tropes, should be applauded and encouraged. As Tyrion Lannister said, “What unites people? Armies? Gold? Flags? Stories. There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story.”