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When fan engagement goes wrong

The 100, Shameless, and the unsustainable dynamics of social TV

Alycia Debnam-Carey (left) and Eliza Taylor on The 100
Alycia Debnam-Carey (left) and Eliza Taylor on The 100

Note: This article discusses plot details for the third season of The 100 and the sixth season of Shameless.

There are lots of reasons why the people who make television are interacting with their show’s fans more than ever. Networks and channels are encouraging showrunners and writers to live-tweet their shows, believing that it creates “engagement” that increases live viewing and makes it more likely that fans invest in the series in other ways. Networks and channels are also active on social media, retweeting fan responses and working to cultivate fan activity on their own. These points of contact between fans and the television industry are now something we take for granted. If you watch a television show, you can go on Twitter or Facebook and “engage” that television show in one way or another.

However, recent events regarding these points of engagement have highlighted new dynamics between the industry and its fans, particularly as it relates to fanbases comprised of marginalized groups. For fans of shows like The CW’s The 100 or Showtime’s Shameless who gravitate toward the shows based on their complex same-sex relationships, this form of engagement is part of the appeal. Showrunners like The 100’s Jason Rothenberg actively acknowledged and embraced the show’s queer fan base following reaction to the relationship between heroine Clarke (Eliza Taylor) and Lexa (Alycia Debnam-Carey), while Showtime retweeted fan art and made merchandise for “Gallavich” fans invested in Ian Gallagher’s (Cameron Monaghan) relationship with Mickey Milkovich (Noel Fisher) that began in Shameless’ first season. Beyond simply promoting the shows, social media engagement has also helped make fan bases that have been historically marginalized visible to those behind the scenes, creating direct lines of communication that stand alongside expanded representations on screen.

But this expanded engagement comes alongside a new form of responsibility, which is not yet fully defined but has come into sharp relief with these two examples in 2016. What happens to these new relationships when behind-the-scenes realities force the end of both of these relationships? What happens when the writers’ pragmatic—if inelegant at best, and seemingly blind to tropes that have dogged TV history at worst—decisions in response to those realities ostracize the same fans that were actively courted? And how are those who made those decisions supposed to interact with fans—now a strong expectation—who feel equal parts angry and betrayed? Put simply, how responsible should showrunners, writers, and networks be in circumstances where fans air their grievances in the same space where they have been encouraged to engage in the past?

The 100 has been a crash course in this 21st century problem for Rothenberg and his writing staff. Much has been written about the show’s decision to kill Lexa in “Thirteen,” but out of context the basic decision is highly defensible: Debnam-Carey was never in a position to sign a long-term contract with the show, having booked a role on Fear The Walking Dead before The 100’s second season—where she debuted—even aired, and thus long before her relationship with Clarke became a huge deal in queer fan communities online in the spring of 2015. It was clear from the show’s storytelling that Rothenberg and the writers responded to this queer relationship, and to Lexa’s place as a strong lesbian character alongside Clarke, newly established as a rare bisexual lead. But facing the probability that access to Debnam-Carey would be highly limited if not impossible moving forward, Rothenberg was fortunate to get access to the actress for a significant third season arc, and made the choice to use the character’s death as a key reveal in the show’s mythology.

It’s the type of problem solving that is necessary in television production, where circumstances like this—a key relationship built around one series regular and a recurring guest star who has no long-term contract—can be dictated more by behind-the-scenes forces than a writer’s specific storytelling instincts. But the stakes here proved to be higher than Rothenberg had realized for two key reasons. The first was that Lexa’s death was plotted and staged in such a way as to connect with the “Bury Your Gays” trope, which is so pervasive The Walking Dead added to the narrative just weeks later as if on cue. But as Variety’s Maureen Ryan and the show’s fans have observed, the other reason is that Rothenberg and the show’s writers had actively engaged with their queer fan base, logically embracing the show’s reputation for placing a same-sex relationship front and center, and continued doing so—sometimes in their own forums—even after setting in motion events that would confuse, anger, and eventually ostracize that very same fan base.

The complexities of this aftermath were not inevitable, and the ensuing conversation has said some important things about representation of LGBT characters and the specificity of experiencing those representations as an LGBT fan (which Rothenberg has since reflected on in an open letter to fans, and on a panel at WonderCon). But while there is no doubt that specific choices Rothenberg and others involved with the show made exacerbated fan anger, on a basic level this general conflict was unavoidable. The type of relationships that showrunners like Rothenberg are developing—and are encouraged to develop—with fans are not sustainable in the context of evolving, serialized television series. Ryan observes a good set of lessons to take away from this situation, including the common sense “don’t mislead fans or raise their hopes unrealistically,” but is that really in a showrunner’s control? As much as I support greater vigilance from Rothenberg and those like him, the only way to guarantee that you won’t mislead fans or raise their hopes is by not interacting with them at all, which runs counter to prevailing industry logic (and, in some cases, a personal desire to be connected to the audience). Barring outright announcing that Lexa would be dying and spoiling his own show (which was what Rothenberg and the writers looked to avoid by throwing fans off the scent of Lexa’s death), any engagement by Rothenberg could potentially mislead fans, meaning that nothing short of “not tweeting” could have entirely avoided the situation at hand.

As a result, a huge part of television’s future will be how showrunners, writers, and networks manage the aftermath of major story developments like this one. It has been happening concurrently with Shameless, where a similar situation was happening behind-the-scenes. While Ian and Mickey’s relationship has been a part of the show since its first season, the show has also been dealing with Noel Fisher’s uncertain future from the very beginning. Fisher was only a part-time presence in early seasons as Mickey resisted the labels attached to his relationship with Ian, with the actor balancing his work on the show with movies (The Twliight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 2) and other TV roles (Hatfields & McCoys). But after he became a series regular in season three, Fisher took on a more substantial role as Mickey began to come to terms with his sexuality and embrace his connection with Ian. By season five, it’s Mickey who is the stable half of the relationship, as Ian’s struggles with bipolar disorder shifted the dynamic and began a new chapter in one of television’s most complex same-sex couplings that shared with The 100 a basic problem: Fisher had no long-term contract in place.

By the time the fifth season was winding down, Shameless had invested more in “Gallavich” than in any other storyline. It was central to the show’s online presence, with Gallavich merchandise available in the Showtime online store and sent to fans and critics (including The A.V. Club), and the official social media accounts used the ’shipper name and acknowledged the intense fandom around the couple directly with #FanArtFriday postings. Yet at the same time as Gallavich reached its peak in the fifth season, there was movement behind the scenes. For whatever reason, Fisher wanted to move on, and so the season ended with Ian suddenly breaking up with Mickey, and Mickey appearing to get arrested. And although fans held out hope between seasons, a “special guest star” credit in the season-six premiere confirmed what most suspected, and Fisher makes one last appearance to show Mickey behind bars, dedicated to Ian but separated for the foreseeable future.

As with The 100, there was always going to be frustration among Gallavich fans in the wake of Fisher’s exit, which is a natural byproduct of long-running series and the strong emotional connections fans build with characters. But how do you manage that affect if you’re the official Shameless Twitter account, which went from sending fans Gallavich prize packs to ignoring them following Fisher’s appearance in the sixth-season finale? Gallavich has become a Pandora’s box, opened any time the account tweets about Ian’s current storyline (a new relationship with a firefighter, which has never fully gelled), and busted wide open when the account wished Fisher a happy birthday last month. After years of acknowledging Gallavich and its supporters, the omission of the relationship from the show’s tweets has been taken as a hostile act, with each tweet about Ian’s new storyline another reminder to these fans that what they care most about is seemingly being ignored.

While less burdened by problematic tropes (Mickey is just in jail, not dead), and helped by the fact the show has not limited its focus on LGBT storytelling in Mickey’s absence, Shameless reinforces that it will not just be The 100 that faces this type of challenge in the future. Shameless’ showrunners are not active on social media, but consulting producer Krista Vernoff tweeted a series of explanatory tweets to Gallavich fans in January, and supervising producer Sheila Callaghan has emerged as the face of the writer’s room in fan communities, taking the brunt of Gallavich fans’ frustrations. Callaghan’s choice to be honest and straightforward when engaging with fans is admirable, and yet also on some level futile. She can’t tell them exactly why Fisher chose to leave, she is (logically) unwilling to spoil future storylines outright, and she can only speak her own mind as part of a collaborative process over which she holds only some influence. So while many fans respect her effort to maintain the connection to this now marginalized community, others attack, reinforcing that attempting to manage these situations is a full-time job that no one has been properly trained for.

By framing this struggle of fan management as a universal issue, I do not mean to elide the specific responsibilities attached to representations of and engagements with marginalized groups—the situation with The 100 has its own distinct shadings that require (and are receiving) specific interrogation. But the political dimensions of Lexa’s death highlight a problem that echoes with Shameless, and have echoed, and will continue to echo, with every TV show that has cultivated a significant online following. Things will happen behind the scenes, tough decisions will be made, and those who engage with those fans will grow increasingly responsible for how those interactions continue. But television writers are not public relations professionals, and official social media accounts must balance any interactions with fans with specific messaging, and best intentions by all parties can quickly and unknowingly become invasive to fan communities.

And while I would like to believe these situations could push these workers to educate themselves and develop stronger guidelines for how to engage with fans, it seems just as likely that we’re heading to a point where the perceived complications will outweigh the presumed benefits of engagement, and whatever good has come from these interactions will be lost in the process.