We’re In This Together
oday, NBC’s The Office looks like the luckiest show on television: it grew from an underdog, underwatched late-season replacement last spring into a mainstay of NBC’s slowly recovering “Must See” Thursday nights, all in less than a year. But think back to the start of the fall, when the show started its second season and struggled in the ratings. As part of the show’s promotional efforts, writer B. J. Novak—who also plays Ryan the Temp—started a blog, which ran for a few weeks on TV Guide’s website before he handed it off to Jenna Fischer, who plays Pam the Receptionist. You might think this was a publicity stunt set up by their marketing department, like dozens of other show blogs (see: the “nurses’ blog” for Grey’s Anatomy) but I can say with 99.9% confidence that both Novak and Fischer are the real authors. Why? Because the blog is really dull.
Now, Novak had a few good lines, and the behind-the-scenes trivia has been fun. But by and large, it’s mundane stuff. Fischer likes to talk about the PlayStation football tournaments that take place off-set, and about how the cast likes to get together at someone’s house every Thursday to watch the show air. Novak gave more dish: in his first blog post he mentioned that the men behind the original, canonized British Office, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, had stopped by to meet the cast and give some feedback. He never followed up to tell us if they liked it, but don’t worry: if you listen to Gervais’ and Merchant’s own podcast, they give the show high marks.
Here’s the thing: dull as this stuff is, it’s also compelling—not just as a fanboy exercise, but because the stars start to become real people. Novak, Fischer, and now, all of the other staff writers and cast members who write blogs and MySpace pages, seem as honest as anybody can be online: they hide some insecurities while others slip out by accident, they laugh at stuff that makes no sense, they tell us what they think. And along the way, you understand how much the cast and crew are pushing for this show to succeed. They know their show is an underdog, and that quirky single-camera mockumentary shows that make the audience pay attention start off way behind the eightball. You can’t help but root for them: week after week, you feel like you’re getting to know and like them, and you pray for them to succeed.
Battlestar Galactica is another cult show that learned this lesson early. Sci-fi fans notoriously eat up any interview, feature, or schematic you can throw at them, and the Sci-Fi Network took advantage of that by building a Battlestar Galactica site with blogs, behind-the-scenes footage and, seven episodes in, a podcast recorded by none other than the show’s creator and executive producer, Ronald D. Moore.
Moore sits in his house, sometimes with the window open to let in traffic and lawnmower noises, and talks through the show, doing a commentary for each episode. Some of it’s dull, or repetitive, but week after week it slowly engrosses you. You get to know his strange obsessions, like his deep concern that Captain Apollo honorably followed the maritime tradition of parole in the episode “Resistance,” or the lengthy explanation for why all of the papers and books have their corners cut off (it’s an aesthetic preference in this society). Sometimes he delves into the politics of the show; I missed an allegory for the stem cell debate the other week in “Epiphanies,” and when Moore explained the reference, it made me like that episode even more.
And best of all, he tells us when he screwed up. When they aired “Black Market,” the first episode of the series that wasn’t great—in fact, that completely sucked—I immediately listened to Moore’s commentary, and sure enough, he thought it sucked too. Yes, writers and producers have lectured and written about their shows but how often can you get a mea culpa that quickly, and if necessary, every week?
The public at large has been slow to notice that Battlestar Galactica is one of the best-written, best-acted and most relevant shows on TV. Maybe it would have caught more interest out of the gate if, instead of naming it after the cheesy ‘70s original, they had titled it Brilliant Allegory for the War on Terror, with Robot Babes. But okay—not everyone gets it, or cares. Battlestar Galactica has been a hit for the Sci-Fi channel, but they need to keep every viewer they get: this isn’t a show you jump into halfway, and it takes a continued investment. So Moore keeps podcasting.
No medium has benefited more from the Internet than television; I wish that musicians, or filmmakers, or novelists could blog about their work and keep their fans excited on a regular basis, but these folks just can’t deliver product on a weekly basis, like a television show. A season of TV is more like a year of sports, or an election, or the weather. It keeps coming, in regular installments. It follows an arc that gradually ratchets up the level of excitement. It should deliver a payoff but keep you in suspense about whether you’ll get it, and it should invest you in the players to make you care about their success.
When Moore, Novak, and the rest of these people ramble through their blogs and podcasts, they’re following the season with you: they’re engaging you in the “metastory,” where you not only care if Pam and Jim will get together, but you wonder if they’ll get a third season renewal. And listening to an executive producer admit that he blew it is like getting a seat at the ship captain’s table. He’s still in charge, but you both have a destination, you’re getting closer and closer, and sink or sail, you’re in this together. How could you possibly tune out now?
By: Chris Dahlen
Published on: 2006-02-08