We have a special bond with television that we don’t share with other forms of entertainment. Movies and video games are great, but they don’t often resonate with us like television does. Week after week, TV shows beam relatable human characters into our living rooms and bedrooms, and our bonds only strengthen the longer a show runs. Because of this intimacy, a special brand of fandom forms around shows like Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Lost, and Game of Thrones. These superfans go to great lengths to maintain their love affair with a series. Director Michael Sparaga’s documentary, United We Fan, explores a television sub culture: people who campaign and petition to keep their favourite shows on the air.
At the heart of the film is Dorothy Swanson, a woman who created one of TV fandom’s most impactful movements. In the early 80s, CBS decided to take her beloved lady-cop show Cagney & Lacey off the air, and Swanson wasn’t having it. She began a fan appreciation movement to show CBS that an audience existed. This movement was the first stage of what became Viewers for Quality Television (VQT), a publication where fans advocated for their favourite TV series. VQT soon earned network execs’ respect, and became an influential force in keeping shows alive. Swanson had democratized network decision making, handing over control to the little guy decades before the rise of internet fan culture.
There are over 400 original series on the air (which seems like an impossible number), and almost every show is somebody’s favourite show. It’s easy to dismiss someone’s infatuation with the show Chuck as nonsense, but we forget that our own interests are nonsense to 99% of people. I enjoy building Lego Batmobile sets, but I get why society may see it as a waste of time. Not everyone “gets” why people form such deep connections to fictional characters, which makes fandom an easy target for jokes. United We Fan explores TV’s most devoted viewers, and never paints them as nerds, oddballs, and outcasts. The film presents their passions as virtues, and their support as significant.
Where the movie shines, however, is in exploring the precise reason why hardcore fans latch on to certain shows. Big-time fans connect for two main reasons: they see themselves represented, and/or the fandom surrounding a show provides them with a sense of community. Sparaga provides an excellent example, profiling one young LGBTQ woman’s love of Person of Interest, specifically for the love story between two female characters. Sparaga humanizes the type of fan devotion that people often dismiss as geeky obsession.
United We Fan runs through several major bring-back-our-show campaigns. Considering Star Trek‘s 50-year run in pop culture, it’s hard to believe NBC almost bounced it early on, but a lady named Bjo Trimble lead a campaign to keep the show from fading into the Neutral Zone. The film catches up to Bjo, 50 years later, and shows reverential fans greeting her as she walks through a Con. Most of the other campaigns are more recent; we see the corporate pandering of Chuck‘s Subway sandwiches tie-in and Veronica Mars’ triumphant return by way of Kickstarter. Yet the “nuttiest” campaign involves the series Jericho, the postal service, and thousands of pounds of peanuts.
I wish Sparaga went deeper into one of fandom’s murkier areas, that feeling of ownership. Reddit and Twitter provide access to people making today’s entertainment, and with that ability comes a greater sense of entitlement. Today there are more people who feel that shows must service their interests (or else!). We’ve seen the most extreme version of this in the video game industry. Fans who didn’t like BioWare’s ending for Mass Effect 3 went nuclear online and demanded a new ending. In United We Fan, fans fight to keep a beloved show on the air, and then they’re shocked when the “returned” show doesn’t play out like they had hoped. There’s a discussion to be had about servicing people who support your art versus being true to your art. The film briefly touches on the subject but left me hungry for more.
United We Fan joyfully highlights the fan communities who breath life into dead or dying shows. Sparaga humanizes these “geeky” fan movements, creating relatable stories for people who don’t understand fandom. It’s a light and easy watch filled with quirky personalities and great storytellers that will keep you chuckling the whole way through. If you ever had an intense love for a TV series, a video game, or even a YouTube channel, you’ll see part of yourself represented in this film.