Monday, March 24, 2014

The Good Wife: Should Writers Write to Please Their Fans?

Last year I hired an editor to help me rewrite KEEPING SCORE. He made a lot of small suggestions, and one big one – change the ending. In the draft I sent him, my protagonist, Shannon, ended up alone. I didn’t think she had done the work yet to deserve getting together with her love interest. (Plus at the time I was thinking about a sequel.) My editor told me that I was writing in a genre in which the readers expected the happy ending, and it was my job to give it to them.

I listened. After all, readers equal sales, and you’re not going to have sales if you offer a product that doesn’t deliver what your audience wants.

This brings me to last night’s episode of The Good Wife. If you’re a fan and you haven’t watched, I’d tell you not to read any further, but since the news was all over the internet, you’ve probably heard. The Good Wife killed off Will Gardner, the male lead and the female protagonist’s on-again, off-again love interest since the show debuted five seasons ago. Josh Charles, the actor who played Will, had only a four-year contract and wanted time off to spend with his new wife. The show persuaded him to return for 15 episodes this season so they could send him out with a bang. Literally.

In the aftermath of last night’s episode, the creators have given interviews in which they discussed their options (sending Will to Seattle, like ER did when series star Julianna Margulies’ last love interest, George Clooney, left the show before she did – reuniting them at the end). They wanted to shake up the show in the most dramatic way possible. They wanted to show the suddenness of death. They were not interested in prolonging the Will/Alicia/Peter triangle – something they had said in previous interviews.

One thing they did not mention, however, was making their fans happy.

That is typical. It seems that no writer on earth – except maybe Veronica Mars’ creator Rob Thomas, who is thrilled that some critics of the new movie say it’s too geared to fans – wants to make their fans happy. Fans, apparently, only want their favorite couples in wedded bliss and having babies. We don’t get conflict. Writing for couples is boring. Etc. And The Good Wife was never intended to be about Will and Alicia. It’s about the education of Alicia Florrick. Just because season one ended on a cliffhanger about whether or not she got his voice mail professing his love for her, that doesn’t mean that their relationship is the backbone of the series. (Except that it was.)

Perhaps some writers think they’re cheating when they deliver that happy ending. It’s ironic, of course, because happy endings are the reasons we go through five or seven or nine years of TV – how many seasons did Friends fans put up with Ross and Rachel? We don’t get them in real life – not usually – so we fall in love with a couple, we root for them, we watch them make up and break up as long as the series goes on, and we expect to see them together at the end of the series finale.

Of course that’s not what gets critics talking; that’s not what wins awards. But the last time I checked, critics and awards don’t equal ratings. Fans do. And the number of fans is what makes the difference for a show staying on the air or getting canceled. Resurrection, a new show by ABC about people coming back from the dead (is that wish fulfillment or what) is beating The Good Wife in the ratings. A very competitive Sunday night, coupled with CBS constantly having to start the show late due to a sports program running past its time slot, means fans have lots of other programming options and often end up missing the show because it starts late. Killing off Will gives another huge reason not to watch.

Are writers who give fans what they want sell-outs? Are writers who don’t snobs? Both could be true. As for me, I want to sell my books, and I think if fans have certain expectations in certain genres, I have a better chance of selling if my stories meet those expectations.

And as for TV writers who roll their eyes about “shippers:” Here’s a simple solution. Don’t create potential couples that have enormous rooting value. If two people have an off-screen back story (maybe even a child), a current reason why they can’t be together, are in each other’s professional orbit, have great chemistry and conversation and long smoldering looks, hot kisses and then regrets, fall into bed only to realize they can’t be together again, and then try desperately to stay away from each other – guess what, fans are going to want them to be together. So either don’t do that, or if you do, please don’t kill one of them off.

It’s too late for Will and Alicia, but I hope the Nashville writers are reading this. <

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