Today, television producers, writers, and creators have an unprecedented amount of access to the opinions of the people that watch their shows. For better or worse we live in a time where creative executives have access to the critical lemons being thrown at them by their audience on a mass scale.
There are lots of different ways to use lemons to make delicious lemonade (like making an album, perhaps). Some show creators have chosen to listen to their fans and direct the writing of the series accordingly. Beloved side characters are given more screen time while frustrating story arcs get dropped. Sometimes, if enough fan fervor is worked up, it can set the stage for a side character to get their own spinoff or for a cancelled franchise to be brought back as a movie (we’re looking at you, Firefly).
Negative feedback, however, can be much harder for show runners to know what to do with. After all, what’s the point of listening to someone who clearly doesn’t even like your work? But ignoring the things people say about your show can be difficult when they’re hurled at you with the speed of a feces-flinging monkey on steroids. More and more TV writers are choosing to own the things that they’re being criticized for. This stubborn doubling-down won’t do much to persuade their detractors, but by breaking down the fourth wall and showing that they’re in on the joke, writers are able to take power away from their critics while knowingly winking at their fans.
When Cougar Town premiered during ABC’s fall 2009 season all anyone wanted to talk about was its title. People saw the title as reductive and ultimately really dumb. The show did start out as a story about cougar-dom. Jules, the main character, is middle aged and newly divorced with a teenage son. The first few episodes involve Jules’ younger friend trying to get her to go out with younger guys while a caricature of a cougar named Barb pops up any chance she gets to throw in a cougar-themed punchline. Jules even goes so far as to date a younger man for a few episodes. The writers quickly grew unsatisfied with this premise, though. By season two Jules was dating a man her own age (a man she would later go on to marry) and by season three even the two-dimensional Barb marries a man (Barry Bostwick!) who is older than her.
By this point even the fans of the show hated the title. After all, how many shows outgrow their title by their second season? While there was some talk of changing the title (Wine Time and Family Jules became strong contenders) ultimately the producers decided to instead turn the title into a joke. In the opening sequence of the season two premiere the title card says “(Still) Cougar Town”. For the rest of the show’s run, every episode has used a different joke in the opening sequence, most of which mock the title of the show. Season two highlights include “Badly Titled Cougar Town”, “Titles Are Hard Cougar Town”, “It’s Ok To Watch A Show Called Cougar Town”, and “Starting To Own It Cougar Town”. As an early fan, the hardest part about convincing friends to give the show a try was getting people to look past the title. By owning the title and turning it into a meta-joke with its small but dedicated audience, the show gave fans ammunition against detractors who said, “wait, you want me to watch a show called Cougar Town?”
While Cougar Town never quite reached what one would call “high ratings”, Glee‘s first season was one of the most-viewed scripted television series’ of its time. Every episode of the first two seasons hovered around 10 million viewers with one episode in its second season (which aired after the 2011 Super Bowl) garnering over 26 million American viewers. However, the show lost more viewers every season as the plots became increasingly ridiculous and new pointless characters were added. Due to the show’s high initial ratings, there was a large audience of people ready to point out all the show’s faults and shortcomings. Rather than work on the continuity problems or decrease the number of pointless characters, the showrunners instead started doubling down on these decisions. The writers used the no-nonsense character of Sue Sylvester to show the audience that they were listening—and that they were bullies. Sometimes it seemed like Sue was deliberately quoting the things critics said about the show Glee to mock the fictional glee club. In one episode she accuses the glee club of “ruining the American songbook one mash-up at a time.” In season three the show added the character of Roz Washington, a tall, track-suit wearing, high school coach with short blonde hair who would frequently say inappropriately blunt things. The character was so much like Sue that people even started referring to her as “Black Sue.” So naturally, instead of writing her out or changing the character, the writers had Sue refer to Roz as “Black Sue” and herself as “original recipe Sue.”
This tactic actually works really well for a show like Glee. One of the biggest themes in the show is dealing with bullies and one of the best ways of dealing with a bully is to take their power away by owning the things they say. By owning the negative feedback of its critics, Glee ended up reinforcing its own themes.
Making lemonade out of critical lemons tends to suit comedies more than dramas. There’s a certain amount of breaking the fourth wall involved and that can be harder for a drama. It helps, of course, if your show is already used to breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to the audience. The first season of House of Cards was critically acclaimed and received Emmy awards for cinematography, directing, and casting, and a Golden Globe award for lead actress Robyn Wright. The audience response to the show was mostly positive, however many people had a hard time with Kevin Spacey’s character, Frank Underwood, constantly talking directly to the camera. Viewers found the Shakespearean asides to be distracting and off-putting.
When the show returned for its second season it looked like the creators may have taken this critique to heart. The first episode didn’t include any of Frank’s characteristic asides until the very end. In the final scene of the episode Frank turns to the camera and says, “Did you think I’d forgotten you? Perhaps you’d hoped I had…” After his aside the camera pans down to a set of monogramed cufflinks, given to him by his bodyguard, that literally say F U to the show’s detractors.
It’s the sort of zinger that would make Winston Churchill proud, and it not only tells the audience that the show is listening to their feedback, but that it doesn’t matter. Unlike Glee, which chose to laugh along with its bullies, Frank wants you to know that he cannot be bullied and doesn’t really care what you think anyway.
Ultimately, these three examples work so well because the writers used the tone of the show to respond to the critics. Imagine if Frank Underwood started spouting Sue Sylvester quotes at the camera (“You think this is hard? Try being waterboarded, that’s hard!”) or if the Cougar Town writers took a page from House of Cards and wrote the opening credits to say “Don’t like the name Cougar Town? Well too bad, we like that it makes you uncomfortable.” It just wouldn’t work. But these creators, showrunners, and writers have used their shows to all basically say the same thing: Haters gonna hate.