Show runner Dick Wolf is in hot water this week with fans of Law & Order: SVU on Twitter. Digging into the complaints, the current outcry isn’t really a surprise. Take a ship that’s been working on a slow burn for almost a quarter of a century, add in some bait-and-switch advertising, and you have a perfect storm. While it’s true that show runners have the right to run their shows how they see fit – and while fandom teasing is pretty much a staple of the medium – no fan appreciates being lied to. And there very much is a difference between teasing fans and lying to them.
Dick Wolf isn’t the first show runner to be in hot water for making fans feel like they were lied to. Nor is he likely to be the last. Notoriously, Smallville show runners got into trouble for stating fans of Erica Durance‘s Lois Lane had a lot to look forward to during Lana’s (Kristin Kruek) return to the series. Although Lois was featured in promos for those final five episodes, the actress herself was written out of the arc past the first episode of the arc. For fans of the character – and Clois (the relationship between Lois and Clark), watching Clark (Tom Welling) crawl on his knees while getting literally poisoned by his ex would was hard enough to watch, but their disappointment turned to rage at the feeling the show runners lied directly to them.
Of course, no show runner is going to say, “Your favorite character isn’t even going to be in these episodes, so don’t bother watching.” That would be ludicrous. But there is a huge difference between, “We think these next few episodes really tie up some loose ends so that Clark can decide what he really wants and move forward romantically” and “Lois fans have so much to look forward to [in episodes in which she doesn’t appear and arguably gets thrown under a bus].” The former is a pretty typical way to keep fans watching without giving anything away. The latter feels like bald-faced lies.
Veronica Mars show runner Rob Thomas got into similar trouble for his handling of the show’s last season. The Logan/Veronica ship (LoVe) had been a major focus of the series and subsequent movie. It was no wonder, then, that they were outraged when the fourth season ended with Logan’s death. Adding insult to injury, Rob Thomas explained the decision by basically saying that Veronica is “boring” when she’s happy in love and not traumatized, and that he wanted to completely change the concept of the show moving forward.
Veronica Mars was a particularly special case of show runners lying to the fan base because of the unusual nature of his salvation. Fans – a large number of them LoVe shippers – had directly been responsible for funding the Kickstarter that got the film sequel to the prematurely cancelled series green lit. Which led to the show’s subsequent pickup on Hulu. And Thomas knew how invested these fans – fans he directly called upon to resurrect his series – were heavily invested in LoVe. There was even an entire series of promos featuring Kristen Bell and Jason Dohring reading LoVe fanfiction leading up to the fourth season.
Even more recently, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist show runner Austin Winsberg earned the fandom’s ire in the show’s second season, when he promised the end of the dreaded love triangle. Only to very much keep the love triangle alive. Now, in this case, I do feel like this was a case of the show runner genuinely misunderstanding what “love triangles” mean in fandom spaces. He seems to have interpreted “fans hate love triangles” as “fans hate arcs in which a character can’t or won’t decide between two romantic prospects.” Failing to realize that “making one choice and then later making another choice, and then later going back to the first choice” is, indeed, being unable to decide. Still, the promise of “no more love triangle” followed pretty quickly by the return of the love triangle left fans feeling intentionally misled.
The case of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is a good argument for shows to have fandom consultants for show runners who have probably not engaged in fandom spaces the way fans do and thus may mistake how things will be perceived. Unlike Thomas, Winsberg professed the entire problem to have been a massive misunderstanding on his end. Perhaps that’s why fans of the series were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and successfully fought to save the show from premature cancellation.
Which leads us to the outrage at Law & Order: SVU. Shippers of Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni) and Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) have been hanging in through thick and thin for almost 25 years. Their dedication seemed like it was about to pay off, as promos for the most recent episode teased that this couple might finally – finally – kiss. Ultimately, not only did a kiss not happen, but the shot featured in the promo – with Benson caressing Stabler’s face – was cut from the episode entirely.
Things happen in editing shows, and sometimes things get cut. So is this a case of “teasing fans” or lying to them? After almost a quarter of a century, it’s hard not to feel like this isn’t the latter.
Teasing fans is a natural thing for shows to do. It keeps fans engaged. It creates buzz. But, as evidenced by Veronica Mars, when fans feel like teasing has become lying, they may not stick around to give the show another chance. It’s time for long-suffering Benson/Olivia fans to get more than a deleted scene for a payoff.