Is there such a thing as a “bad fan”? The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum thinks so. In a widely discussed piece about “Breaking Bad” last year, Nussbaum identified the Bad Fan as an enthusiast who’s watching a show for the wrong reasons, too often reveling in behavior that he’s supposed to deplore.
The concept of the Bad Fan grew out of the animosity that many viewers displayed towards Skyler White, the long-suffering wife of “Breaking Bad’s” villainous protagonist. Walter White had ruined or destroyed countless lives during the course of the series, but the fans dumped on his WIFE? Because she was trying to corral his reign of terror?
A similar problem had arisen during “The Sopranos,” when some fans thrilled at Tony Soprano’s violence and clamored for more. The issue of the Bad Fan may also partially explain the declining ratings for “Mad Men.” A segment of the fanbase might not have understood they were supposed to be appalled at, not entranced by, the outrageously sexist and self-destructive behaviors of the early-‘60s male characters. It appears that some of these fans have since lost interest in the show as the consequences of these behaviors played out during the rest of the 1960s. The Bad Fan experience becomes especially problematic in cases of male-on-female violence, like the rapes on “Game of Thrones,” when some viewers might get off on it instead of recognizing it as horrifying.
The problem of the Bad Fan has been around for centuries, going back to at least Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” when readers found the clever-but-evil Satan more compelling than God himself. In the television age, Nussbaum located the original Bad Fan experience with “All in the Family,” a 1971 Norman Lear sitcom about a working-class family headed by the bigoted, conservative Archie Bunker. To make sure everyone understood the score, Lear, an outspoken liberal, even ran a disclaimer at the top of the show that advised: “The program you are about to see is ‘All in the Family.’ It seeks to throw a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices and concerns. By making them a source of laughter, we hope to show—in a mature fashion—just how absurd they are.”
In the end, the laugh was on Lear (to the extent the laugh can be on anyone whose show makes him a gazillionaire). It turns out that millions of other bigoted, conservatives fans didn’t find Archie Bunker absurd. Instead they found validation in Archie’s politically incorrect observations and didn’t understand (or maybe they understood but didn’t care) that they were the subject of mockery.
As an art form, television seems to be particularly vulnerable to the Bad Fan phenomenon. Viewers won’t watch a show for years on end if it has a protagonist who’s as personally loathsome as his actions, so showrunners pull their punches when depicting antiheroes. Even if you are disgusted by the misdeeds of a murderer, it’s hard not to sympathize with him after seeing him interact with his kids and friends over the course of 30 to 40 shows.
For some reason, the Bad Fan tends to be a man. It might just be that men are more morally obtuse than women and can’t help but root for strong, dominant figures. Or maybe modern men feel tied down by the restraints of civil society and act out by identifying with transgressive anti-heroes who don’t seem to care they are violating social norms. The popularity of antiheroes does seem closely tied to the reaction against political correctness, and it’s likely that some men are reacting by rooting for anyone who will stick his thumb in the eye of the establishment.
To the extent there are female Bad Fans, they would be more closely associated with the outrageous behaviors on soap operas. There’s a long-standing tradition of the scheming, nasty villainess whom soap opera viewers love to hate. Think of Joan Collins’ character Alexis Colby on “Dynasty.” For women viewers who feel put upon by the indignities of everyday life, the evil manipulations and immense confidence of these characters can provide a vicarious thrill. Still, I can’t see Alexis Colby’s fans taking to Facebook and Twitter to vituperate her husband(s), like “Breaking Bad” fans did with their “I Hate Skyler White” pages.
Another way in which women sometimes stray into Bad Fan territory is by admiring and hoping to emulate female reality stars (“Real Housewives,” “Jersey Shore,” etc.) who would never be anyone’s role models in a normal world. But this is not true Bad Fan behavior because to be a really Bad Fan, you have to miss the point of what a showrunner is trying to say, and it’s not clear that the producers of these reality shows find anything objectionable about their stars’ behavior.
No, the true Bad Fan is almost always a man so hopped up on testosterone, aggression and grievance that he doesn’t appreciate the subtlety of the showrunner’s vision. The lesson, then, is pretty clear: if you don’t want Bad Fans, don’t create a bad-guy protagonist and then humanize him. And don’t make him kind of awesome. If you do, then don’t complain that your viewers don’t understand you.