8 Nov 2023

Fan Service – Is big brand TV leaving general audiences behind?

From Widescreen, 11:36 am on 8 November 2023

Dan Slevin has watched three recent streaming series that try – sometimes not all that hard – to entertain a casual viewer while delivering thrills to long-time fans.

Still from the Disney+ series Ahsoke spotlighting Rosario Dawson as Ahsoka/

Photo: Disney+

The business model for big franchises during the streaming era has been ‘more’. Not the famous Bob Hope adage about ‘always leave the public wanting more’, just ‘more’.

By adding spinoff series featuring lesser-known characters like Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye and Sebastian Stan’s Winter Soldier from the existing Marvel Cinematic Universe, Disney+ was able to launch in 2019 with a hiss and a roar. The idea was that audiences wouldn’t consider unsubscribing while a series was still in progress and that as long as there was a new series ready to go when the last one finished, the risk of churn would be negligible.

The Star Wars franchise was included in that too, of course, with shows like The Mandalorian and Obi-Wan Kenobi, but Star Wars had already begun spinning off relatively random standalone feature films to mixed success. Rogue One was a great film. Solo, not so much.

Both sets of franchise fans can be incredibly vocal and pretty judgemental about the choices made by their cultural overlords and it feels to me that more and more of these films and shows are being made to serve them rather than the casual viewer who, like my household, just want some superhero or space opera popcorn fodder to entertain them after they’ve appeared on Nights on RNZ National at 10pm on a Friday night.

Ahsoka (Disney+)

Still from the Disney+ series Ahsoke spotlighting Rosario Dawson as Ahsoka/

Photo: Disney+

I was utterly bewildered by this show from start to finish and even, at times, was forced to refer to stupid YouTube for an explanation of who certain characters were and what they meant for the story. I needed my wife to explain where we even were in the Star Wars timeline!

I’ve watched the films and enjoyed them but have never been particularly committed to remembering any of the details. I’m not one of those people who chooses Jedi as a census religion.

When the George Lucas prequels came out in the late 1990s, I was excited and disappointed in turn. There was nothing about them that made me want to delve deeper into that galaxy.

And here we are in 2023 with super-fan Dave Filoni at the wheel, imagining himself as the anointed successor to Lucas, creating a series about a character he created when he was a young padawan animator/producer on The Clone Wars series between 2008 and 2010.

Ahsoka (Rosario Dawson) is a former Jedi, trained by Hayden Christensen’s Anakin Skywalker in the before times but now running security for the New Republic following the fall of the Empire (in the film Return of the Jedi).

All of a sudden, flashback Anakin is a good guy and that constant relentless, tedious to-ing and fro-ing between the Rebels and the Empire for control of the galaxy is on again. This must be as dispiriting for its ordinary citizens as it is for us watching it on TV. (See Andor for how that works out in practice.)

And, if a proper understanding of the context and history of what the audience is watching requires the completion of a video game as well as watching dozens of episodes of three different animated series, you are disappearing up your own Thermal Exhaust Port.

Picard Season Three (Prime Video)

Still from series three of the tv series Picard featuring Sir Patrick Stewart

Photo: Paramount

The three seasons of the Star Trek spinoff Picard were a real mixed bag tonally but linked by an easy-going nostalgia for a simpler time in television. I was never a Next Generation watcher – I am the wrong generation for the Next Generation – but I enjoyed the films that featured those characters which means when they turn up in this series, I get that slight frisson of recognition which equates to pleasure in this context.

The reason why Picard works and Ahsoka doesn’t – and I know I’m setting myself up for some pushback here – is that Star Trek has always been character-first. We watch these shows because of the relationships and (even for non-human characters) the human drama.

Star Trek has never prioritised the franchise’s lore over a good story, while Star Wars remains obsessed by a wafer-thin religion and each character’s control over their magic powers. Star Trek will happily throw a whole story arc under the bus – retconning they call it – if it means we all get to move on with our lives.

In season one of Picard, Patrick Stewart’s Jean-Luc has retired to his vineyard but is called back to help the ‘daughter’ of his old friend Data, who ‘died’ in the film Nemesis (2002). It’s good old fashioned thoughtful sci-fi with cameos from a few Next Generation cast members.

Season two is like those comedy episodes of Star Trek where the crew travel back in time to present day Earth and get up to hijinks with the incredulous locals. It’s fun but looks and plays like 80s episodic TV – William Shatner’s T.J. Hooker came to mind for some reason.

But season three really leans in to the nostalgia, bringing the entire crew from the Next Generation back together for a challenge that is the usual yawn of ‘saving the universe’ but also quite moving when you consider the impact on these ageing characters.

But you don’t need to have watched every episode of the Next generation to enjoy it. The characters are so well drawn, and so well inhabited by these veterans, that it’s easy to follow along. I enjoyed this a great deal and if I really thought this was them signing off for one last time, I’d be content with that.

Moon Knight (Disney+)

Still from the Disney+ series Moon Knight featuring Oscar Isaac

Photo: Disney+

Finally, a show that I think was intended to connect with its wider narrative siblings in the Marvel Cinematic Universe but – perhaps due to budget considerations and Marvel’s current panic over the state of the franchise – it hasn’t yet. And it is all the better for it.

The superb Oscar Isaac is introduced as a character called Steven Grant, a very mild-mannered British Museum employee with a fascination for ancient Egypt. Grant begins to hallucinate for himself something of a split personality. Who is Marc Spector, the American mercenary and badass who seems to take over his body when in danger?

And even more cleverly, both of these split personalities has a different superhero alter-ego: Moon Knight and Mr. Knight. It’s up to Mr. Isaac on top form to delineate all of this, often within one shot. Actors love doing this sort of technical showing off and you can tell that he’s having a ball.

Add a terrific villainous turn from Ethan Hawke, an indigenous off-sider (May Calamawi as Scarlet Scarab) and the foregrounding of Egyptian and Arab creatives like primary director Mohamed Diab, and you have a recipe some high-quality disposable Friday night entertainment.

And you don’t need to have seen anything beforehand, nor read any of the comic books.

Moon Knight just works, without the homework.

All of the TV series mentioned are streaming on various services in Aotearoa.