Hot Docs 2018 Interview: ‘United We Fan’ director Michael Sparaga

by Andrew Parker

The rolls of television history are littered with comedies, dramas, adventures, and fantasies that either never broke through with mainstream audiences or – for a variety of reasons – were never given a proper stage. But while some shows are deservedly canceled for being outright awful and unwatchable, there are almost as many that could have become all time greats if it weren’t for network meddling, budgetary restrictions, cast member departures, or deathly low ratings. If the cream of the crop rises to the top even momentarily, those who’ve actually seen and loved these potentially doomed shows could mobilize their efforts in a bid to save these series from cancellation. Canadian filmmaker Michael Sparaga looks at these dedicated men and women who have worked tirelessly throughout the history of the medium to save their beloved series in his latest documentary United We Fan, which premieres this weekend at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival.

In recent years, beloved, but low rated series like Chuck, Friday Night Lights, Jericho, and Longmire were able to stave off broadcast oblivion thanks to the creative, tireless, outside the box efforts of viewers who were willing to spend a good chunk of time writing, haranguing, and bombarding network executive mailboxes with pleas to give these shows a second chance. The concept of mounting a letter writing campaign goes back to one of Sparaga’s key interview subjects for United We Fan: the uniquely named and iconoclastic Bjo Trimble, the woman who helped spearhead the movement to keep Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek from cancellation.

Trimble’s general idea would receive a major upgrade in the 1980s, thanks in part to the show Cagney & Lacey and a Michigan woman who wanted to plead with CBS to save the unique, female driven buddy cop drama. In the most fascinating aspect of United We Fan, Sparaga looks at Dorothy Swanson and the formation of her landmark organization, Viewers for Quality Television. V.Q.T. was unlike anything before or since in terms of creating a platform for viewers to loudly advocate on behalf of their favourite fledgling television series. After Swanson and her exploding organization almost singlehandedly saved Cagney & Lacey, they would move on to help out seminal and well regarded series like Thirtysomething, Quantum Leap, Designing Women, and Homicide: Life on the Street, just to name a select few. The rise and (somewhat admirable and self-aware) fall of V.Q.T. that runs through the entirety of United We Fan finds Sparaga offering up a fascinating, vital bit of Hollywood history that seems to be forgotten about today.

Sparaga also has the fortune of observing one fan as they attempt to save a show on the cancellation bubble, the CBS thriller Person of Interest. Not only does Sparaga follow young, dedicated devotee Kaily Russell on her journey to help spread the relatively progressive gospel of the CBS thriller, but the filmmaker also looks at the uncertainty of possible cancellation (and potential audience threatening controversy) from the perspective of Person of Interest showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Greg Plageman.

We caught up with Sparaga over the phone a couple of weeks ago while he was putting the finishing editorial touches on United We Fan to talk about his deep dive into the world of fandom and Hollywood politics.

When you were growing up was there every a television show that you watched where you felt gutted by its cancellation?

Michael Sparaga

Michael Sparaga: Crime Story. The cancellation of Crime Story just about killed me. (laughs) That was a Michael Mann produced show that ran from about 1986 to 1988, and it wasn’t until years later that I realized why it hit me so hard when it went off the air. I was thirteen when that show aired, and it was serialized, so that made it so different and refreshing from everything I had been watching at the time. I knew even then that this was a show from the guy who made Miami Vice, but that wasn’t really a serialized show. Occasionally it would do that, but only on the most intense moments of Miami Vice, like when a drug dealer who got away suddenly comes back. That show was one-off pieces for the most part, but Crime Story was basically just one story about a cop and a mobster following each other over decades.

It had this huge cliffhanger involving a nuclear explosion and this incredible shootout at the end of the first season, and I remember reading in my local Niagara Falls newspaper that the show might not be coming back after that. I immediately wrote a letter to the network and I sent it off. It did get a second season, but that season somehow ended on an even BIGGER cliffhanger that involved a fist fight on a private plane that caused the plane to slam into the ocean. And the show never came back, and that was how the series ended. (laughs) You look back at that show now, and it’s amazing to think that it never got better than it ultimately did. David Chase once said that if it weren’t for Crime Story there wouldn’t be The Sopranos. It was a huge step forward in the evolution of television.

But it’s often the case that these sometimes lower rated and under-viewed shows will sometimes change the game, but higher rated shows that often end up taking the credit for what the little guy did. N.Y.P.D. Blue got more ratings and got a lot of acclaim, but a lot of what it was doing could be attributed to what Homicide: Life on the Street was doing just one year prior. The only difference was that N.Y.P.D. Blue was able to find and sustain an audience a lot easier. Shows like Crime Story tend to stay with people for a very long time.

Something that a lot of the shows profiled in United We Fan tend to have in common is that they would have had really unsatisfying conclusions if they weren’t brought back and given just a little more time to work things out. I think one of my favourite television shows in recent years was Friday Night Lights, but I think if that show ended on the uneven second season that I probably wouldn’t think as highly of it as I do now. Most of these shows were in danger of being great, but ultimately running an illogical, unsatisfying course.

Michael Sparaga: I think that’s something that these campaigns have done that has started to help change television for the better. Broadcasters and streaming services in particular have become very savvy about trying to always have a logical, coherent ending in sight if a show were to get pulled for any number of reasons, simply to avoid some kind of backlash. It makes sense from a business perspective, but it also curbs that desire that a lot of people would have for some sort of ending. The lack of an ending is ultimately one of the biggest sticking points for any sort of show saving protest.

A good example would be something like The Killing, which came back on Netflix for six episodes just to help wrap things up. I think that as a streaming service, it behooves a company like Netflix to have shows that whether they work or not always have an ending. You saw that again this past year with Sense 8, which is getting a movie to wrap it all up.

Ultimately, though, more than the desire to have that sense of closure, you have people identifying with shows more than ever before, and in stronger, more emotional ways. In the film when we look at Kaily, she gravitates towards Person of Interest because she sees it as a positive representation of a gay character that she hasn’t seen on television before. It was the same for Dorothy in the 1980s. Here’s this housewife and schoolteacher from Michigan who was blown away by the fact that in 1983 there was this show about two female cops that was as action packed, witty, and exciting as shows that would have normally had male leads. That was groundbreaking material that changed Dorothy’s life. She ended her marriage and started an organization that changed television at the time. She saw through this populist piece of entertainment that anything was possible.

But bad endings are definitely a part of it, and it would have been in the case of Friday Night Lights. They were almost crippled entirely by the Writers Guild of America going on strike during production. It had this odd, murder based subplot surrounding one of the characters, and everything seemed to end regarding that before it could become anything that really gelled with the audience. And as you saw, we have Jason Katmis, who was one of Friday Night Lights’ creators, on to talk about the campaign to save that show, and although it isn’t in the film, during our interview he said that if the show had ended in the second season, he would have been spending the rest of his life to people trying to explain that it was going to get better and ultimately lead somewhere. (laughs) He really did have a plan for that storyline, but he needed time and resources that he didn’t have to make it work, and he said he had never been so grateful for an opportunity to correct the course of the show.

Showrunners, creators, and producers never know when they’re making a cult show. How could they know when they start? They just make the show, and it either takes off or it doesn’t. Timing is everything. People finding it is everything. People liking it is everything. All of these things have to come together. Sometimes showrunners like Rob Thomas can leave something like Veronica Mars purposefully ambiguous, yet somewhat wrapped up on purpose so they can come back to it all later. I think we’ll see more Veronica Mars in the future as a result of what happened with the film’s success, and I think we’ll see a lot more shows take a similar approach to how they end their series, especially in an age like we live in today where shows like Will and Grace and Roseanne can come back long after their supposed final episodes and pick up again like nothing happened.

Kaily Russell (right) is a fan of the CBS thriller Person of Interest working tirelessly to save her favourite show from cancellation in the documentary United We Fan.

You touched on how representation on screen are a big deal when it came to shows like Cagney & Lacey, Longmire, and Person of Interest, especially in an age where networks pay almost unfair attention to demographic information about consumers that are purposefully cut and dry so advertisers can be enticed more to buy up air time. After having made this film, do you think there’s a hope that future campaigns like this will contribute to more diverse representation on screen?

Michael Sparaga: I think the results of these campaigns already have. Talking to these people, a lot of them will say that even if they don’t save the show they love, ultimately if it puts the bug in the ear of whoever makes the decisions that these are the shows they should be making more of, then the campaign was a success.

Longmire was a show that was aimed at viewers who were woefully unrepresented on television, and also appealed to a demographic that advertisers tend to ignore. In the history of everything that I have seen on television, I have never seen something like Longmire. This was the highest rated show that the network had, and it still managed to get cancelled, and basically all because those all important demographics for advertisers weren’t there. That’s the kind of decision you should only come to if everyone involved with the show suddenly quits en masse, and not because the advertising dollars aren’t there. That shows that the network just doesn’t care, and kudos to something like Netflix seeing that the show has the ratings to sustain itself without being enticing to advertisers. I think they found real success with that show, and it led to them making other shows explicitly for this demographic that traditional networks avoid because they don’t rake in advertising dollars hand over fist.

Outside of the major procedural dramas that will probably stick around for decades to come, it will always be up to these smaller groups of viewers to help set the tastes and standards for what television should strive to be. From Lost to Breaking Bad to The Walking Dead, it’s always a smaller group of viewers that will set the taste for everyone else. Think of how huge it must have been at the time for a major network like NBC to take a chance on something like Will and Grace, a show that features happy, openly gay characters. Pop culture aficionados like you and I, however, can look at something like The L Word, which came a little bit after, as having a more significant and lasting cultural impact because it took things a bit more seriously and realistically. People can point to a show like Will and Grace or what happens on Person of Interest and say that it’s groundbreaking, and it is in the sense that these characters are almost never on networks like NBC, CBS, or ABC, but it’s the smaller, sometimes more intimate shows like The L Word that will have a greater emotional impact on the people who see them. Even the new show with Alan Cumming that premiered a few weeks ago, Instinct, might be a show with an openly gay leading man, but it’s also another procedural, so the representation is there, but it’s also kind of a safe show, so it will be interesting to see if that show every goes on the verge of cancellation to see how it fares.

Bjo and John Trimble, the husband and wife team who helped spark the campaign to keep the original incarnation of Star Trek on the air.

As someone who works in the industry, you have probably learned that the people holding the purse strings don’t respond well to subtlety and ambiguity, and it’s a common thread throughout most of these show saving campaigns that advocates would often resort to including performative tricks like sending cases of peanuts or mini footballs to network executives with their letters to prove a point. As a filmmaker, do you have a certain degree of admiration for these people trying to save their favourite shows by whatever creative means they have at their disposal? They often have just as much passion for these shows as their creators do.

Michael Sparaga: Absolutely. When you think about it, not only are these people helping to keep these shows on the air, but they’re helping to put kids through school, helping to put gas in the car, and helping to keep a roof over people’s heads. Saving a show extends way beyond the well being of the producers, writers, actors, and directors, but to everyone who signs up to work on a show that they hope lasts for years and years. Everyone from the showrunners to the grips are probably thankful to these people if they’re working on a job that they like doing. It’s not just about a story going away, but about this entire community of people going away. Every show like this will form a tight bond, and no one wants that to go away. And networks definitely pay attention to those communities. It’s why Star Trek, which is sort of the gold standard for these kinds of shows, came back in a new form to be the anchor for CBS to start up a streaming service that they hope competes with the likes of Netflix and Hulu in the U.S.

United We Fan screens at Hot Docs:

Saturday, April 28, 2018 – 5:30 pm – Scotiabank Theatre

Monday, April 30, 2018 – 3:00 pm – Hart House Theatre

Thursday, May 3, 2018 – 12:15 pm – Hart House Theatre

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